Why Israel’s Elections are Confusing

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An explainer on Israel's complex political system.

Polls show that either the right-wing Likud or a newly formed center-left alliance called the Zionist Union is poised to win Israel’s March elections.

If only it were that simple.


If current surveys bear out, Likud and the Zionist Union, a combination of the left-wing Labor Party and the centrist Hatnuah, will indeed compete for the most votes. Each is poised to get 20-25 seats. But the one that wins the most seats in the Knesset won’t necessarily lead the next government. In reality, the election will be decided by the parties beyond the Likud and Zionist Union.

Because Israel has a coalition system, the elections’ magic number is not 25 but 61 — a majority of the Knesset’s 120 seats. No party in Israel’s history has ever gotten that many seats, so parties band together to form a majority governing coalition based on common interests.

Take a look, for example, at Jewish Home, the hawkish, pro-settler party that would join only Likud, and not the Zionist Union. That means that when Likud tallies a potential coalition, it can add on the 15 or so seats Jewish Home is predicted to win.

And that means that to beat the Likud-Jewish Home alliance, the Zionist Union will have to dive into the jumble of other parties  looking for coalition partners. To get to 61, so will Likud. The way those small parties choose to swing will determine Israel’s next prime minister.

That’s why Israel’s election is so confusing. The real race takes place among those running behind in the polls as well as those running ahead. Will Israel’s haredi Orthodox parties swing left in a political deal? Or will the centrist parties lean to the right, which is what happened in the last government?

Those are the questions Israeli election observers are asking. They’re interested in the chaos at the bottom, no matter which party gets the most votes.

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