5 elections, 3 years: Inside Israel’s Knesset

Israel’s democratic government looks messy at times. The chaos extends to the election cycle as well. Israel recently underwent four elections in just two years, with coalitions hanging by a thread.

But all this chaos isn’t a “bug” of the political system. It’s actually a feature, one that reflects the great Zionist debates that made Israel into what it is today. 

Israel’s parliament, called the Knesset, has 120 seats. If you want to be Prime Minister with the authority to govern, you need a majority, or 61 seats. No party has ever won that many seats, so Israel has always been governed by coalitions of multiple parties instead.

To those familiar with a two-party system, the coalition seems odd and even unworkable. But one advantage of having multiple smaller parties is giving different groups, with very different agendas, a voice in government. 

Historically, this was very important in building consensus in a small and newly emerging country. Zionism always had many clashing factions, each with a strong group identity, and each unwilling to be squished into one big party. Holding onto their particular identities kept all kinds of ideas flowing into the Knesset.

This kind of diversity has also led to some interesting governing bedfellows. 

For instance, a coalition emerged in June 2021 that included a religious conservative party, two parties on the left, and even a non-Zionist Arab party. 

Ministers in the new Israeli government pose for a group photo at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on June 14, 2021 in Jerusalem, Israel. (Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images)

But this system empowering many smaller parties isn’t a recent phenomenon: it has deep roots. It reflects the great nineteenth-century Zionist debates about what a democratic-Jewish state should mean.

Going back 125 years, Political Zionists like Theodor Herzl, seeking refuge for the oppressed Jew, focused on securing a liberal-democratic state in the Jews’ ancestral homeland: to be like every other nation. They shouted: “We are a people, we need a Jewish state, now!”

By the early 1900s, Socialist Zionists like A.D. Gordon, David Ben-Gurion, and then Golda Meir, wanted to make that Jewish democratic state a liberal-egalitarian communal paradise — not just a refuge. They shouted: “Let’s make our state one big kibbutz!”

At the same time, Religious Zionists like Rav Abraham Isaac Kook sought a spiritual renaissance along with a national renewal. They prayed: “Remember our roots! Remember the Bible!”

By the 1920s and 1930s, Revisionist Zionists like Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin were warning that European Jewry was doomed. Fighting the Socialists tooth and nail, Revisionists dreamed of creating a liberal and capitalist state. But ultimately, they shouted most loudly: “Europe’s burning. Beware the Jew-haters.”

And, throughout this period, Cultural Zionists like Achad Ha’am and Henrietta Szold focused on all the ideas and values that would revive the Jewish people when they finally could replant themselves and flourish in their natural habitat. They sang: “Ki Mitzion Tetze Torah” — “From Mount Zion in Jerusalem will come forth new teachings, new songs, new pride.”

These distinct threads of Zionism not only enriched the Zionist past. They currently inform the Zionist present. These voices are alive and well in the halls of Israel’s government today. Read more about the different types of Zionism.

Israel’s Knesset, February 2010 (Photo: Itzik Edri via the PikiWiki – Israel free image collection project)

Take, for example, the 2021 coalition mentioned earlier. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, whose conservative Yamina party only won seven seats, was a product of both Revisionist and Religious Zionism. 

As both an elite commando officer and a high-tech entrepreneur, Bennett represented the “New Jew” of the modern Zionist revolution. But, as a Religious Zionist, he also became Israel’s first kippah-wearing prime minister.

The deputy prime minister and foreign minister, Yair Lapid, along with his centrist 17-seat Yesh Atid party, descended from Theodor Herzl’s Political Zionism. Herzl was both an idealist and a pragmatist. That’s what Lapid modeled with his 70/30 approach.

Instead of arguing all the time about the 30 percent which divided them and their parties, Lapid and Bennett emphasized the 70 percent that united them all. That reframing created a common conversation – and a path to their coalition.

The Kachol-Lavan party, with eight seats, was also Herzlian – centrist and pragmatic. Nevertheless, its leader, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, grew up as a religious kid on a partly-collective, partly-private, agricultural settlement, called a Moshav. 

That background rooted Gantz in both Religious Zionism and Labor or Socialist Zionism.

The most surprising coalition member was not even Zionist. Mansour Abbas of the Ra’am party appeared very rigid in his Islamist ideology. 

But ultimately he chose a more pragmatic approach, working with the Zionist parties and giving the coalition a bare Knesset majority of 61 out of 120 seats.

Incorporating the non-Zionist Ra’am Party in an odd way fulfilled the Zionist dream too. For all its faults and blindspots, Zionism was always a democratic movement.

Israel’s Declaration of Independence promised equality to all the land’s inhabitants, acknowledging from the start that the Jewish State would have an Arab minority with voting rights.

The Zionists who built and represented the state of Israel were dreamers and ideologues, but they were also architects and builders. Returning home after millennia of homelessness, they were ready to take responsibility for their destiny.

Finally, the Jews would stop being the world’s victims. They didn’t always agree just what the democratic Jewish state would become – but they knew it had to be.

That same can-do spirit inspired the eight-headed coalition in 2021. And 2021 wasn’t a fluke.

Israelis have often united politically when stuck. Various national unity governments have come together over the years. One famous example was in 1967. That year, long-time opposition leader Menachem Begin joined the government to help Israel withstand a joint attack by Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian forces.

So it’s true that Israel’s electoral system sometimes looks chaotic. While clashing loudly, it works soundly. It not only shoves fewer voices to the margins; it also forces the kind of practical, eyes-on-the-prize, quintessentially Zionist government you need to get the job done.

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