What is wrong with Israel’s politics? In the last two years, they have had four different elections. Each time no leader has been able to form a government, and no political parties have been willing to work together. Despite an election being held only a few weeks ago in March, it is already a possibility that a new election will need to be held in the summer. Let’s discuss some of the problems in Israeli politics, as well as practice using advanced political vocabulary!

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Vocabulary List

Informed (adj) – having a lot of knowledge or information about something

I will keep you informed about my decision

Coalition (n) – the joining together of different political parties or groups for a particular purpose, usually for a limited time, or a government that is formed in this way

By forming a coalition, the rebels and the oppositions parties defeated the government 

Short-lived (adj) – lasting only for a brief time

 I had a few relationships at college, most of which were fairly short-lived

To convert (v) – to cause something to change in form or character

Could we convert the bedroom to an office

Threshold (n) – the level or point at which something starts to happen

He earns £200 a month, which is way below the threshold for paying tax 

To fall out (phrasal v) – to argue with someone and stop being friendly with them

He left home after falling out with his parents

Allegation (n) – a statement, made without giving proof, that someone has done something wrong or illegal

The allegations of corruption were not true

Autocratic (adj) – demanding that people obey completely, without asking or caring about anyone else’s opinions 

The president resigned after 30 years of autocratic rule

What is wrong with Israel’s politics? Before I get started with this topic and this episode, I want to make immediately clear that this is not a discussion over the Israel-Palestine conflict or any issues directly related to that conflict. I am nowhere near informed enough to talk about such a controversial issue that attracts very strong and emotional opinions. Instead, the question “what is wrong with Israel’s politics?” refers to Israel’s inability to make a government, or at least make an effective government.

On March 23rd, Israel held a parliamentary election to elect a new government. However, there is no clear winner, and only a small chance for a coalition of different parties to be formed. If you are interested in international politics, Israel, or you just enjoy reading the global section of newspapers, this story might sound familiar to you. In fact, you might be asking yourself “haven’t I heard this news story before? Didn’t Israel just hold an election last year?” Don’t worry, you are not imagining things. This was Israel’s fourth election in less than two years. Each time, they could not form a stable government. And it is a definite possibility that another election could be held in the summer. Why does it take so many attempts to form a government in Israel? Is there something wrong with Israeli politics?

Israel is famous for political stalemates and short-lived governments. They have had 24 elections in 72 years, so on average one election every 3 years. Legally, Israeli governments can be in power for as long as 5 years between elections, but it is clear that the average government in the country fails early. Despite this, four elections in the last two years is shocking even for Israel.

I think the first thing that we need to look at is Israel’s electoral system. An electoral system is the method and rules of counting votes to determine the outcome of an election. There are many different systems around the world, often with complicated names and specific rules. However, basically we can narrow it down to 3 broad types. Type number one is a plurality electoral system, which is sometimes called “first-past-the-post” or “winner-takes-all,” and is used in places like the UK and USA. In this system a city, region, or area will vote for someone to represent them, and the person who gets the most votes wins. You do not need a majority, you just need the most votes. A second broad type is a majority electoral system, which is similar to the previous type but you need at least 50% to win. If someone doesn’t get 50% they will count votes again, but with less candidates. 

Israel, however, uses the third type of electoral system: proportional representation. This is one of the most common and widely used electoral systems around the world. It takes the percentage of votes won by a party nationally, and converts that to the number of seats won in parliament. For example, if your party wins 40% of the vote, you will receive 40% of the votes in parliament or congress. Israel’s parliament, known as the Knesset, is elected through a nationwide version of this system. It also has a low electoral threshold, which means that a party needs to win 3.25% of the national vote to actually get a seat in parliament. Proportional systems produce a result much closer to the public’s real opinions, but they also struggle to produce a strong or stable government.

In fact, in Israel, no single political party has ever won a majority in a national election. Every government in Israel’s history has been what is known as a coalition, or two or more political parties agreeing to work together and compromise on their policies to form a government. Furthermore, Israel’s political parties often disagree on numerous issues and represent different groups of supporters, which makes it very difficult for them to work together. They might try to work together for a few years, before falling out and another election is needed to form a new government. 

Israel’s electoral system partly explains the country’s history of unstable coalition governments and regular elections, but it doesn’t explain the last two years. Why have they had four elections in the last two years, and been unable to form a government each time? Unlike other countries, the major political issue in Israel is not about policies or ideologies. The main issue that is dividing Israel’s politics and preventing governments from being formed is actually a man: Benjamin Netanyahu, the long serving Prime Minister of Israel. Though he has been Prime Minister for over a decade, in recent years fewer and fewer political parties are willing to work with Netanyahu or his Likud party. And remember, Israel always needs parties to work together to make a government. Obviously, left-wing parties in the country won’t work with him because of his right-wing policies.  More surprisingly, however, is that many centrist and right wing parties refuse to work with him due to allegations of corruption and his autocratic style of government. As a matter of fact, he is currently on trial for corruption in Israel.

Much of the opposition to Netanyahu is personal. It is less about political ideology or policies, and more about him as a person. Moreover, the opposition to him is also incredibly diverse, ranging from right-wing parties to communists, and Orthodox Jewish people to Arab nationalists. The only thing these groups agree on is that they don’t like Netanyahu. So, why don’t they join together to oppose him and his party? Well… as I just mentioned, they only have one thing in common. The diverse group of other political parties in Israel disagree on almost everything, and the groups similar enough to work together are not big enough to form a government. 

This leaves Mr Netanyahu and his Likud party as the biggest group, but not quite big enough. Without having a majority, or 50% of the seats in the Knesset, it is incredibly difficult to pass any laws or make any decisions! This is why Israel has had so many elections. The people vote, no one gets a majority of votes, the political parties don’t want to work with each other, no one can form a government, another election is scheduled, and the cycle repeats! 

Final Thought

What is wrong with Israel’s politics? From an outside perspective, it seems obvious that the problem is Prime Minister Netanyahu. I want to be clear – I’m not criticizing the Prime Minister or his policies. I don’t know enough about this issue, I’m not an expert in Israeli politics, and I’m not an Israeli citizen who has the right to an opinion on their politics. However, it is not a criticism of him to say that no one wants to work with him. It’s a fact. Israel’s politics relies on different political parties joining together to form coalition governments. But this is increasingly difficult, when no one wants to work with the biggest player in the game! 

How about your country? What is wrong with your country’s politics? I am a very critical person, especially when it comes to politics, and I feel like it is really healthy to think about the problems in your own country. Without thinking about the problems, you can’t think how to improve. If you found this episode interesting, send me a message and let me know, Maybe I can make similar episodes in the future!

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

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