Today is election day in Israel. For us American observers there probably won't be much more news to share until after 4pm EDT at which time voting ends and Israeli networks will release exit polling. Until then, and afterwards, some closing thoughts on this system and what to watch:
This has been messy, in some ways ugly, and potentially a completely unhelpful early election. Still there is something I deeply admire about the Israeli electoral system that is deep in the Jewish tradition: The idea that all voices and factions need to be part of the national conversation. That any party that represents a fraction of the people (3.25% of the vote in this cycle) needs to be part of the debate in the national parliament. In Israel, no one party and no one person speaks for the nation (or for the worlds' Jews) but rather a dozen or so parties will speak for the diversity of Jews and non-Jews who are the Israeli people.
But while no one person or party speaks for everyone, there has to be a way to form a functional government that can take action and speak to the world on behalf of the State of Israel. Hence what will play out after the polls close tonight.
An aside: This notion of giving voice to factions but finding some way – albeit messy – to have a collective voice is very much in the DNA of Jewish communal networks in the U.S too, e.g. JCRCs. But thats a conversation for another day.
Of course, this idea results in a unique political system completely unfamiliar to Americans: One national electoral district, no gerrymandering or geographically fixed representation. Voting for party slates and not for individual candidates. The winner isn't the one who gets the majority or the most votes in a winner take all election district. Parties compete to attract votes from those closest to them on the ideological spectrum – in order to pick up a seat or two in the Knesset – as opposed to making grand ideological efforts to speak to "the center" or those across the aisle. It is absolutely a democracy – for the citizens of Israel – just a process of democracy unfamiliar to us.
So what happens when the polls close?
Somewhere between 9 and 11 parties will probably achieve the threshold to serve in the next Knesset. That may be known tonight, but if it is close, we may need to wait for some of the army base and diplomatic corps votes to be counted over the next few days (other than those populations there is no absentee voting for Israelis overseas). The big topic of discussion will be what is called Phase 2: When President Rivlin consults with every party in the incoming Knesset about who they want to have lead the next government. Then he alone decides which party leader is invited to try and form a coalition. This doesn't necessarily go to the party with the most seats (see 2009 when Tzipi Livni "won" on election day but had no path to a majority of the Knesset, and President Peres, a co-founder of her own party, invited Bibi to form the government). It will almost certainly be Netanyahu and Likud, or Herzog and the Zionist Camp/Labor who is invited.
For tonight: Watch the gap between Likud and Zionist Camp. If Likud is ahead, or behind be less than 2 seats, Bibi probably gets the first chance to form a government. If the Camp is ahead be 5 or more seats, it will probably be Herzog who gets the invite. In between? Who knows!
Then Phase 3: That person – again, presumably Herzog or Netanyahu – negotiates with the other parties to form a government. That's when certain American style behaviors emerge, namely compromise. Factions need to come together to form a majority. Parties need to decide what their top priorities are – ministries, policies, etc.. – and then compromise on the others. A party that is all in on cost of living issues may be willing to sit with parties with very different views of security and peace in order to get support on affordable housing. Vice versa a party that is "all in" on security issues may be very open to compromise on social welfare.
What will ultimately matter is who is in the next coalition, what cabinet seats they control, and what the coalition agreement commits itself to taking action on.
This process will probably take another 2-6 weeks and could potentially go on for up to 90 days. It has never happened, but if someone can't form a government, Israel has another election this Fall.
Finally, here's a great piece on seven scenarios for after the polls close.
Now we wait with baited breathe.