ISRAEL: The Knesset, Chagall, and the endless election cycle

As part of my trip, we were given a tour of the Israeli Knesset. Our group were all political nerds, so we had a blast getting into the details of the political system and the functioning of the legislature.

One of the highlights was the stunning Chagall triptych in the main hall – setting out Jewish past, future, religion, and stories. Chagall’s work pops up all around Israel, but these massive tapestries are some of the most stunning, just overwhelmingly full of small details.

The Knesset was very quiet, as both it was summer break, and there was an election on. However, there will still a few MPs around, as there is a live board that shows which ones are in the building. It seems like it would be really useful for political staffers to find their MPs, but weirdly, this live board is also viewable online. It seems like a major security loophole in a country very focused on security, though our guide explained that in this case, transparency was more important.

While this was quite rosy and straightforward, Israel’s political system is anything but. They’re currently in the middle of their fifth election in three years. Israel has one of the most extreme forms of proportional representation, which ends up with messy coalitions of many parties, with minor party leaders becoming the “kingmakers”. There’s political parties along the left-right spectrum, like in any country, but there’s also identity-based parties, including Haredi and Arab ones. Religious vs. secular and Zionist vs. non-Zionist adds an extra dimension as well.

Here’s a really good primer on the Israeli political spectrum – it’s a few years old, but touches on a lot of deeper divides, voting patterns, and political priorities.

The time between elections in Israel is often spent forming and maintaining coalitions. The previous coalition was between eight parties, including leftist, centrist, right-wing, and Arab ones, and was notable for actually passing a budget. The coalition has since fallen apart, and this election this fall is once more a question of “Yes Bibi / No Bibi” – yes or no to a return of Netanyahu and his coalitions of right-wing and Haredi parties.

Somehow, voter turnout remains high (and higher than turnout in Canada), but most Israelis I spoke with expressed frustration at the constant cycle of elections, dealmaking, and coalitions – there seems to be very little time for actual governance.

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