Israelis head to the polls on Tuesday, Mar. 17 to elect a new parliament, a new Knesset. There are a total of 120 seats up for grabs, which will be divided proportionally among all parties that manage to pass the minimum threshold of 3.25%. The resulting government will be formed after the ceremonial President of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, chooses a candidate for prime minister to assemble a coalition (61 seats or more). Here are five other important facts to know about Israel’s election.
1. The outcome is completely unknown. At the start of the election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s party, the Likud, was widely expected to win. Likud has since fallen to second place after the Zionist Union, a coalition formed by two smaller parties. However, there are more right-wing parties overall, and the Zionist Union would need the Arab parties to govern. So Netanyahu could lose (narrowly) and still return to power. (Both sides rule out a national unity government.)
2. Despite his party’s bad polls, Netanyahu remains most popular. Netanyahu has consistently led all rivals, including Zionist Union leaders Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni, when Israelis are asked who should lead the country. That lead has narrowed in recent days, but most Israelis realize that Netanyahu towers above his rivals on the international stage. Herzog comes across as a lightweight, and Livni is caustic. Israelis want him to lead–but not, perhaps, to govern.
3. The biggest story is foreign money. For years, Netanyahu has benefited from the positive media coverage of Israel Hayom, a free newspaper funded by American conservative Sheldon Adelson. So Netanyahu’s rivals have banded together to support a bill to ban free newspapers (a reminder that Israel remains a statist society, albeit an entrepreneurial one). Meanwhile, liberal American Jews have given millions to anti-Netanyahu efforts, aided on the ground by Obama alumni.
4. The second-biggest story is the Arab parties. Israel’s Arab population is roughly 20 percent of the whole, but has rarely played an important role in domestic politics because of internal divisions. Now, under a unified banner and with ample financial help from American donors, the Joint Arab List is expected to do very well, perhaps finishing third among all parties. That will give Israel’s Arab population more of a political voice–though likely from the opposition benches.
5. The election may not be over for weeks. Though the polls will close on Tuesday and the votes will be known by early Wednesday, the difficult process of coalition-building could take weeks. The smaller parties will hold tremendous power to decide who will lead the country. For that reason, they may prefer Netanyahu to form a government, since they would have less clout in a Zionist Union-led coalition already led jointly by Herzog and Livni. Time–a long tim–will tell.