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Election Day in Israel

Message Ari Bussel

Of the 33 parties running today to the 18th Knesset of Israel, there are very clear choices:

Left – Meretz; Center leaning left – Kadima = Livni or Labor = Barak; Center leaning right – Likud = Netanyahu; Right – Yisrael Beitenu (Israel Our Home) = Lieberman. There are the religious parties, most notably Shas and some smaller religious-right parties.

Israeli Arabs would likely vote for a state in which Jews, too, have some rights – represented (or more often opposed) by Balad or any of the other "progressive" "democratic" parties.

The election results must be published within eight days of today, i.e. not later than Wednesday, February 18th, 2009. The real problem is that none of these parties can reach a majority, or even get close to it. The President of Israel, after meeting with each party, will decide within a few days which has the best chances of forming a coalition government and assign the task to that party. It may not be the party that had received the highest number of votes, only the one the President believes is most likely to succeed in the assignment is he going to present. The task is not easy as it seems, the reason Israel is holding an election today is that Foreign Minister Livni, the head of Kadima, was unable to form a government within the allotted time.

This is where the game of musical chairs then takes place, promises exchanged into bills and money allocations are committed right, left and center. People suddenly discover they need to work with one another, the "liar," the "incapable" and all the rest.

This is an ugly process, during which there are no boundaries, each party for its own. One would expect from elected leaders to behave with dignity and responsibility, showing some concern to the common good; nicely said in principle, unrelated to the reality that forms and shapes up. One witnesses a spiral usually pointing downward in leadership and accelerating upwards in terms of money extracted, newly formed ministries and positions that are a must (for otherwise how would family members "serve?").

The inability of a single party, be it from the Center leaning right or left, from the Left or from the Right, to generate a critical mass of votes and have, say, 50 to 60 mandates, is detrimental to the system, to the stability of the government and to the safety of the country. Thus, many believe nothing changes, that nothing ever will change.

Then life decides to take interesting turns. The general consensus was that Likud (center-right-much-closer-to-center) will generate the highest number of votes, giving it somewhere in the upper 20 mandates. [In and of itself this is a very miserable achievement: Even 30 mandates from a pool of 120 is only one of every four voters.] Based on such a prediction, one should have voted Likud, to try and strengthen it, giving it as many mandates as possible. Last Thursday at 2PM Likud had all its billboards and other advertisements removed and replaced by a simple message: "One Large Party, Stable Government."

Then, as might happen in an Olympic marathon, Avigdor Lieberman separated himself from the crowd, and reached 20 seats according to the last polls conducted last Friday. Overnight almost, a small party led by an iron feast (and changing moods) of one person, Avigdor Lieberman, became the talk of town. A ten year old investigation into wrongdoing and corruption "suddenly" reached the point where subpoenas were served (for the Press Corps to serve and the country to dwell on), people close to Lieberman all targeted at once. The spiritual head of the leading religious party all but excommunicated Lieberman, and "mainstream" Kadima (the centrist party fearing most for its political future) started using labels "extremist," "right winger" and worse.

Lieberman says he "speaks Arabic." Many in Israel seeing the peace process at a complete stand still believe that Lieberman can actually revive it by providing a different path, a language that Arabs understand. Arabs and the Left feel awkward when they hear some of their own medicine served and rhetoric used, so they, too, are quick to use labels.

Lieberman – unlike the rest – cannot be dissuaded, disarmed or threatened. None seems to work effectively – or at all - on a person who understands what life is all about in the Middle East (and apparently previously in the Soviet Union). Thus, the large Russian population in Israel, as well as the Oriental Jews, those whose parents or grandparents were refugees from the Arab countries, admire him and have declared they will vote for him.

The real question is will these statements to pollsters and promises to everyone else who cares to hear – at the line to the cashier at the supermarket, in the marketplace or the bakery, at the hair dresser or at the Social Security office – translate to actual votes today? Usually there is a gap, at the moment of truth, behind the big divider when one is alone with oneself and the little pieces of paper on which the letter-symbols of each party are placed for one to pick.

Thus, while predications are made (one lovely tiny person from Los Angeles who recently visited Israel even sent out an e-mail with her predictions, assigning numbers to each party as if it were a lottery or a game in Vegas), the public's behavior is not predictable, definitely not in Israel. The voter, I learned during decades of voting in California, is not stupid (that is us!). In Israel the voter has taken the elections into an art form.

So let us stop blaming the system and claiming there are no choices. There are choices, and the boundary lines are clearly drawn. Voter turnout is impressive and a country's future is at stake. Everyone understands this, both Israelis and the world that is looking closely at what is taking place in Israel today.

May a party, Likud, Liberman's or any other (of the lesser likely ones this election) receive enough votes to make it easier to form a coalition government. The wider one's own base, the more stable the government, the less a party needs to offer to, or succumb to demands from, its potential partners.

Because so much is in stake, may the best persons win – best according to the Israeli electorate – and let us then learn from the recent elections in the USA: From a country divided, once the voters have spoken, the country needed to heal its wounds, to close ranks, to unite behind the new President. May the same happen here, since stability and unity are important now more than ever.

Election Day in Israel - Facts & Figures

Of those over the age of 18, 5,278,985 people are eligible to vote in Israel in today's election. Polling places opened in some 9,513 locations around Israel at seven o'clock this morning. They will remain open until 10PM. (In small towns with less than 350 people, the polling places are open from 8AM to 8PM.) A valid picture ID is required to vote.

% Voted

Eligible Voters


Knesset #
































































For PM













About 75% of the people vote by 6PM, a quarter of all voters vote in the last four hours, between Six and Ten. A good friend just called to let me know she is going to vote at ten minutes to ten, since then her vote counts more! In many previous elections, news reporting and the various polls announced throughout the day had dissuaded people from going to vote later on during the day. "The lead was so pronounced that my vote would not count" was the mistaken belief. So a new law was passed – no polling can be published within four days of the election.

The Central Bureau of Statistics in Israel estimates that about half a million of those eligible to vote no longer live in Israel, part of some one million Israelis living in the diaspora. There is no system for absentee voting in Israel. However, a handful of pre-designated position holders, their spouses and children under the age of 20 are allowed to vote. There are 92 polling places outside of Israel for that purpose. They are located in diplomatic missions and consulates, in Jordan and Egypt; China and Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand, Japan; Central and South America; Europe; Africa; Australia; Toronto and Montreal in Canada and in the following cities in the US: New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Houston, Atlanta and Washington, DC.

There are 194 polling places in hospitals and 56 in prisons. In addition, soldiers vote in the military. Only 15% of the polling places throughout the country (1,320) are disabled accessible. This is a step in the right direction, although full equal access is still a dream. I am yet to see a person on a wheelchair boarding a bus, but I have seen it happen onto the train. There are elevators, special platforms and a growing awareness – not to mention a law that mandates it by the year 2012.

The boundary between a polling place and the outside world is not only fluid, it is quite interesting to walk toward the polling place. People congregate, talking about the way they just voted – or providing advise how to vote. Campaign literature is given out, and the area is covered with posters and other election material. For me this is strange. In the USA there is a clear, very defined separation, a distance of 100 feet protecting a polling place. Here the five meter rule is usually kept, but not always adhered to.

I came in at 7AM. As I left a few minutes later, a policewoman in charge of the location showed up, all energized and excited. She was late, but she has already managed to instruct to remove some signs from the very entrance of the school.

There are 120 seats in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset. One votes for a party, not for individuals. 33 parties compete in this election for the 18th Knesset. The party then gets a number of seats ("mandates") proportionate to the number of votes it received relative to the total number of eligible voters who votes. The minimum threshold is 2%. Thus, for instance, in the last election in 2006, 63% of eligible voters voted. 62,742 votes constituted one seat with a minimum "passing" requirement of 125K votes.

Israelis are disenchanted by their own voting record. In the first election sixty years ago, there was an 87% participation. Until 1973, participation in the elections was in the eightieth percentile but more recent ones dwindled to similar to the level in Finland, France and Great Britain, in the sixtieth percentile. This despite the day being given as a day off work at full pay. It is claimed that if the day was a regular work day, schools and other public buildings could not be used for voting and that tens of thousands who works at the polling places would have to miss work. [Miracles apparently do happen, since in the USA, we do not take the day off and there are sufficient voting locations and staffers.] Those who "have to work," including public transportation, get paid double time. Others go shopping.

Not only do I think that sixty percent and above is a very respectable figure and see no reason not to work today, I am convinced that Israelis are just a bit too harsh with themselves. The election to the 18th Knesset was conducted in the three week period between the end of Operation Cask Lead and today. NIS 207m (some $50m) is the budget for this election. The money was poured into billboards, print advertisements and presence on the internet and radio and TV commercials. Yet, a general consensus is that the election is boring, unexciting, people disinterested.

I differ: While I would not necessarily subscribe to the bombardment of commercials and billboards, people badmouthing one another ("he is a liar," "she is incapable") and faces staring at you all the time (in the bus, from the bus, in the train station, from the front pages of the newspapers, no rest in site), there was not a dull moment in this election.

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Ari Bussel is an activist with a deep passion and commitment to truth. His continuous fact-finding missions to the Middle East to secure truthful and factual information about the status of the situation are disseminated to a worldwide audience (more...)
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