The Israeli public is heading to the polls today in a hotly contested election that could mark the end of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing administration.
Netanyahu and his Likud party have been in power since 2009, but in the past six years the cost of living has soared, many middle class families cannot afford to buy a home, and the Israeli military has launched two assaults on the besieged Palestinian Gaza Strip, costing civilian lives and international standing.
Likud has fallen behind in the polls but on Monday night Netanyahu tried to win right-wing support by rescinding his pledge to support a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Now, the Zionist Union, a center-left party created from the union of the Israeli Labor Party headed by Isaac Herzog and the Hatnuah party led by Tzipi Livni, has a real chance to beat Netanyahu in Tuesday's vote.
Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel's most-read daily paper, released final polls on Friday that placed the Zionist Union at 26 seats to Likud's 22 in the next Knesset, or parliament. But this doesn't guarantee a center-left government. Israeli politics are simultaneously straightforward, diverse, and treacherous.
Who Can Vote?
Israeli electoral law allows all citizens over the age of 18 to vote in the general election. Unlike in the United States, this includes people with criminal records. Absentee votes are not allowed, with the exception of diplomats, soldiers, and sailors.
Israelis do not directly elect their prime minister. They vote for party lists, which state candidates in numerical order, and seats are then awarded on a proportional basis.
The Israeli Knesset has a total of 120 seats. To form a government, any party or coalition must hold at least 61 seats. Yet no single party has ever won more than 56, so a coalition has always been required. The President of Israel, currently Reuven Rivlin, asks the party deemed most likely to form a functioning coalition to head the next government.
So, the party that garners the most votes isn't necessarily entitled to a position in the ruling government.
What Are the Options?
Within the parliament, there are four main factions: the right, left, religious, and Arab.
The right has several parties and the most popular is Likud. Netanyahu's party holds hawkish security views and advocate the annexation of the largest settlements in the West Bank. They also maintain that East Jerusalem, the possible capital of a future Palestinian state, remains under Israeli control.
The Jewish Home party comes in second on the right with roughly 12 seats. Headed by former entrepreneur Naftali Bennett, the Jewish Home party is a right-wing religious party that advocates the annexation of the Area C of the West Bank. This forms the majority of the occupied Palestinian territories and holds almost all of its natural resources and undeveloped land, also creating the border between the presumptive Palestinian state and Jordan.
Kulanu, a center-right newcomer to the Israeli political scene headed by former Likud official Moshe Kahlon, will likely poll around eight seats. Kulanu focuses on economic issues, namely egalitarian economics, appealing to the concerns of the middle and working classes. The party has been largely silent on the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
Yisrael Beiteinu is polling at five seats, fourth among the right. The secular party pulls support from Russian-speaking Israelis, and is headed by Avigdor Lieberman, the controversial foreign minister known for controversial, anti-Arab statements. Yisrael Beiteinu advocates for land swaps between Israel and a future Palestinian state, allowing for population transfers that would create two states with largely homogenous populations. Once an influential party, its support has diminished over the last year.
The Center Left
The Zionist Union hopes to return to the negotiating table with the Palestinian Authority (PA), but says that Jerusalem must remain the unified Israeli capital, something with which the PA is not likely to agree. On economic issues, the Zionist Union proposes mostly secular, social democratic policies, with an end to preferential treatment of settlers in the West Bank.
Yesh Atid, polling at roughly 12 seats, is a secular-centrist party that draws support from the Israeli middle class. Headed by Yair Lapid, a photogenic former television journalist, they push for equality among Israelis, advocating for essential classes to be taught in all schools, egalitarian civil laws for all sectors of Israeli life, and liberal economic reforms. On the Palestinian issue, they want a two state solution that sees Jerusalem as the unified capital of Israel. The party came in second in the last Israeli elections, but their popularity has dropped slightly.
Meretz, currently polling at 5 seats (just above the minimum for representation in the Knesset), is a left-wing social democratic Zionist party that was founded in 1992. They are seen as the head of the peace movement in the Knesset, and want a two state solution with the dismantling of most West Bank settlements and a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem. On socio-economic issues, Meretz is inclusive, secular, and socialist.
The Joint List
The Joint List is comprised of three entirely Arab parties — Balad, Ta'al, and the Islamic Movement — and Hadash, the Jewish-Arab communist group. The parties joined together for this election cycle, after a law was introduced raising the electoral threshold from 2 percent to 3.25 percent. This would have excluded any of the Arab parties from seats in the Knesset, as well as some Orthodox Jewish parties.
As a result of their union, the Joint List is in third place with a projected 13 seats. The coalition has a wide range of views resulting from the four parties' broad spectrum of ideologies, but their main focus is representing the interests of Israel's 1.7 million Arab citizens and an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
There are three Ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties in the Knesset. The most popular is Shas, polling at seven seats. Shas is a multi-ethnic party that represents the Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewish populations in Israel, most of whom come from Middle East and North African countries. They want an end to what they see as discrimination against Jews from Arab nations in Israeli society. They are anti-homosexual, and want a state based on Halakha, Jewish religious law. They have no definite stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but their members are known to make hawkish statements on the issue.
The second most popular is United Torah Judaism, a union of two Ultra-Orthodox parties, polling at six seats. The party focuses on socioeconomic and religious issues for the Ultra-Orthodox in Israel, and all of their policy proposals are decided upon by a council of Rabbis. They have no official stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The last is Yachad, formed in 2014, which unites many sectors of the diverse Orthodox population. Yachad presents itself as an alternative to Shas, and many have called the party "right of right." Polling at a mere four seats, it is not clear if Yachad will hold seats in the next Knesset.
What Happens After the Votes Are Counted?
As of now, it seems that although Netanyahu and Likud will come in second place, they will still form the next government. The parties of the right appear to have an advantage over the center and left. Even if Meretz and Yesh Atid agreed to form a coalition with Herzog and Livni, they would still require support from either the center-right or the religious. These partnerships will come more naturally for Likud.
The party that could possibly prevent Netanyahu from forming the next government is the Joint List. If the united Arab parties were to join with the Zionist Union, that would make a 61 seat majority far more attainable. However, the Joint List has stated that it will not join coalition with Herzog or Livni.
But in Israeli politics, nothing is certain.
Follow Creede Newton on Twitter: @CreedeNewton