Hebrew on billboards reads, left "Strong Likud strong Israel" on the right "Every vote matters, win Blue and White". Image Credit: AP

[Disclaimer: All names of interviewees changed upon request]

Dubai: It’s election time in Israel. On Tuesday, April 9, Israeli voters including Arab citizens of the state will elect their MPs. This exercise takes place once every four years.

Here's an explainer on how the Israeli elections work, and how they affect Palestinians:

When is the vote?

April 9, 2019. Elections for the Israeli parliament are conducted every four years.

How many members does the Knesset have?

120 MPs

How many Palestinians MPs are part of the Knesset?

Currently, there are 17 Palestinian MPs in the 120-member chamber.

How do Israeli elections work?

The 120 Knesset seats are allocated by proportional representation to party lists. In order to win seats in the Knesset, a party must pass a threshold of at least 3.25 per cent of the national vote, equivalent to 4 seats.

No single party has ever won an outright majority in the Knesset, so coalition governments are the norm.

After the election and consultations with party leaders, Israel’s president ask the candidate whom he judges has the best chance of forming a coalition to try and put together a government.

That is usually the person heading the largest party, but not necessarily.

That candidate has 28 days to form a government, with a possible 14-day extension. If he or she fails then the president tasks a different candidate with the job.

An Israeli border policewoman stands behind a mobile voting booth a day before polling stations open in the rest of Israel, at a base in Beit Horon colony in the Israeli-occupied West BanK. Image Credit: Reuters

How many voters are registered for the April 9 elections?

About 5.8 million Israelis are eligible to vote in this April 9 elections, according to the Israeli statistics bureau.

Palestine, a non-issue this election?

In a charged election campaign that has been heavy on insults and short on substance, Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians has been notably absent from the current election campaign discourse.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the current Prime Minister who belongs to the right-wing Likud Party, has offered no plan for what many believe is the country’s most existential problem.

Supporters of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu march in occupied Jerusalem on Sunday. Netanyahu’s Likud party champions tough security policies and most of its members oppose the creation of a Palestinian state. Image Credit: AFP

His main challenger in Tuesday’s vote, former army general Benjamin "Benny" Gantz, speaks vaguely of “separation.” Netanyahu’s hard-line partners speak openly of the once-unthinkable idea of annexing all or parts of the Occupied West Bank.

Talk of a Palestinian state, the international community’s preferred solution for the past two decades, is non-existent.

It is a far cry from past elections, when peace with the Palestinians was the central issue for voters.

This apparent lack of interest reflects widespread disillusionment in Israel over years of failed peace efforts.

But it also is a testament to Netanyahu’s success in sidelining the Palestinian issue.

Leftist lean

Abdulla Hassan (name changed upon request), 29, a Palestinian in Ramallah, told Gulf News: “All the Israeli parties, no matter the leaning, share the same thinking and approach. But the Leftist parties, when they are in power, give Palestinians a less harsh treatment. We see less pressure on our neighbourhoods, less checkpoints, they go lighter on the economic siege.”

The Left parties of Israel are traditionally supported by Israel's academic, cultural, and business elites, as well as its security establishment.

This election, the main Left party is Meretz, popular with liberal middle-class Israelis, the party advocates a two-state solution with the Palestinians.

The left-leaning Labour Party, which governed Israel for decades, lost 10 seats in the 2015 last elections from 18.

Labour campaigned on social and economic reform, as well as pursuing peace and a two-state solution with the Palestinians.

“Whether more candidates from the Arab parties win or not, it is of no use for us. For the past 19 years, they had no real impact on the Palestinian cause, and did not benefit us on the ground with anything,” said Abdullah.

Currently, there are 17 Palestinian MPs in the 120-member Knesset, the Israeli parliament.

Arab lawmakers stand up in protest during a Knesset session in occupied Jerusalem, Thursday, July 19, 2018. Israel's parliament approved a controversial piece of legislation on Thursday that defines the country as the nation-state of the Jewish people but which critics warn sidelines minorities.

Under Israel’s proportional representative system, Arab Israelis are represented in the chamber.

Abdullah added: “Arab-48 (Palestinians who are citizens of Israel), despite having the Arab parties representing them in the Knesset, lately have suffered more. In this round of elections, we had the most number of Arab members of the Knesset, yet Israel’s Nation-State law was voted on and passed.”

Fact File: Arab-48
Around 20 per cent of Israel citizens are of Palestinian origin, known sometimes as Palestinian citizens or as Arab-48, which refers to 1948 when the state of Israel was declared.

Around 20 per cent of Israel citizens are of Palestinian origin, known sometimes as Palestinian citizens or as Arab-48.

'Apartheid law'

The Knesset passed Israel’s Nation-State Law in 2018, declaring that only Jews have the right to self-determination in Israel, in effect rendering Palestinian-Israelis as second-class citizens.

The law was passed by a narrow vote of 62 to 55 votes. The nation state bill describes Israel for the first time as “the national home of the Jewish people”.

The law downgrades Arabic so it is no longer an official language of Israel and declares that Jerusalem — “complete and united” — is the country’s capital.

Arab-Israeli MPs angrily denounced the bill as “an apartheid law” and tore copies of its text into pieces after it passed.

Image Credit: Gulf News

Dreams, aspirations

Abdullah said: “As a Palestinian on the ground, nothing will change for me. They (Israeli Jews) are still my enemies. Leaders in the Arab world talk about the creation of a Palestinian state, but I see no hope for such a state within the 1967 borders…Israelis were successful on the ground to break the West Bank.”

He added: “If you go in any direction outside the center of Ramallah, you’ll find an Israeli settlement between each Palestinian village — or a wall, or a checkpoint and so forth.”

“No one builds a whole concrete colonies, and make us believe that one day they will demolish them.”

“A Palestinian state is a dream of independence and stability. But in reality, we are left with no choice. A single state for both Palestinians and Israelis like the Serbs and Muslims, is refused by the two sides. And two states on the ground doesn’t work anymore — with all the settlements cutting up the West bank.”

“As a Palestinian, we are not looking for anything forward. It’s always more trouble for us.”

No hope on the ground

There’s exasperation on the ground. Ahmad Abu Shahla, 38, from Gaza, agreed with Abdullah.

“We don’t follow Israeli elections that much. Whoever comes to power will have the same racist, killer approach towards Palestinians. Whether it’s Netanyahu or Gantz (opposition candidate), the Left or the Right, they are all controlled by an Israeli lobby.”

POLLS SHOW GANTZ CLOSING GAP ON NETANYAHU Image Credit: Gulfnews

Recent polls have show that the right-wing bloc led by Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud will grab the majority of Knesset seats.

But the polls also suggest that a new Centrist party, headed by a popular former general, emerging as the largest faction in parliament.

Undecided voters: Can they hold sway?

Surveys also revealed a huge chunk of undecided voters, who could swing the election either way.

Gazans on the ground, are gripped by the same despondency or hopelessness, regardless of whichever party dominates the Israeli elections.

Abu Shahla said: “The devil we know is better than the devil we don’t know. We know Netanyahu. But we don’t know the new guy (Gantz), an ex-army man running against him.”

“In Gaza, we are the people sitting on fire, so we follow (Israeli elections) because we are the ones being used as an election proxy. The Likud wants more votes, they hit us with missile strikes. The Left, push for open border crossings, more clean water and electricity to come to us, also to increase their votes.”

“But after all this circus, we have no hope in peace any more. Twenty years ago, we were negotiating land for peace. Today, it’s surrender for the basic life options such as crossings, clean water, 24hrs electricity and medical supply.”

How does the Israeli election work?

The 120 Knesset seats are allocated by proportional representation to party lists.

In order to win seats in the Knesset, a party must pass a threshold of at least 3.25 per cent of the national vote, equivalent to 4 seats. No single party has ever won an outright majority in the Knesset, so coalition governments are the norm.

After the election and consultations with party leaders, Israel’s president ask the candidate whom he judges has the best chance of forming a coalition to try and put together a government.

That is usually the person heading the largest party, but not necessarily. That candidate has 28 days to form a government, with a possible 14-day extension.

If he or she fails then the president tasks a different candidate with the job. How many voters are registered for the April 9 elections?

In the 2019 election, about 5.8 million Israelis are eligible to vote, according to the Israeli statistics bureau.

Palestinians in Jerusalem: Living in despair

To simplify the matter on ground, Palestinians who live in Gaza and West bank carry the Palestinian passport because they live under the Palestinian authority.

Any government formed in Israel affects their existence and the size of their land.

For Arab 48, who carry the Israeli passport, and the Palestinians of Jerusalem who carry the Jerusalem identity issued by the state of Israel, the elections and the next government affect their daily lives.

For Omar Mahmoud, from Jerusalem, 47, said he does not follow the Israeli elections or anyone he knows. “In reality, nothing will change. The same policy is imposed upon us. Different faces, same policies. They’re all strangling us.”

Election campaign banners depicting Ahmad Tibi and Ayman Odeh, leaders of the Hadash-Ta'al party are seen in the Israeli-Arab village of Qalansawe, northern Israel Image Credit: Reuters

“Even Arabs in the Knesset — they are a minority. So what will change? They can speak and object, but that’s all. They cannot change policy,” he added.

The people of Jerusalem live in despair, said Mahmoud.

“There is no hope. Economically, we are subject to Israeli taxes. An average Palestinian’s income is about a quarter of an average Israeli doing the same job. For example, an Israeli accountant’s pay is 40,000 shekels, while the Palestinian accountant gets 10, 000 shekels. But we both pay same tax.”

Mahmoud added: “We have no freedom to walk around freely. We are subjected daily to random checkpoints. You can add to it the oppressive ‘demographic cleansing’ from Jerusalem. I can’t leave Jerusalem or I will lose the only identification card I hold.”

“All these policies will continue to exist for me as a Palestinian in Jerusalem. Whoever gets elected tomorrow, it will be the same. So why should I care?”

What parties have best chance of winning Knesset seats? 

Likud: Headed by Prime Minister Netanyahu

The biggest right-wing party in Israel is predicted to win about 29 seats. Likud champions tough security policies when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Many of its members oppose the creation of a Palestinian state.

Netanyahu, in a last-minute election promise, said he would annex Israeli colonies in the occupied West Bank if he wins another term.

Blue and white: Headed by former Military chief Benny Gantz

Gantz has emerged as a serious rival to Netanyahu. His party is forecast to win 31 seats. Gantz is a popular former armed forces chief and a political newcomer.

He joined forces with the right-wing Moshe Yaalon, a former defence minister, and centre-left former finance Minister Yair Lapid to form the new centrist Blue and White party.

Gantz has called for pursuing peace with the Palestinians while maintaining Israeli security interests. He has signalled he would make territorial concessions toward the Palestinians but has also sidestepped the question of Palestinian statehood.

Gantz has vowed clean government, while at the same time giving mixed signals over whether he would join a Netanyahu-led coalition.

Labour, Headed by Avi Gabbay

Opinion polls have shown left-wing Labour, which governed Israel for decades, plummeting to 10 seats in the election from its current 18. Its campaign has stressed social and economic reform, as well as pursuing peace and a two-state solution with the Palestinians.

The new Right: Headed by Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked

Bennett, Israel’s education minister, and Justice Minister Shaked split from Israel’s national-religious faction to form a new far-right party that would appeal to more secular constituents.

Polls presently show them winning 6 seats. Bennett calls for annexing most of the West Bank, offering autonomy to Palestinians.

The Right Wing Union: Headed by Rabbi Rafi Peretz

Predicted to win 7 seats, Israel’s national-religious party is the most prominent political representative of Israeli colonists in the West Bank. It repudiates the idea of a Palestinian state and stresses Israel’s biblical and religious connections to land Palestinians seek for a state.

The union includes Jewish Power, an ultra-nationalist religious party that includes disciples of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane who advocated the “transfer” of Palestinians to neighbouring Arab countries and a ban on intermarriage between Jews and Arabs.

Zehut: Headed by Moshe Feiglin

An ultra-nationalist religious party that has surged in the polls in recent weeks and is forecast to take around 6 seats - partly over its support for legalising marijuana use. Zehut calls for the voluntary transfer of Palestinians to neighbouring Arab states and bills itself as a libertarian force, pushing for a free market economy.

Kulanu: Headed by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon

A former Likud member, Kahlon has partly come through on his pledge to halt soaring housing prices but has fallen short on dramatically reducing overall living costs. His party casts itself as moderate right-wing and has focused its campaign on socio-economic issues. Kulanu is expected to win only half of its current 10 seats.

Israel Beitenu: Headed by Avigdor Lieberman

The far-right party, which has counted on the support of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, has been teetering on the electoral threshold in recent polls.

Moldovan-born Lieberman is a former defence minister whose policies include trading Arab towns in Israel to any future Palestinian state for territory in the West Bank where Jewish colonies have been built. He also wants to make loyalty to the state a condition for citizenship.

United Torah Judaism (UTJ): Headed by Deputy Helath Minister Yakov Litzman

UTJ represents ultra-Orthodox Jews, or Haredim, of European origin and is seen winning about 6-7 seats in the Knesset. UTJ is primarily concerned with safeguarding state benefits for Hared men who devote themselves to full-time religious study and do not serve in the conscript military or work.

Shags: Headed by Interior Minister Aryeh Deri

Allied with UTJ, SHAS (an acronym for Union of Sephardic Torah Observers) has like UTJ been an almost permanent fixture in successive governments and represents Haredi Jews of Middle Eastern origin. According to opinion polls, it will win 5-6 seats in parliament.

Hadash-Taal: Headed by Ayman Odeh and Ahmed Tibi

Predicted to take 7-8 seats in the Knesset, the socialist Jewish-Palestinian party draws most of its voters from Israel’s 20 per cent Arab minority. It advocates a Palestinian-Jewish alliance to fight discrimination, racism and social inequality in Israel.

Palestinian parties have never joined governing coalitions in Israel.

Raam-Balad: Headed by Abas Mansour

Predicted to win 4 seats, Raam-Balad’s leaders are a mix of Islamist and Arab nationalists. It describes itself as a democratic movement opposed to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory.

Meretz: Headed by Tamar Zandberg

Predicted to win 5-6 seats in the Knesset, the left-wing party has not been part of a coalition government in the past two decades. Popular with liberal middle-class Israelis, the party advocates a two-state solution with the Palestinians.