Inside the Knesset - navigating the complexities of Israel's parliament

Lahav Harkov, the Knesset reporter for the Jerusalem Post, gives a Limmud audience an insight into Israel's uniquely tangled politics


On a hilltop in Jerusalem, inside a concrete citadel, sits the Knesset – the parliament of the state of Israel. 

There are 120 members of the Knesset, from ten different parties or multi-party unions (plus one MK sitting as an independent). 

Speaking at the Limmud conference, Lahav Harkov, the Knesset reporter for the Jerusalem Post, told the audience that the number – 120 – was chosen for its historical significance. There were 120 members of the Anshei Knesset HaGedolah – the “men of the great assembly” – a group of sages (and, in its early years, prophets), who were the spiritual and political authority in Israel at around 450 BCE. 

However, despite its number – and name – the modern-day Knesset is rather different from its ancient precursor. Indeed, the political tangle inside the 21st century assembly might well be beyond the wisdom of many ancient rabbinic sages.

It is extremely difficult to understand Israel without studying its parliamentary system – one in which, as Mrs Harkov pointed out, no party in Israel has ever come close to achieving a majority. In Israel, coalitions are the rule – and each Knesset party has its own priorities, pressure points and red lines. 

The concept of a “political journey” is also rather different in Israel than in the UK. Mrs Harkov presented a couple of examples to illustrate the point. Tzipi Livni, Israel’s former acting Prime Minister, began her political career in the Knesset in the right-wing Likud party, before joining Ariel Sharon’s breakaway Kadima party in 2005, which she went on to lead from 2008 until 2012. After losing a leadership election to a representative of the party’s right wing, she broke away with seven other Kadima MKs to form Hatnuah, a new centrist party. Two years later, in 2014, the Hatnuah party, with Ms Livni at its head, joined together with Israel’s main left-wing party, Labour, to form the Zionist Union.

Meanwhile, Avi Gabbay, the current leader of the Israeli Labour party, was one of the founders of the Kulanu party in 2014, which is led by Moshe Kahlon, a former senior member of the Likud party. Very little, it seems, is straightforward. 

Internal party politics is not exactly smooth either. Mrs Harkov told the Limmud audience that while Benjamin Netanyahu has spoken out publicly in support of a two-state solution, the majority of Likud MKs would be unlikely to support such a position.

The Arab “Joint List” is made up of a number of small Arab parties united in a political front (and to get over the electoral threshold of 3.25 per cent required to take Knesset seats). But given that these parties include those representing Islamist, Communist and Arab nationalist ideologies, internal disagreements can run deep. The Joint List has also never joined a governing coalition, unwilling to legitimise what they see as the occupation of the West Bank.

There is no telling what could happen next in Israeli politics, said Mrs Harkov. At the moment, Yair Lapid is polling well. The former actor and TV host entered politics in 2012, when he founded the centrist Yesh Atid party. Mr Lapid, however, is no stranger to the Israeli political system – his father led an anti-religious party, Shinui, from 1999 until 2006. 

At the moment, Mr Netanyahu is the leader of the coalition government – a position he has managed to maintain for the last eight years. But things can change drastically – As Mrs Harkov said: “In the coming weeks we are likely to find out the police recommendations to the Israeli Attorney General regarding Netanyahu”, who is under investigation for corruption.

“If Netanyahu is indicted”, she said, “all bets are off.” 

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