The Israeli political system can often appear bewildering to those more familiar with the electoral system of the United States.
The American voter elects individual representatives of district constituencies, while the Israeli voter selects from amongst lists of candidates for the Knesset (Parliament) throughout the country. The American tradition stresses strict separation between the legislative and executive branches (i.e., Congress and the President), while in Israel elected officials often serve simultaneously in both branches.
In the United States, presidents expect to serve out their terms in office barring death or Nixonian-level scandal, and elections for president are conducted under a strict schedule, occurring every four years. In Israel, the prime minister can find himself or herself removed from office on any given day by an act of the Knesset, leading to unscheduled “early elections.”
Even the words used in the different countries can mean different things. In the U.S., “the government” generally refers to all public officials, elected or appointed, but in Israel the government is roughly equivalent to what the Cabinet is in Washington.
These distinctions are due to the fact that the Israeli system stems from traditions far removed from North America. The roots of the Israeli electoral system, like many other aspects of Israeli society, go back to Central and Eastern Europe in the early years of the 20th century. The political traditions of that place and time stressed a lively ferment of multiple parties and broad ranges of beliefs and manifestos ranging from communism to extreme right and everything in between.
The politics of the early Zionist movement, and later the Jewish community in British Mandate Palestine, reflected this tradition of pluralistic party multiplicity. The general Zionist movement prior to the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 included socialist parties, communists, liberals, various religious movements, and a rightist revisionist party. When the state was established, shoehorning such an expansive spectrum of views into a two-party system, as per the Anglo-American traditions, was unthinkable. In order to ensure that all opinions, including minority ones, would be guaranteed expression, representative bodies were elected under a proportional system in which each party had a number of representatives in exact proportion to the number of votes cast for that party so that even parties garnering as little as one percent of the total votes would have a voice.
In 1988 this threshold for representation was raised to 1.5 percent in an attempt to prevent extremist minority views—in this case a political party that was later disqualified from candidacy because it was deemed racist—from gaining representation in the Knesset. In 2006 the threshold for representation was raised again, to two percent.
How It Works
This system was incorporated into the basic laws of the State of Israel when the country was founded in 1948. The national legislature was named the Knesset after the rabbinical legislative body in ancient Judea over 2,000 ago, and the number of its members was set at 120, exactly the same as its ancient namesake.
Election to the Knesset is by proportional representation, and there are no districts–the entire country is one district. Knesset elections must be conducted at least once every four years. Each political party presents the public with a list of candidates for Knesset membership, and the number of individuals from that list who get to serve in the Knesset depends on the proportion of votes cast for the party; any party with 2 percent of the total vote gets at least two seats in the Knesset.
The executive branch is not elected directly. It instead arises out of the Knesset, in a sense. After elections for the Knesset have been conducted, the president of the State of Israel will approach the leader of one of the parties–generally the party that has received the greatest number of votes–and entrust him or her the task of forming a government. This means that the selected individual is expected to put together a list of people who will serve as the country’s cabinet, each one as a minister responsible for a different department or ministry. This is what is called “the government,” and executive decisions may only be taken by a majority vote in the government. The leader of the government, who chairs its meetings and guides its guidelines and agendas, is the prime minister.
However, in order to take office as prime minister at the head of a new government, the person tapped for the job by the president must persuade a majority of the Knesset members (MKs) to confirm the government. This usually involves putting together a coalition of several parties. The prime minister-elect will typically spend a number of weeks conducting intense negotiations with the other parties elected to the Knesset, arranging for their support in a confirmation vote.
In exchange for joining the coalition, parties will demand that they get to have some of their MKs serve in the government as ministers, so that Israeli governments are generally staffed by MKs from a range of parties who must find a way to work together despite their disparate views. Those parties left out of the coalition form the opposition.
The story doesn’t even end with the confirmation of a government, however. The opposition can at any time try to remove a government from power by calling for a “vote of no-confidence” in the Knesset. Should a majority of the Knesset join in voting in favor of no-confidence, the government’s term in office comes to an abrupt end; this is called the fall of a government. When a government falls, the president may approach any member of Knesset–even the just-deposed prime minister–and ask him or her to try to form a new government that will enjoy majority support in the Knesset. Another possibility is that new early elections may be called for the Knesset.
To take an example: Prior to each national election, the Labor Party will select in internal primaries a list of 120 Knesset candidates. If on Election Day a quarter of Israelis at the polls cast ballots for the Labor Party–the ballots identify only the party, not individuals–the Labor Party will be entitled to a quarter of the 120 seats in the Knesset, so that the first 30 persons appearing on its list will become Knesset members.
If the president calls upon the leader of the Labor Party to form a new government, he or she will enter into negotiations with other parties to form a coalition of at least 61 members, in order to ensure a majority of support in the Knesset. Depending on the distribution of seats to other parties, this could mean inviting several other parties to have their representatives serve as ministers in the government, until at least 61 Knesset members have joined the coalition.