Analysis: Understanding Israeli Elections, Part 1 – The System

Israeli Knesset Building. Illustrative. By Joshua Spurlock.

The Israeli national elections are officially less than one month away, in which current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be seeking re-election while a host of new faces on the left and right will seek to either replace him or at least make their own stamp on the Israeli government. Considering the current threats—Iran’s nuclear program, chemical weapons in Syria, Islamists taking power in Egypt—and the escalating diplomatic conflict with the Palestinians, the next Israeli leadership will be critical.

However, before one can understand the players, one must grasp the process. And in Israel, that’s hardly easy. So for the next few weeks until the election, The Mideast Update is going to provide a series of articles and analysis on the Israeli electoral system. First, a few basic rules and explanations.

The Israeli government is a parliamentary system—the vote is for a collection of parties, rather than individuals, which form up the government. The prime minister is the top minister from the most powerful party. This contrasts with the American system, in which the president is voted on as an individual head of state and may not be of the same party as the one that controls the parliament (in that case Congress).

Who makes it into the government depends on their ranking in their party and how many seats their party wins. So if one is ranked 10th on the Labor list, and the Labor party wins 11 seats, that politician makes it in. If Labor only wins nine seats, the 10th person is left out.

While technically a single party could hold a majority of the 120-seat Israeli parliament (known as the Knesset in Hebrew), it has never happened in Israel’s modern history. Because of that, the ruling party takes power by forming a coalition with other parties to control a majority of the government.

Therefore, the ruling party need not be the largest party in terms of Knesset seats. In fact today, Netanyahu’s Likud party is the second largest after Kadima.

While it’s recommended that one join with like-minded parties in the coalition, it’s not necessary. It only takes agreement on a coalition deal, which has in the past resulted in a rotational system for prime minister when two somewhat conflicting parties decided to work together.

This coalition set-up, of course, makes the Knesset very unstable. Time and again, governments fail to finish their terms as either the coalition collapses or voluntary chooses to initiate early elections to try and boost their status. In the case of the 2013 vote, the Netanyahu-led coalition has called for elections a number of months earlier than had been planned.

Next up, the parties get introduced.

(By Joshua Spurlock,, December 26, 2012)