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It’s Election Season in Israel: What You Need to Know

It’s Election Season in Israel: What You Need to Know

Hand placing ballot in ballot box with Israeli flag in the background

Israel is a vibrant democracy whose Knesset, the Israeli parliament, is a different form of government than that found in either the United States Congress or in Canada’s parliament. Let’s explore some of these differences.

Israeli prime ministers serve up to four years, based on the strength of their coalition. If the coalition weakens, a prime minister may call for elections at any time within this cycle.

Israelis vote only for the political party they want to be represented in the Knesset. The Knesset, comprised of these 120 elected representatives, then elects a prime minister and forms a government, similar to a presidential cabinet in the U.S. Knesset members don’t represent individual districts or states, as Congress does. They are elected at-large and answer to their party leadership.

Israel used to have two dominant political parties – Labor and Likud. Each has transformed significantly throughout the years, and newly formed parties have joined them in the political landscape. Today in Israel, 13 different parties have seats in the Knesset and 47 parties – some of which comprise multiple parties – have filed with the Knesset election committees and are vying for seats in the new Knesset, which will be elected in the country’s national election on April 9, 2019.

Unlike in America, where there are only two major parties, with 13 parties, it is almost impossible for any single party to obtain a majority of the 120 Knesset seats. (Also unlike in the U.S. or Canada, it is not necessary to register to vote in Israel. All Israelis with an Israeli ID card are eligible to vote and Election Day is a holiday in the country.)

So, how does anything get done if no party has a majority?

The Israeli president, whose role is largely symbolic, is responsible for appointing a party to form a government; historically, the president has chosen the party that brings in the most mandates or votes. However, to obtain a majority, parties must come together and form a coalition of 61 seats of more. This system naturally leads to compromise among different parties within a coalition. If the Knesset is going to devise a peace plan, for example, the various parties will need to find a way to balance their interests and policy proposals.

Israelis are big poll watchers and before the country’s elections, there are polls every Friday. Current polls are tracking a close race between what has emerged as the two largest blocs. The first is the Likud Party, that of current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu; the second is a newly formed party, Kachol Lavan (Blue and White), that comprises the Israel Resilience Party, led by Benny Gantz, a former chief of staff of the IDF; the Telem Party, chaired by Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon, who, like Gantz, is a former chief of staff of the IDF; and Yesh Atid, led by Yair Lapid, who is now leading the joint Kachol Lavan party together with Gantz, Ya’alon, and Gabi Ashkenazi, also a former IDF chief of staff.

On February 28, Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who was appointed by Netanyahu, announced results of a multi-year investigation into wrongdoings by the prime minister. Based on the investigation’s results, Mandelblit recommended to indict the prime minister for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in three separate cases, pending a hearing. Despite these charges, Netanyahu continues to govern and will run as the head of the Likud Party in the April 9 elections. It is possible that Likud and the joint Kachol Lavan will be the front runners once all the votes are cast, but a lot can change between now and then, and only time will tell what a new coalition government actually will look like following the elections.

Jo-Ann Mort is the special advisor to the president of the Union for Reform Judaism.

Jo-Ann Mort

Published: 3/12/2019

Categories: Israel, Living in Israel
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