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9 Things You Need to Know About Israel’s Election System

As Reform Jews and lovers of Israel, we should understand, in a broad sense, the basics of Israel’s election system. Here are nine things you should know about the Israeli political picture.

1. What is Israel’s form of government?

Israel has a national parliament system of government, in which 120 elected members sit in a parliament called the Knesset. Members are elected by virtue of their membership in a political party or a political “list,” which represents a particular ideology or movement. Members of the Knesset do not represent individual constituencies.

Currently, there are 29 women in the Knesset and one party, Yamina, is headed by a woman. (Shav Shafir is now considered a co-leader of the Democratic List, a new party formed for the September 2019 election that comprises Meretz and a new list formed by Ehud Barak.)

2. Is the Knesset a representative body like the U.S. Congress?

Unlike the U.S. Congress, members in the Knesset do not represent specific constituencies; rather they represent ideologies.

3. How are individuals elected to the Knesset?

Individuals are elected as members of a political party or a political list. Sometimes multiple parties will combine as lists to run in an election.

4. How often are elections held?

Elections must be held at least every four years, but a government can be dissolved before that amount of time has elapsed. When this happens, new elections must be held.

5. What is the role of Israel’s president as compared with the country’s prime minister?

In Israel, the presidency is a ceremonial role. The president is elected by members of the Knesset. Alternately, the president may be chosen by Knesset members even if the candidate no longer serves in the Knesset.

The president, as head of state, is seen as someone who can bring calm and confidence to the country, meets foreign officials and dignitaries, and has ceremonial duties that are carried out from the presidential residency in Jerusalem. After each general election, the president is responsible for selecting the leader of a party to form a coalition and a government. To do so, the president meets with each party to hear recommendations regarding which party head to select.

The prime minister, is the head of the government (and a member of the Knesset), and usually is the head of the largest party in the Knesset or the leader who has the greatest likelihood of forming a viable coalition.

6. Tell us about political parties in Israel and how coalitions are formed among parties in the Knesset following an election.

Historically, political parties in Israel were represented by two ideological blocs, a center-right bloc (led by the Likud Party) and a center-left bloc (led by the Labor Party). Today, these two political parties are in flux. Support for the Labor Party has shrunk to single digit numbers in polls, and although the Likud Party is still the largest one in the nation, it, too, is going through ideological shifts to the right. More recently, political parties are created frequently in Israel, often around a charismatic personality or a sectoral platform.

To obtain seats in the Knesset, which are proportionately representative of the overall voting public, political parties must win 3.25 percent of the vote. Therefore, some parties bloc together before an election to ensure they will meet the 3.5 percent threshold. In April of 2019, 47 different parties ran in the election, and this September, 33 parties are slated to run – many of which will not reach the electoral threshold.

After the election, the president is responsible for asking the party that won of the largest number of votes or the party leader who appears most capable of forging a viable coalition among parties to try to form a working government in the Knesset. The parties have 45 days in which to form a government; if they are unable to do so, they may ask for a second round to try to form a coalition. If, after two tries, no government can be formed, new elections are scheduled, which is what happened after the election in April of 2019. That election brought 49 new legislators into the Knesset.

7. At what age do Israeli citizens begin to vote?

Israelis may vote beginning at age 18, the same year they go to the army. There is no official voter registration in Israel; when Israelis are born, they are registered to vote.

Unlike in the U.S. and Canada, where citizens can vote by absentee ballot, Israelis cannot vote in this way, so, except for official emissaries, they must be physically present in the country to vote.

8. Approximately what percentage of Israeli citizens vote?

Until about 1999, nearly 80 percent of Israelis consistently voted in elections. For the past two decades, turnout has been slightly lower – with Israelis voting at a rate in the high 60s. In April of 2019, voter turnout was 68.5 percent, which is three percentage points lower than turnout in 2015, but higher than it has been in the last 20 years.

9. What else is important to know and understand about the country’s election system?

In the past, Israelis voted in ideological blocs. Today, that practice continues, but they also often vote “tribally,” or similarly to others in their communities, social spheres, socio-economic strata, and religious or ethnic groups. These divisions can make it difficult to bring Israeli society together after an election and can resulting in fractious elections and fractious governing. 

To learn about the current Israeli government and the upcoming elections in September, visit the Israel Democracy Institute or the Israel Policy Forum’s #120Project.

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

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