Israel’s electoral system is a multi-party, democratic, cabinet form of government that differs significantly from Constitutional Republics with Presidential Systems like the United States. Learn more below.
The recent elections in Israel have drawn unprecedented attention from Americans. Many are confused about the details of Israel’s electoral system. This article will provide a brief overview. Unlike the United States wherein the President is both the head of state and the head of government, in Israel the President is a ceremonial figurehead, not unlike the Queen of England on whom the office is modeled. The Cabinet, led by the Prime Minister (PM), is the real head of government and responsible for the day to day leadership, administration, and governance of the nation. In order to form a cabinet, or government, a majority vote of the Knesset must approve, that is 61 of 120 seats.
The Knesset is a sovereign legislature that may amend Israel’s Basic Law (its pseudo-constitution) with an absolute majority vote, or 61 out of 120. Limited only by the courts and the common law tradition that Israel inherited from the British Mandate, the Knesset reigns supreme over Israel. The Knesset is elected by direct national democratic elections at least once every four years. Suffrage includes all adult citizens. Instead of voting for individual candidates, Israelis may vote for political parties. Knesset members do not represent a geographic constituency, each of the 120 members represents the entire nation. Thus, a shop owner who lives in Tel Aviv, once elected to the Knesset, might become an advocate for small business owners from Eilat to Mt. Hermon, from Tiberius to Tel Aviv.
Political parties run candidates on lists. These lists can be created by party central committees that vote to choose candidates and establish their ranking and priority; or a central party figure can simply select and place candidates. Likud and Labor choose candidates by central committee, Lapid and Kahlon choose and rank candidates for their parties themselves. Once a list is established that party, as a whole party, is presented to the voters at the election.
Parties earn seats based upon the proportion of votes they receive. A party that receives 10% of the vote might earn 12 or 13 seats depending upon the weight of proportionality. Parties must earn enough votes to clear a minimum threshold in order to earn seats in the Knesset. That threshold rose slowly to 2% by the 2013 elections and a year later was raised to 3.25% as part of a series of structural reforms. A party that earns less than this percentage earns no seats, any party that earns more will receive its proportion of the total number of seats. Once the votes that were cast for parties that did not clear the threshold are removed from the total the vote proportions are tallied and the number of seats are doled out. When a party earns seats the members of the party lists earn seats according to their ranking on the list, if a party earned seven seats, the numbers one through seven on the list earn seats.
Parties may make agreements with one another to achieve a number of different ends. In a vote sharing agreement Party A can agree that if its number of seats are rounded down, and it therefore has “extra votes” it can contribute those to Party B who might round up to one additional seat. Parties can form joint lists, as the three Arab parties did for this election, in which two or more parties can divide the seats among themselves and present the voters with a single party. As an example, Parties A and B mentioned above form List C in which Party A will have the 1st seat, Party B the 2nd and 3rd, then Party A the 4th and so on.
The Parties and Blocs
Although the Knesset has been traditionally divided into a Right Bloc and a Left Bloc, generally along lines of nationalism and economic and social policy, today the Knesset is truly divided into four Blocs. The Right Bloc is made up of four parties each with its own constituency. Likud (Coalition) is a party that was formed in the 70’s under Menachem Begin between two right parties. It has been Israel’s primary secular right party generally following the philosophy of Israeli founding father Ze’ev Jabotinsky.
Bayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) is a party to the right of Likud that is made up of a national religious party and a nationalist party, now united under the leadership of former Likudnik Naftali Bennet. This party attracts the national religious constituency in Israel along with settlers and young disillusioned rightist voters.
Yisrael Beteinu (Israel is our Home) is a nationalist party backed largely by Russian immigrants and Israeli billionaire Arcadi Guydamak’s money. It is led by Avigdor Liberman who is widely seen as corrupt and has been charged several times although he has never been proven guilty.
Finally, there is Kulanu (All of Us) led by former Likudnik Moshe Kahlon who is famous for lowering cell phone costs as Communications Minister in a previous Likud government. Kahlon pulled together a party list of social and economic activists with a vision of correcting ills in Israeli society. Kahlon himself is seen as centre-right.
The Left Bloc is made up of three parties. Yesh Atid (There is a Future) is a centre-left party led by Yair Lapid whose father was a prominent Knesset member. This party is focused on domestic social and economic issues but is also interested in international affairs on the side of the peace process.
Zionist Union is a joint list of Labor, Israel’s traditional leftist party, and Tzipi Livni’s party. Tzipi’s centre-left approach has helped ZU gain seats over Labor’s previous Knesset faction. ZU is led by Isaac “Buji” Herzog who was Bibi’s main opponent in the election. Labor has been Israel’s left party and is the successor of earlier parties that support Israeli founding father David Ben-Gurion’s socialist legacy.
Meretz (Vigor) is led by Zahava Gal-on, and will continue to be. This is a far-left protest party.
The Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) form a third Bloc. The Haredi in Israel prefer to study in Yeshiva (religious schools) instead of working or serving in the military. These religious schools are publicly funded and the Haredi receive a large amount of social welfare. 2/3rds of Haredi men are chronically unemployed. In the past benefits were disproportionately distributed to the advantage of the Haredi. Israeli founding father David Ben-Gurion setup this system to protect Jewish religious traditions, but at the time there were just a few hundred men who studied in religious schools. The Haredi are now as many as 15% of Israel’s population and are its fastest growing demographic due in largely to their high birth rates.
Shas (Guards of the Torah), which represents Sephardic Jews (those who follow the Middle Eastern Jewish tradition) and United Torah Judaism (UTJ) which represents Ashkenazic Jews (those who follow the European Jewish tradition) are the parties that represent this bloc. The Haredi can be easily bribed with public funds and have generally been steady coalition partners for the right once their palms have been sufficiently greased. They also advocate for shuttering all businesses on Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath from sunset Friday until sunset Saturday), separation of genders on buses, and want Rabbis to continue to have power over marriage. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis cannot marry because the Rabbis do not consider them legally Jewish.
The Arab parties make up the final Bloc. In order to remain in the Knesset the three Arab parties formed a United List that earned 13 seats in the Knesset. The Arab parties are generally communist in nature and tend to support the Palestinian terrorist organizations Fattah and Hamas. These two facts make them difficult parties to work with when it comes to serving in government. There have been occasions when Arab parties have served in the government, but this has not been the case since 2001. Balad, one of the Arab parties, is financially backed by Qatar and certainly does not have Israel’s best interests in mind. One member of the new United List, Haneen Zoabi, a member from Balad, was aboard one of the craft in the 2010 flotilla and agitated in favor of Hamas during the recent flare up.
Read more from Isaac Kight.