A Faction Is Not a Party – Part 2

Yesterday I covered the differences between a list and a party; today I’ll explain how a Knesset faction differs from both. But first, a mea culpa.

We all make mistakes – and this one was a pretty stupid one.

Part of the inspiration for this series comes from my frustration at the inaccuracies I often see in reporting on the Knesset. So it’s only fitting that I should fall into my own trap, and make a mistake in my very first substantive article. In the interests of transparency, I’m putting the correction prominently at the top of this post; my many thanks to Shalom Peles for pointing out the below issues.

Yesterday I originally wrote that each list chooses up to three letters to place on its ballot slip. This isn’t true; the law actually says up to two.


Why did I say three? Because there are a few parties that have three – מחל for the Likud, אמת for Labor, מרצ for Meretz.

And how did they accomplish this feat if the law says you can only have two? As I said yesterday, a party that enters the Knesset gain a certain “ownership” over the letters on the list that they used to get there. This ownership is respected across Knesset tenures and across mergers. When two or more existing parties decide to run with a combined list, they are allowed to use all of the letters belonging to each of those parties – and the resulting Knesset faction is allowed to continue using that set of letters indefinitely. The modern-day Likud, for instance, was originally a combined list (not a party!) made up of a few smaller parties who used, among others, the letters ח, מ, and ל. These were put together to make מחל. When the Likud was later registered as a party in and of itself, and the parties that initially comprised it were disbanded, it was allowed to keep that symbol, which it has done ever since.

Three letters aren’t even the longest symbol. In the last election, the four Arab parties in the Joint List each provided one letter to their joint list, making ודעם. I don’t know if this is unprecedented; if there have been other lists that used symbols of four or more letters, I’d love to hear about it!

In addition, a clarification — when I said a list can’t use letters that were used by other lists without permission, I meant letters that were used by lists currently in the Knesset. For example, in order to use the letter מ in your symbol, you’d have to ask for permission from no less than three Knesset factions that currently use it: Labor, Meretz, and the Likud!

The rules of what letters you can use and in what order are byzantine and insane and not worth going into at the moment. But if you’re interested in some amusement, the Central Elections Committee put up a live video feed of the list submission process on their Facebook page, where you can watch the consternation grow on the faces of the judges and lawyers on the panel as their attempt to find legal letter combinations for each new party grows more and more difficult.

Back to Knesset factions

A Knesset faction is a fairly simple concept. When a list makes it into the Knesset, all of the MKs on the list become a faction. The size of your faction (initially equal to the number of seats your list won in the election) determines how much representation you have in the various Knesset committees.

However, Knesset factions are relatively fluid things. They can split or merge, and MKs can move from one to another, as long as they get the approval of the Knesset Committee.

There are certain restrictions, which were passed in 1990 in response to cases of bribery and MKs jumping from one party to another. If you leave your current faction in order to form a new one, you must take at least 1/3 of your faction’s MKs with you. Otherwise you face certain sanctions:

  • You cannot become a minister or deputy minister during the current Knesset’s tenure;
  • You are not considered sitting member of the Knesset for the purposes of public funding in the next election (Israel gives public funding to its political parties during the election campaign, with parties already represented in the Knesset receiving larger amounts than new parties, in proportion to the size of their Knesset faction);
  • You cannot run in the next Knesset as part of an existing party.

There are two instructive examples from the last Knesset: Naftali Bennett and Orly Levy-Abekasis. When Bennett left the Jewish Home party (and faction) to form the New Right, he made sure to do two things: first, he took two other MKs with him, Shuli Muallem and Ayelet Shaked, ensuring that he had 1/3 of the Jewish Home’s MKs; and second, he purchased the right to use the defunct Tzalash party so that he would have a ready-made party framework to move into. These moves allowed Bennett to continue to serve as a minister and receive funding equivalent to the three MKs in his Knesset faction.

However, when Orly Levy quit the Yisrael Beiteinu party, she did so alone, becoming a “sole MK” without a Knesset faction to represent her. As a result, she is forbidden from running in the current election on any list that represents an existing Knesset faction. This is why prior to the list submissions there was a lot of discussion about Levy’s party Gesher merging with the list belonging to former chief of staff Benny Gantz – but little discussion about Gesher merging with Yair Lapid’s party Yesh Atid. This is because Yesh Atid represents a faction in the outgoing Knesset, so Levy is forbidden from running with them.

This didn’t stop some pollsters from polling that scenario, however! Perhaps the pollsters were positing some far-fetched situation in which, in order to get around the above restrictions, Yair Lapid and his fellow MKs all quit their own party and gave up on its (quite a large amount of) election funding in order to join Gesher, and Levy promptly granted him leadership of the party.

It’s Israeli politics. Weirder stuff has happened. And perhaps there were other ways around it – there usually are, if you look hard enough. But more likely they didn’t know about the restriction and wasted their time and money asking about it.

In summary

A Knesset faction, a list, and a party are three different concepts with three different definitions.

In most cases, an MK’s faction, list, and party are the same. For example, every Meretz MK in the last Knesset was in the Meretz faction, in the Meretz party, and on the Meretz list. Every Likud MK in the last Knesset was in the Likud faction, in the Likud party, and on the Likud list.

But this isn’t always the case.

  • Labor’s MKs last Knesset were members of the Labor party – but they were in the Zionist Union faction and on the Zionist Union list.
  • Orly Levy-Abekasis, after quitting Yisrael Beiteinu, remained on the Yisrael Beiteinu list, but became a member of her newly-founded Gesher party and was part of no Knesset faction.
  • Ayelet Shaked started out in the Jewish Home party, on the Jewish Home list, and in the Jewish Home Knesset faction; after leaving, she became a member of the Tzalash party and the New Right Knesset faction.

And now you can answer yesterday’s trivia question. In the run-up to the 2015 elections, Tzipi Livni and Isaac Herzog were on the same list. But they have never been in the same party (Livni was in Hatnuah and Herzog was in Labor), and they did not become part of the same Knesset faction until after the election.

But does all this matter?

Yes and no.

I’m a stickler for accuracy, and I try my best to use the terms “list”, “party”, and “faction” correctly throughout these articles. But sometimes you just can’t help it – the wrong word instinctively comes out (usually “party”, because that’s a more familiar concept than the other two). I’m sure I’ve used the wrong term here and there.

And although my impetus for writing these articles is to criticize media inaccuracy, I can’t even fault reporters who deliberately use the word “party” to refer to every one of these concepts. It would be too confusing to casual media consumers to encounter unfamiliar concepts like “list” and “faction” in an article on budget negotiations. Are we really all that better served if we write that the Zionist Union faction supports this or that legislation, as opposed to the Zionist Union party?

But there can be certain unintended consequences to this type of imprecision. One I noticed in 2016 involved Naftali Bennett and one of the other members of his Knesset faction, Bezalel Smotrich. Without getting too much into the politics of the matter (I’m here to present laws and mathematics, not present my own personal opinions), Smotrich has been known to make certain incendiary comments, and Bennett as the head of the Jewish Home is often asked to respond to them. I’ve seen Facebook comments, tweets, and even articles in respected publications criticizing Bennett for not exorcising Smotrich from his party.

But this is not something Bennett can do, because Smotrich is not in his party! The Jewish Home Knesset faction contains two parties: the Jewish Home and Tkuma. And while Bennett was the head of Jewish Home, Smotrich was a member of Tkuma. Smotrich’s membership in the Jewish Home party cannot be revoked if it never existed.

I can’t help but feel that the frustration of having to take responsibility for this sort of thing played a small part in Bennett’s decision to leave the Jewish Home.

About the Author
Daniel Sterman lives in Jerusalem with his wife and five children. By day he is a not-so-mild-mannered technical writer; by night he dons a cape and mask and sends strongly-worded emails to news organizations to complain about minor mathematical errors.
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