A List is Not a Party – Part 1

It’s list day!

Today the various parties began submitting their lists of candidates to the Central Elections Committee. This is therefore the perfect time to establish some of the basic terms that we’ll be using in this explanatory series on the Israeli political system.

But first, a trivia question. In the run-up to the 2015 elections, Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni were:

a) In the same party

b) In the same Knesset faction

c) On the same list

d) All of the above

It is tempting to say “d”. But read on before you do; I’ll reveal the answer tomorrow.

The difference between these three terms (Knesset faction, list, and party) is subtle, but important. Two MKs can be in the same Knesset faction without being in the same party; in the same party without being on the same list; and on the same list without being in the same Knesset faction.

Confusing? Of course. So let’s first establish the basics:

  • Groups of people who have something in common and want political influence form parties.
  • Political parties submit lists of up to 120 candidates who will run in an election.
  • If you do well enough in the election, the top few people on your list become members of the Knesset (MKs), where they automatically and immediately form a Knesset faction.

Now, the concept of a political party should be familiar to everybody, and Israeli law doesn’t do anything particularly weird with it. That leaves lists and Knesset factions; I’ll explain lists today, and Knesset factions tomorrow.

What is a list?

A list is almost exactly what it sounds like: a list of names. These are the people that a given party is putting forward as its candidates for the Knesset: if the party wins eight seats, the top eight people on the list become MKs.

If, over the course of the Knesset’s tenure, one of those MKs resigns, dies, or is appointed to a ministry and decides to activate the Norwegian Law (for those unfamiliar, I’ll explain this in a later post), they are replaced as an MK by the next person on the list.

A list is given a name, which is usually the name of the party, sometimes with embellishments. For example, in 2015, the Green Party’s list was called “The Greens”. Kulanu’s list was called “Kulanu headed by Moshe Kahlon”. And the Shas list was called “The union of Sephardi keepers of the Torah the movement of Maran HaRav Ovadya Yosef ZTz”L”.

Notice that this last one doesn’t actually have the word “Shas” in it. Meretz’s list, too, did not include the party’s name; it was simply “the Israeli Left”.

There are very few restrictions on what you can name your list. There is no obligation to name the leader of the party, for example, and no obligation that any leader you do name be the first person on the list. Though there are rules against potentially misleading the public. For example, the Na Nach list had its name modified in 2015 because it initially claimed that the list was headed by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov — who, the Central Elections Committee pointed out, has been dead for two hundred years and may or may not approve of their platform.

Finally, each list also chooses a set of up to two letters in Hebrew and/or Arabic, which will figure prominently on their ballot slip and make it easy to recognize. Parties cannot choose letters that were used by those currently in the Knesset without permission.

That’s relatively straightforward.

Now we introduce complications.

First of all (and this should be familiar to anybody who follows Israeli politics), more than one party can join together to form a single list. This is fairly common; in the 2015 elections there were quite a few lists that contained candidates from more than one party:

  • The Zionist Union was a list that contained candidates from Labor and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah (and Hatnuah brought some Green Movement candidates to the table as well)
  • The Joint List was a list that contained candidates from no less than four Arab parties
  • UTJ was a list that contained candidates from two charedi parties, Degel Hatorah and Agudat Yisrael

You’ll notice that in all three of these cases the name of the list is not the same as that of any of its parties – probably a deliberate move to emphasize that the combined list represents an equal partnership. But in some cases, the name of a list clearly identifies which party is the important one and which party is simply along for the ride. Again from 2015:

  • The Jewish Home party ran together with Tkuma, but their list was called “The Jewish Home led by Naftali Bennett”.
  • Eli Yishai’s Yachad party ran together with Otzma Le-Yisrael, but their list was called “Yachad – Ha’am Itanu led by Eli Yishai”.

The lists are set in stone some weeks before the election; that’s what’s happening today and tomorrow. And they remain in force until the next election.

The “technically” sentence

This is going to happen a lot in this series: I’ll explain a concept, and then start a sentence with “technically”. This is the part where you can run screaming for the hills, if you need to.

Technically, people vote for lists – not for parties. Technically, nobody has ever voted for the Labor party in the history of the state of Israel; people voted for the Labor party list. This might not sound like an important distinction, but in some cases it can be!

For example, one of the high-profile splits this election cycle happened when Naftali Bennett took two other MKs with him from the Jewish Home to form the New Right. Now, if Bennett were to quit the Knesset tomorrow, would he be replaced by a fellow member of the New Right? No! The changes that have been made to the makeup of the Knesset don’t change the decision of the voters, as established in the election on March 17, 2015. Those voters voted to send a specific list of people to the Knesset to represent them, and that list hasn’t changed even if some of their political affiliations have.

Therefore, if Naftali Bennett were to quit the Knesset tomorrow, he would be replaced by Avi Wortzman, who is #10 on the Jewish Home list that was submitted in the last election. The fact that Bennett and Wortzman are no longer in the same party makes no difference. The public voted for a list, not for a party – and therefore membership in the Knesset is determined only by the list, no matter what happens to the party afterward.

This fact can produce some pretty insane results. In 2005, following the disengagement, Ariel Sharon took a large group of MKs from the Likud, and another large group from Labor, and founded the new centrist ruling party Kadima. But all of those MKs were originally voted into the Knesset on the Likud and Labor lists!

I was working at the Jerusalem Post at the time, and keeping track of the party sizes in that Knesset was quite the adventure. Every time a Kadima, Likud, or Labor MK resigned, it was anybody’s guess which party his replacement would belong to. The size of the coalition was constantly being adjusted up and down depending on who was leaving and who was entering. The next election, in which Kadima submitted its own list, put an end to the insanity.

The length of a list

I mentioned earlier that a list can have up to 120 names on it. Which makes sense because there are only 120 Knesset seats. Submitting a full list of 120 names is an act of supreme optimism, of course; in the last election, there were only five such lists (a sixth tried, but one of the candidates resigned before the election).

Most parties simply submit names according to the number of seats they expect to win, plus a bunch in case they overperform unexpectedly. But nothing says they have to do this; Israel has seen more than a few lists that contain naught but a single name.

So what happens if a list wins more seats than it had names? What happens if all of the candidates on a list make it into the Knesset, but then one of them dies or resigns? The answer is complicated – I’ll address it when I explain the Bader-Ofer law in a couple of weeks.


So now you have an understanding of what a list is and why it differs from a political party. Tomorrow I’ll go into how lists of candidates become Knesset factions, how Knesset factions split and merge, and some of the unintended consequences of using these terms interchangeably.

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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