Introduction: There Will Be Math

It’s no secret that the politics of the State of Israel are complex — even anarchic. We have 17-plus parties crammed into a 120-seat legislature; new parties regularly emerge overnight to compete directly for the prime ministry; and every election season heralds a cascade of newly-formed and newly-dissolved political alliances, because God forbid we should let things get boring.

The old cliche of “two Jews, three opinions” is alive and well and part of our daily lives here.

But there are enough blogs out there that discuss our politics, and not enough that discuss our political system. And by system, I mean the rules under which the game is played: the 3.25% threshold, the vote-sharing agreements, the distribution of leftover seats, the differences between a party and a list and a Knesset faction. These rules form the backdrop against which our politicians merge and split and argue, and are the authors of our politicians’ fates.

But the rules aren’t actually very well known – sometimes not even to journalists. And when you try to describe the game without knowing the rules, you can end up far from the mark:

In the 2015 election, Yishai and Marzel ran together but didn’t make it over the minimum threshold, which led to the right losing at least four seats.

-From an article in the Jewish Press, February 8, 2019

[C]urrent coalition partners in the Likud-led government, along with other right-wing factions, could cost the right-wing and religious bloc a total of 17 mandates if no new alliances are formed.

-From an article on Israel National News, February 8, 2019

But the survey also says Shas would fall below the threshold, meaning the bloc would lose at least four votes and maybe more.

-From an article in the Times of Israel, January 3, 2019

Benjamin Netanyahu won the Likud party primary as expected, followed by four lawmakers with whom he has clashed in recent months.

-Opening sentence of an article from JTA, February 6, 2019

Neither Arye Deri’s Shas nor Eli Yishai’s Yahad crosses the threshold; and after winning only five seats, United Torah Judaism splits forever after the election.

-Prediction in an article in the Jerusalem Post, January 4, 2019

Most of these quotations sound like reasonable analysis, but they each are based on a critical error of math, logic, or law. (Or, in the case of the JTA quote, are complete nonsense from start to finish.)

Therefore, in this series of articles, I’m going to be explaining the rules of the Israeli political system. I’ll explain the difference between a list, a party, and a Knesset faction. I’ll explain what the 3.25% threshold actually does, and how parties that fall below it affect the rest of the political system. I’ll explain the difference between the leftover seats and the soldiers’ votes. I’ll explain vote-sharing agreements and the Bader-Ofer law.

I’ll also analyze some of the problems with Israeli polling. This might be the most surprising part of the series; some of the common criticisms of Israeli pollsters are not only unfounded but are evidence that pollsters are doing their jobs properly. But other aspects of Israeli polling are deeply worrying, and show serious problems with herding, transparency, and reporting norms that must be corrected (where is Nate Silver when you need him?).

There will be math; that’s unavoidable. But I promise I’ll make it as painless as possible.

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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