Israeli Elections

Israeli Elections

Seth Ward

University of Wyoming


This essay is edited and updated from an essay I wrote for the elections to the 18th Knesset, Feb. 10 2009. Voting for the 19th Knesset is scheduled for January 22, 2013.

 The Israeli System

The Israeli electoral system is so different from the U.S. system that many Americans have no idea about just how it works, and how the system shapes the meaning of Israeli elections. The Parliamentary system is used in elections throughout the Middle East (and much of the rest of the world), and proportional voting for lists is also common, so understanding this electoral system can be a key to understanding the systems used in other countries.

The Israeli system considers the entire country a single district. Voters do not vote directly for the Executive Branch, or even vote directly for representatives to serve in the Knesset (Israel’s Legislature). Instead, they vote for lists of candidates for the Knesset, and Knesset seats (sometimes called “mandates”) are awarded to individuals on the lists, based on the percentage of the vote for party lists getting more than 2% of the popular vote, as will be explained in more detail below. The Executive Branch (called “the government”) is formed by the leader of a Knesset faction who can assemble a Coalition and a Cabinet that can be confirmed by majority Knesset vote. The electoral lists are generally supplied by individual political parties, so they may be called “party lists,” but various factions can unite to form a common list, or secede from parties to form their own list and so forth.

Actually, in some cases Israelis are in effect voting for individuals. For example, in the current election, Tzippi Livni established her own personal list, and attracted a number of prominent figures to join her. Perhaps the most famous example of this was Sammy Flatto-Sharon, who sought parliamentary immunity to avoid extradition in 1977, and won enough votes to be elected.

Most important though, voters may be voting for the individual in the top slot on the lists of the major parties—the party’s candidate for Prime Minister. In early stages of the 2009 election, three individuals had emerged as likely candidates to become Prime Minister: Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak, and Tzippi Livni. At this point (December 2012), most polls show current Prime Minister Netanyahu with a substantial lead over the other candidates, but several other persons in top slots are often mentioned as possible candidates for PM. Those who vote for the smaller parties also may be voting because of the top person on the party list, too, who is most likely to get a government ministry if the party joins the government.

While it’s not likely, if enough Israelis vote for parties that could block Netanyahu’s bid to remain Prime Minister, it is possible that the leader of a list with a relatively small number of Knesset mandates could be asked to form the government.

The Knesset has 120 members; if only two lists were vying in the election and one received 60% of the votes and the other 40%, the top 72 from the one list and the top 48 from the other would be seated in the Knesset. In practice, there are usually many more lists vying for election (34 lists were presented to the Knesset by the deadline), and usually none gets more than 25%-30%. Polls for the election do not assume any party will get more than about 30 seats—25% of the Knesset—although they also assume that 60-75% of the Knesset seats will be from the top five lists.

The voter makes only one choice, a vote for one list, not the large number of candidates in US elections. At the polling place, he or she receives an envelope, goes into a private booth, selects a slip of paper with the symbol of a list and puts it in the ballot envelope. Then the voter steps out of the booth and inserts the envelope into the ballot box. If there is more than one slip of paper in the envelope, it invalidates the ballot.

Often parties will form joint lists. Quite a few such joint lists are understandable combinations of parties, but some joint lists represent smaller parties running together mainly to secure Knesset seats, because in the current Israeli system, 2% of actual votes are required in order for a list to gain representation. Thus in the 17th Knesset, three of the smallest lists to be successful were multiparty lists, which combined for 15 seats—more than 10% of Knesset seats. Meretz and Yahad were similar politically, and their combined list vote tally in 2006 was 118,000—which meant the first 5 on their combined list were seated in the Knesset. But the 2% cutoff was 62,000 votes, so if Meretz and Yahad had run separately and each received exactly half of their joint actual total, neither would have had any representation. In the 2009 elections, the Green Party (environmentalists) and Meimad (a liberal religious party), had a joint list—perhaps an unlikely alliance—and they were not successful in their bid to earn seats in the Knesset. This alliance though is a good example of why such alliances occur. Had this party entered the Knesset, it is quite possible that they might have been part of the Government coalition regardless of who became Prime Minister, in which case the leader of Meimad might well have been a Minister and the environmental platform would been included in the coalition agreement. In the current election, the most talked about combined list is Likud/Yisrael Beitenu, in which Netanyahu and Avigdor Leiberman are joining forces, easily expected to win the largest number of mandates.

Joint lists might alternate one candidate from each faction, or if one faction is small, one candidate from the smaller faction after each three or four from the larger faction. Lists are manipulated also for electoral visibility: most Zionist parties have Arabs and especially Druze Arabs in “realistic” slots—in other words, if the list is expected to win 15-20 seats, slot 10 is fairly sure, slot 15 is realistic, slot 30 is unrealistic. So too, a party can manipulate the number of women in realistic slots. Some parties have had “primaries” to organize their lists. As in US elections, the voting patterns of party loyalists have not always been seen as producing effective results for the general election.

The President (Hebrew “Nasi”) of the State of Israel is a largely ceremonial position. The President is elected by the Knesset for a five year term. The President receives ambassadors presenting their credentials, can issue pardons, and in certain circumstances can dissolve Parliament, and can use the prestige of his office in various ways to promote peace or other Israeli interests. But his major political role is that, after the election, the President meets with the parties, and proposes as Prime Minister the Member of Knesset who, in his judgment, is most likely to succeed in forming a coalition and presenting a slate of Ministers to the Knesset. This is not always the leader of the largest party list: In the current Knesset (2009 election), it was Netanyahu, the leader of the second largest delegation. 

The Hebrew title for Prime MInister, Rosh Memshalah, actually translates to “Head of the Government,”  which may be understood as “Head of the Executive Branch.” The Prime Minister desgnate has three weeks to cement a coalition and propose a slate Ministers and Deputy Ministers, including himself or herself as Prime Minister, and the Minister of Defense, Foreign Minister, and other ministers and deputy ministers. The Prime Minister must be a Member of Knesset, most of the others usually are but do not have to be. The slate represents a coalition of various parties totaling at least one more than half the 120 members of the Knesset: the coalition needs at least 61 votes. This vote confirms the cabinet officers all at once, not individual by individual as in the US Executive branch.

Small parties often have great power here: they can exact a heavy price in coalition agreements in order to push a coalition past 60 votes. A very small party can bargain both that their leader become a Minister and that the coalition adopt certain legislation, in return for even as few as two or three seats counting towards the needed 61 votes.

In some cases, the first person asked cannot put together a coalition, or cannot put together a coalition in the amount of time allotted, in which case more time may be offered, another person might be asked to form a government, or new elections might be called.

Since the Government coalition has a majority, they should have enough votes to pass everything they propose, and to defeat everything they oppose. In practice this means that all important decisions are taken within the Government coalition—usually at the level of the Ministers, or by the parties they represent, and those outside the government or outside the coalition parties have very limited power. 

The prime minister may well attempt to put together a Government in which his or her party holds more seats than any other faction in the government, and to limit the number of ministers from outside his party to fewer than those from within his party. If the largest party has 31 or more seats, it can have a majority within the Government: 31 out of 61 mandates, the narrowest of majorities in the 120-seat Knesset. This scenario may be more likely if a party holds, say, 35 seats in a coalition of 65. The January 2013 election might make it possible for the Likud-Yisrael Beitenu combined list to do this, although not enough for the Likud faction alone to have more than 31 mandates or an absolute majority within the government. While coalitions in which one party dominated were more common in the early days of the state, this was impossible in the 18th Knesset, for example: the largest delegation was 28.

Sometimes, however, the Prime Minister Designate will propose a broad “Unity” coalition, bringing together diverse political entities. What this means is that the PM’s party does not dominate the Government, and a minority portion of the unity coalition may more easily assemble enough votes to cripple the coalition, or to topple the government.

For several elections (1996, 1999, and 2001), there was direct election of the Prime Minister. In other words, the Israeli voter had two slips of paper, one with the symbol of a Knesset List, and one with the name of a candidate for Prime Minister. Some Israeli analysts who had called for the direct election of Prime Minister believed that this system would never work without increasing the degree of independence and power of Knesset members, for example by making some or all Knesset members directly responsible to smaller electoral districts, such as is the case in the United States, and a higher threshold for election to the Knesset. This, however, did not happen, and Israel went back to a single-vote system.

If the Government cannot muster a majority on an important issue, the Prime Minister resigns and there is an attempt to form a new government. The Prime Minister may resign for other reasons. A Member of Knesset can also propose a Vote of No Confidence in the Government. The resignation of the Prime Minister requires confirmation of a new government by the Knesset: there is no automatic succession as there is in the case of the American Presidency. The old government continues as a “caretaker” until the new government is formed. Sometimes the new government in such situations looks a lot like the previous government, with small tweaks if necessary to maintain a majority. If a new government can be formed, the Knesset is not dissolved.

The Knesset must be dissolved and stand for reelection four years after it was elected. In the current situation, the Knesset could have served four and a half years, as Israeli law provides that the term of a Knesset elected after a Knesset dissolved itself extends to the Jewish month of Heshvan (October/November) following four years from voting. But elections for a new Knesset are more often than not called before the end of the full term. In the present case, Prime Minister Netanyahu called for elections in January rather than October 2013 to seek a mandate, to avoid a protracted election cycle, and to avoid compromises or agreements that might not be forthcoming and perhaps lessen his chances at reelection.

Wikipedia usually is a good source for Israel election results, for example for the last two elections,_2006 and,_2009

But the Knesset Website is the best and most authoritative source. Voting for the curent (18th)Knesset is here: and the list of candidates submitted for election to the 19th Knesset is here: (as of this writing, only the Hebrew List Index has the complete lists).

 Other systems

Above it was suggested that understanding the Israeli system will help understand other Middle Eastern systems, so before returning to the potential significance of the Israeli elections, a few notes on some other electoral systems in the Middle East. It should be noted though that whatever the electoral system, the electoral mandate is compromised or non-existent if the government does not submit to the electorate in an inevitable, timely fashion, or if the process or schedule precludes a fair contest.

The Palestinian parliamentary elections reflected some of the ideas of the Israeli reformers mentioned above: they were ½ (66 members) proportional for the entire electorate, on the Israeli model, and ½ (66 members) proportional elections in smaller districts, some electing just one representative, and some electing up to five. Some of the small-district elections had required seats for religious minorities, e.g. Christian or Samaritan. The Palestinian Authority did not adopt the direct election of the Prime Minister, but the Palestinians directly elect the President, who has much more of a political role than in the Israeli system. But in actual practice it is not constitutional roles but armaments and personal loyalty that have determined much about who does and does not exercise political power in the Palestinian areas. The winner of the Parliamentary elections in 2006, Hamas, nominated the Prime Minister, but after Hamas and Fatah fought in 2007, Mahmoud Abbas dismissed the Government and appointed a new Prime Minister. Moreover, the terms of President and Parliament expired long ago without new elections. Fatah holds power in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza. Salam Fayad’s government in the West Bank has made great strides, but it is clear that the political realities trump the electoral results and conpromise the emergence of desired government and civic institutions.

The Iraqis vote by lists, and there are a large number of them. In provincial elections, Iraqis could vote for an entire list, or single out members of the lists for individual votes. These lists are to set up so that 25% of the persons on them are women, and an Iraqi Supreme Court decision has further provided that the women should be seated so that after two males seated a woman is seated. The Open List system was adopted by almost all parties for the national Parliamentary elections in 2010. There have been a number of decisions that have changed important aspects of the voting. Iraq has not yet achieved a stable system, but given the situation that gave rise to its Constitution, I think it’s best to emphasise the positive electoral achievements.

Iranians vote for Parliament and for the President, and have local elections, including direct election of Mayors. But, the Supreme Leader and the Guardian Council vet the candidates and control the process, and the Supreme Leader’s power seems to have been supported by the most recent Parliamentary results. On paper, you might say, there is at least the structure of a government responsable to the people with institutions that safeguard national values and regular voting–and indeed, the government is probably more responsive to the political will of the people than was the case under the Shah! Which is not saying much, moreover it was a much more open society in those days. Given the strife that erupted after the Ahmadinejad’s reelection, there will be a lot of pressure on all sides. The next election is June 14, 2013, and will include Presidential as well as City and Village councils.

As of this writing, Egyptian debates about the political system have taken to the streets to protest the new constitution, and it remains to be seen whether the popular expression on the Egyptian street will result in broader representation in the legislature and executive. My guess is that the quick passage of the new constitution was designed to ensure the Muslim Brotherhood’s grip on the Egyptian government. and make government less responsive to responsible to minorities, to women, and to secularists. The Brotherhood may have a tighter grip on Egypt than Mubarak did. If protesters continue to press for more inclusive government, or unite and elect their candidates to Parliament, things may change–but I would not count on this in the short or intermediate term.   

Since the Ta’if agreement brought an end to years of civil war starting in 1975, Lebanon’s legislature is evenly divided between “Muslims” and “Christians” although it should be stressed that these are political and community labels, rather than religious ones. Lebanon continues to require the President to be a Maronite Christian and the Prime Minister to be a Sunni Muslim. Nevertheless, the Shiite (and extremist) movement Hizbullah has enormous power, and appears to have been responsible for the selection of the current PM.

Turkey has a strong democratic tradition; even when the army has seized power, they have restored civilian, democratic process. The party currently in power, AKP, has been quite succesful though in neutralizing journalism, the army, and other potential sources of threats to its control–and in winning ever larger segments of the electorate.


What’s important here? The most important consideration is not how the Parliament and President are elected, but the degree to which the election creates political power responsible to the broad electorate. The will of the People can never be seen as monolithic–so the democratic system has to institutionalize effective representation of those who do not form the governing majority–whether they are political, religious, ethnic, linguistic, gender or other groups, maintain civic institutions and promote an educated and informed electorate, and robust civil debate.Ultimately, we should ask such things as: Does the electorate control such things as the monopoly on legitimate use of force, usually considered a prerogative of government? Does the government ignore the electorate’s mandate or favor majorities at the expense of minorities who then have no recourse? Elections should reflect political strength of various ideas in a society, facilitate a robust political discourse about these ideas, and allow for the exercise of power legitimately–and be prepared to face the people on schedule and to cede power to the next elected government. An interruption or cancellation of the transfer of that power within regular intervals, as a result of the expression of popular will, is inconceivable. 

Many observers of the Israeli scene assert that Israel is the “only democracy in the Middle East.” Since the rise of a nascent Iraqi democracy after the fall of Saddam Hussein and especially since the “Arab Spring” (and one could even say since 1979 in Iran), the nature of democratic expression in the region is changing. But the players are not particularly committed to checks and balances, protection of minorities, peaceful change in government, inevitable reckoning by the electorate, and other cornerstones of democracy. I am not particularly hopeful for the benefits expected from the removal of tyrants and dictators in a few Arab countries in the short term. In Iran, in Egypt and elsewhere, we have seen people insist that the government serve the people and be responsible to them, rather than the other way around–but change is slow, and in this region there is every reason to suppose that new regimes arising after the Arab Spring and Syrian civil war will be no better–and perhaps worse–than the dictators they replaced. The solution is not simply replacing military dictators by elected regimes, but by the long and steady development of the institutions of a democratic, civil society, and succesful resistance when these institutions or the Press are being compromised. Also needed: development of open, responsible but robust discussion in political debate and journalism; an educated electorate; solving the question of inclusion of minority communities; and governments committed to general economic and social advancement of the governed more than their own political, ideological, religious or personal advancement (and, I should add, popular movements strong enough to demand this when governments do not live up to this expectation, as we are seeing these days in the Middle East). All these things take time: there is no “magic bullet” shortcut to end corruption, create civic infrastructure, and end illiteracy. 

In the MIddle East, we should probably add also that it will take time and popular will to reverse and eradicate the poison of antisemitism (clothed in “Antizionism”), the results of religious coercion and the youth bubble, and the long history of disenfranchisement (or lagging enfranchisement)–of Palestinian Arabs, of women, of minority religions or nationalities, and other diversity groups throughout the region. And, that versions of many of the problems I’ve outlined exist in Israeli society, albeit within a robust, effective democratic system.  

But let’s return to Israel.

On the Israeli elections, 2013.

Netanyahu’s “Likud” and Avigdor Lieberman’s “Yisrael Beitenu” are strongly allied. Reviewing all the polls, this list seems slated to gain the largest number of seats in the Knesset, although not enough to make it impossible to block them from forming a government. In Israeli politics, elections generally have to do with attitudes towards security and peace. Issues stressed tend to be how much can be offered for peace with Palestinian Arabs, and whether or not, or exactly how, a Palestinian state should come about.

In this election though, social and economic issues may play a larger role than usual. A generation ago, Israel was a much less stratified economy and the gap between poor and rich was not as large as today. Labor, especially under the leadership of Shelly Yachimovich, is identified with social issues. Leadership also may be an issue. Tzippi Livni created a “movement” (tnu’ah) around herself; whatever else can be said for it, her ability to attract major names to her list may well indicate dissatisfaction with many of the others vying for leadership roles in Israeli governance. Nevertheless, Benjamin Netanyahu will most likely form the government. It will probably be fairly “narrow,” but that could easily change with the specifics of the election.

While most of the analysis is going to be about Likud-Yisrael Beteinu, Labor, Kadima and Livni, in addition there are several other types of parties. An important segment of the political debate has to do with religious parties, representing very different sectors of the Jewish religious community. Some are “National Religious”–fully engaged in the Israeli civic stream–sending their children to government religious schools, serving in the army and involved in all sectors of society. Others reflect “Haredi” (often translated “Ultra-Orthodox”) streams, many of whom segregate themselves from Israeli society in various ways–an independent school system, no Army service, even maintaining separate transportation and busses in some cases. The question of Haredi national service is one of the issues that led to early elections. Arab representation is another such issue: Many Zionist parties have Arab and Druze participation, and there will probably be some 6-12 Arabs and Druzes elected on “Zionist” lists, as well as Members of Knesset elected from Arab or Arab-Jewish “non-Zionist” parties—although recent reports suggest that Israeli Arab participation in Israeli elections is declining. The next Government of Israel will most likely include a party or parties representing National Religious and/or Haredi. Some commentators have suggested that if the Arab parties participate in a succesful effort to block a Likud-led government, they will demand representation in the Government as a reward.  

Although many Israeli jurists feel the 2% threshold is not enough to prevent small, one-issue groups from winning Knesset representation, such groups have won in the past, and sometimes won big: the 17th Knesset had 7 members from a party formed to support Pensioners’ rights, more than enough to have surpassed most plans for a higher threshhold. One-issue parties are represented in the current election, for example, the list called “The Pirates” which calls for protection for pirated software. As in the United States, small contingents with strong commitments to single issues can have immense political clout. So far, attempts to raise the threshold do not have much support in the Knesset.

The likely electoral results suggest that the Prime Minister designate will appeal to sectors of the Religious parties that can be attracted to belong to his or her coalition, as his pretty much always been the case. Internet chatter talks about some of the Arab parties not only being part of the group able to “block” Netanyahu, but demanding a place in the coalition if successful. These and other parties with a small number of highly defined goals will shape the policies of the new coalition, and in some cases be credited or blamed as the reason why the Government is not proceeding on some of the goals of the larger parties.


What kinds of things should students of the Modern Middle East watch for in this process?

  1. Sliding to the right. One outcome of the Hamas conflict may well be a strengthening of the “security” side of the equation. Voting for the right-leaning parties may be seen both as a comment on the conduct and results of the operation against Hamas, and a statement that Israeli immediate security needs should outweigh long-term security that might come from such things as a truly independent Palestinian state. (Unfortunately, I have not had to change the wording of this observation from what I wrote in 2009! The only thing to add might be that solution to social and economic issues inside Israel would also add to long-term security and these too may well be outweighed by immediate security needs).
  2. Minority vote. Ultra-Orthodox and Arab votes are extremely important. There is a tremendous concern in Israel about the role of these two sub-communities, seen as not part of the Zionist mainstream. Part of the reason for early elections is the strains introduced in the Israeli body politic around exemptions for army service for full-time Torah Study or whether Arabs will or will not be required to have national service. The relation of Israeli Arabs to the State is also an issue, and the overall voting patterns in both these communities will be carefully noted. The current election cycle seems especially rich in women in political leadership, although—given this fact—my guess is that a government formed without significant numbers of women in ministerial positions will disappoint many.
  3. Speed of coalition. The speed with which a coalition will be assembled and approved will serve as a harbinger of the effectiveness of the coalition.
  4. Israel ought to place tremendous importance on a few highly strategic considerations. Here the list is somewhat different from what I wrote in 2009.
    1. Relations with the second term of the Obama administration
    2. Relations with neighbors: Relations with Turkey—once a strong ally—is not as important, to my mind, as relations with Egypt, although Egypt today is a moving target and it’s possible that the situation in Syria could revive Turkey’s importance. Netanyahu has focused on the danger posed by Iran, and the elections may or may not be seen as popular vindication of his approach. My view is that any Israeli government would have to insist that “all options will be used to maintain the security of all residents.” One must hope that articulations of policy, whether strongly worded or not, will be balanced by careful consideration of the many responses and the ramifications of acting or not acting.
    3. “Re-branding” Israel’s to the world, to neighboring governments, and to the “Arab or Muslim street.” I do not think there is much attention to “rebranding” for the Arab audience, although perhaps this is the most crucial target for rethinking attitudes about Israel. Operation Amud Anan “Pillar of Defense” and the UN vote on 29 November 2012 (65 years after the vote of 29 Nov. 1947 for partitioning Palestine into Jewish and Arab States) suggest that this is even more important than before. Israel’s security requires a strong military response—but ultimately politics, diplomacy, and changed mind-set must also be part of the equation.
    4. It seems to me that “two states living in peace” is a desirable result—but the discourse about creating a Palestinian state as a solution rather than a result of a solution seems to me to have run its course.

In 2009, the recent operation against Hamas – Oferet Yetzuka usually translated “Cast Lead,” shaped the entire electoral process and its results were judged in its light. It’s not yet clear to me whether Amud Anan will similarly reshape the current process. Hamas’ victory celebrations are not surprising, of course: celebrating even the most ineffective attack on Israel as a victory is typical Middle Eastern practice, and celebrations can go on even when militarily the result was defeat or destruction of Arab military resources. In 1973, for example, Israeli forces were surprised by Egypt and Syria, but came back quickly to encircle the Egyptian army, and threatened Damascus and Cairo. The 1973 conflict made it possible for Sadat to come to Jerusalem seeking peace. If only the military results and diplomatic change-around would be taken into account, this might be called “losing the conflict to defeat Israel and suing for peace”—but Arab countries see 1973 as a victory and Israel sees it as a disappointment.

I do not think Amud Anan will be considered enough of a disappointment to endanger Likud; in fact it may strengthen Netanyahu. But, I do not think Israelis will vote solely on the basis of relations with Hamas and Fatah, and social and economic issues will have at least some hearing. It seems to me that Israel’s security long term will be most secure when Palestinian Arabs view the extremists in their midst not as brave freedom fighters who stood up to Israel, but as misguided militants whose promises were empty and whose resistance led only to massive death and destruction. In this sense, as for example, strikingly in 1996 (Netanyahu’s first term as Prime Minister), Fatah and Hamas may still be the most important factors in Israeli elections.

Seth Ward

Lecturer in Islam and Judaism (Assoc. Acad. Prof.)

Religious Studies Program, University of Wyoming



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