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Why Israel
will Hold
a Second
National Election
in 2019

Short Guide
to the
Israeli Political System

State and Society

A fractious parliamentary system, strong egos and lingering resentments lead to an unprecedented political quagmire
Times of Israel, Ben Sales, May 30 2019

JTA — Israel held a national election seven weeks ago. It will hold another one in September.

If that sounds weird to you, you’re right: Israel has a famously raucous political system, but it’s never held national elections twice in one year. Until now.

Just to be clear, no one really wanted this to happen, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; his main rival, Benny Gantz; or the president, Reuven Rivlin. Nor do Israeli political journalists, who just finished covering a vicious campaign.

So why is it happening? It’s a result of Israel’s fractious parliamentary system, strong egos and lingering resentments.

Here is the Jewish state’s unprecedented political quagmire, explained in plain English.

Israelis voted on April 9. But the election isn’t really over yet.

Remember when Netanyahu won re-election last month? Turns out he didn’t really.

Netanyahu’s Likud party did win the most votes, but not an outright majority in the 120-seat parliament, the Knesset. In order to govern in Israel’s parliamentary system, Netanyahu needed to persuade other parties to form a coalition with him. He needed to reach 61 members, or a majority of the Knesset.

After Election Day, that seemed simple. Right-wing parties had won a clear 65-seat majority in Knesset, and they all agreed that Netanyahu should continue serving as prime minister.

But seven weeks later, Netanyahu has failed to form a coalition. Some would-be partners have refused to compromise. He needed to form a coalition by midnight Wednesday.

Why can’t Netanyahu’s partners get along?

The Israeli right is split among a few factions. Two of the biggest are secular right-wingers who support a hawkish military posture and religious right-wingers who want to preserve Orthodox Judaism’s power in government.

Usually those two groups make it work. Religious parties, especially haredi ultra-Orthodox ones, will go along with the government’s decisions on defense, security and West Bank settlement. In return, secular parties agree to maintain haredi control of Jewish marriage and conversion. Also — crucially — secular parties have allowed haredi youth to avoid military conscription, which is mandatory for other Israeli Jews.

This time, however, one of the secular parties is refusing to play that game.

Yisrael Beytenu, headed by former Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, wouldn’t join Netanyahu’s coalition unless the government passed a bill drafting some haredi men. Ultra-orthodox parties, in turn, wouldn’t sign on unless the bill was softened. Yisrael Beytenu wouldn’t agree to the softened version.

And here we are. It’s the first time in Israeli history that a party failed to form a coalition after winning an election.

So what happens now?

April’s election didn’t work, so they’re going to try again.

It’s unclear whether that will make any difference. Unsurprisingly, polls show a second 2019 election yielding basically the same result as the first one. But changes within the parties could lead to a different result. There’s talk of the Arab-Israeli parties uniting or different right-wing parties merging. Or Israel could be stuck with the same problem four months from now.

And yet, here we are.

oger Darlington's World  2 June 2019


For anyone interested in political systems, that of the state of Israel is particularly fascinating for a number of reasons.

  1. Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, arguably the most troubled region in the world where Israel is surrounded by states and forces that wish that it did not exist and have repeatedly tried to ensure that it does not.
  2. It is one of a tiny number of countries in the world - another is the United Kingdom - that does not have a written constitution, since religious political parties blocked adoption of a constitution at independence in 1948 and the project has never been completed. Instead there are 11 Basic Laws. In 2003, the parliament began to draft an official constitution based on these laws - but the project continues.
  3. It is one of around a half of countries in the world (many of them smaller nations) that has a unicameral legislature. This is called the Knesset.
  4. It is highly unusual in operating both a national list system of election to the legislature together with a low minimum threshold for membership of the legislature (currently 3.25%) which, in the current fractured state of Israeli politics, virtually guarantees fragmented representation in the legislature and a coalition in government.
  5. Probably more than any other stable democracy in the world, it has a fluctuating structure of political parties with mergers, splits, and creations almost a permanent part of the political scene.
  6. Whereas in most democracies, the main cleavage between the largest political parties is ideological - broadly Left versus Right - in Israel politics is more complicated than that with issues like security and religion having a major influence in the orientation of parties and the voting by electors.
  7. Although the ultra-Orthodox community only makes up about 10% of the Israeli public, it dominates state policy on issues of religion in the public sphere.
  8. More so that any other democratic state in the world, Israel owes its existence to the political, economic and military support of the United States - although this does not always guarantee American influence (for instance, President Barack Obama failed to halt the continued spread of illegal settlements on the West Bank as part of an effort to encourage peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians). President Donald Trump has been uniquely supportive of the Israeli Government under Benjamin Netanyahu, moving the US embassy to Jerusalem and recognising annexation of the Golan Height.


The head of the Israeli state is the President who is an apolitical ceremonial figurehead. The President is elected by the Knesset for a seven year term and is limited to a single term. The current holder of the position is Reuven Rivlin, a member of the Likud Party and a former Speaker of the Knesset, who is known to Israelis as 'Ruby'. After each general election, the President invites the leader of the winning political party to form a government and there is 42 days for this process to be completed, before another political leader is given the chance to form a government or - as happened for the first time in 2019 - another general lection is held.

The Prime Minister is normally the leader of the political party with the largest representation in the legislature, certainly of the political party with the largest representation in the governing coalition. Currently the position is held by Benjamin Netanyahu (known as 'Bibi') who, following the general election of April 2019, failed to create what would be his fifth government, necessitating a further general election.

The version of proportional representation that operates in Israel virtually guarantees that the government will be a coalition and a period of six weeeks is granted to the winner of an election to form a coalition which can command a majority of seats in tne legislature. Following the election of March 2015, it took until one hour short of the deadline to complete the negotiations to form such a coalition.

After the March 2015 election, a government was formed with a bare majority (61 seats) in the 120 seat Knesset - a coalition between five parties: the right-wing Likud Party (30 seats), the centrist, socio-economic-focused Kulanu (10 seats), the national-religious, right-wing, Jewish Home (8 seats), and the ultra-orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism (7 and 6 seats respectively. Then, in May 2015, a deal was done to add the five seats of the hard-line Yisrael Beiteinu to the government, bringing the total number of seats under the control of the government to a more comfortable 66.

Israel has an unusual system of deputy leaders of three kinds: Acting Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, and Vice Prime Minister.

The Acting Prime Minister takes the place of the Prime Minister if he or she is temporarily incapacitated while the incumbent is still in office for a period up to 100 consecutive days. The holder of this position can additionally be head of a Government Department.

Deputy Prime Minister and Vice Prime Minister are honorary rather than official executive positions.

The Prime Ministers appoints a Cabinet, the membership of which must be approved by the Knesset. Any new appointment to the Cabinet must similarly be approved by the Knesset. Most Ministers are members of the Knesset although only the Prime Minister and the Designated Acting Prime Minister are formally required to be members.

The size of the Cabinet varies, but it is typically around 20.

The Cabinet meets weekly on a Sunday in Jerusalem.


Israel has a single chamber legislature called the Knesset - meaning literally gathering or assembly - which consists of 120 members (MKs) elected for a maximum term of four years. In practice, Knesset terms rarely last the full four years and, since the 1988 election, no Knesset has finished its four-year term - the average term is a mere two years. The last election was due in November 2019, but brought forward to April 2019 following a dispute between members of the outgoing government over a bill on nation service for the ultra-Orthodox population as well as impending corruption charges against the sitting Prime Minister.

The simplest way of describing the electoral system of Israel is to call it national list system.

This means that the whole country is in effect regarded as one constituency and voters, instead of choosing one candidate for their local constituency as in many countries, choose one list of candidates from a number of lists, each compiled and presented by a political party on a national level. Although national list systems do not have to operate this way, in Israel closed lists are used which means that the party determines the order of the candidates on the list and most voters have no influence over or choice of that order.

A voter can influence the national list which he or she prefers by joining that political party and voting in party primaries. Not all parties have primaries - some are run as autocracies with the party leader alone deciding - but the larger secular parties (Likud, Labour, Meretz) all have primaries, so individual voters can in those circumstances influence a national list.

Originally the Israeli electoral system had no specified threshold that a political party had to reach before it could secure representation in the Knesset which in practice meant that, if a political party secured one 120th of the vote on a national basis (that is, a mere 0.83%), it would be represented in the legislature. This meant that a lot of very small parties could secure representation in the Knesset. Then a threshold of just 1% was introduced. This has been progressively increased to 1.5%, then to 2% in the last but two election, and now to 3.25% in the last but one election.

Initially, the threshold was raised to prevent Rabbi Meir Kahane, an extreme right-winger and racist, from being re-elected to the Knesset. In recent years, the threshold has been raised further as a ploy to keep the Arab parties out, all of which would have struggled with the 3.25% requirement. Its effect has been to lead to mergers of the Arab parties into a single large bloc and even to cause some of the right-wing grouplets to unite into a larger party (Yahad) which came in a just under the threshold in 2015.

Many other democratic countries operate list systems but on a sub-national level - for instance, the 16 Lander in Germany or the 16 'regional' constituencies in Italy. But Israel is unique in having a national list system. All countries with list systems operate a threshold but this is usually 3-5% (it is 5% in Germany). Israel's threshold of 3.25% is low by international standards.

This is the simple way of explaining Israel's electoral system. The formal way of describing it is to call it the highest averages method of party-list proportional representation using the d'Hondt formula.

The highest averages method requires the number of votes for each party to be divided successively by a series of divisors and seats are then allocated to parties that secure the highest resulting quotient or average, up to the total number of seats available. The d'Hondt formula is the most widely used for list systems and involves using the divisors 1, 2, 3, 4, etc. This system tends to give larger parties a slightly larger portion of seats than their portion of the electorate. Technically this would guarantee that a party with a majority of votes would receive at least half of the seats - except no party in Israeli elections ever secures a majority of votes.

Each Knesset session is known by its election number. So the Knesset elected by Israel's first election in 1949 is known as the First Knesset, while the current Knesset, elected in 2019 is the 21st Knesset.

The Knesset sits at Givat Ram in Jerusalem.


Israel may be a small country - it has a population of just over eight million (similar to that of London) - but, by comparison with most other democracies, political parties in Israel are both numerous and fluid. Parties are constantly changing name, splitting, combining and forming alliances.

In the 9 April 2019 election, 11 political parties secured representation in the Knesset. By far the two largest blocs are:

The other nine parties represrtned in the Knesset are much smaller:

A key constituency in Israeli politics - unique to the country - is the ulta-Orthodox (also called the Haradim), an umbrella term for different sects and communities who represent about 10% of the nation's population. A vital issue for this key constituency is the arrangement which has existed since the creation of the state of Israel which exempts them from military service which is mandatory for all Jewish Israeli school leavers. The various ultra-Orthodox sects see it as a religious commandment only to study Jewish texts and separate themselves from modern society.

Often it is not possible for a government to be formed without the support of this constituency but increasingly there is resentment about this non-service in the military from other parts of Israeli society.

Recent elections have seen a dramatic rebalancing of politics in Israel. The two main parties of the left (Labour and Meretz) have fallen to a mere 10 seats in the Knesset. This seems to reflect an overall, long-term shift to the Right, powered by a mix of demographic and political factors. The demographic trends are the larger families of ultra-Orthodox communities and the influx of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. The political factors are the failure of the peace process and a growing siege mentality.

Following the failure to form a majority government after the election of 9 April 2019, a new election is to be held on 27 September 2019 - the first time that two elections have been held in the same year.


The highest court in Israel is the Supreme Court. The number of Supreme Court justices is determined by a resolution of the Knesset and is usually 12, but currently there are 15 Supreme Court Justices. Justices serve until the age of 70. Several leading figures in Likud and Jewish Home have called for legislation to limit the power of the Supreme Court to block legislation.

Supreme Court Justices, as well as all other judges, are appointed by the President on the nomination of the Judicial Appointments Panel. This Committee is composed of nine members: three Justices of the Supreme Court (including the President of the Court), two Ministers (one of them being the Minister of Justice), two Members of the Knesset, and two representatives of the Israel Bar Association. The Minister of Justice is the chairperson of the Committee.

In February 2017, Right-wing lawmakers secured three conservative and non-activist judges out of four new appointments to the Supreme Court, putting a large dent in what had been seen as a liberal-dominated bench. Three of the four were on the Justice Minister’s list of preferred candidates, while the three judges on the nine-member Judicial Appointments panel, who voted as a bloc, failed to advance any of their nominees.

The Supreme Court sits in Jerusalem.


Israeli democracy is a source - simultaneously and in almost equal measure - of both pride and frustration.

Israelis are rightly proud that their country is the only genuine and functioning democracy in the Middle East, a region dominated by repressive and dictatorial regimes. It is a democracy that has survived repeated wars and that, with a conscript army and formidable military apparatus, remains on a war-like footing. It is a democracy in which the rule of law is so strong that even a president (Moshe Katsav) or a prime minister (Ehud Olmert) can be indicted (for rape and bribery respectively).

On the other hand, Israeli's strange electoral system and fractious political parties virtually guarantee that the government will be a coalition of very different political parties with a strong likelihood that at least one will be a nationalist or ultra-religious one with disproportionate influence in the government. This makes ruling and legislating - even more negotiating with the Palestinians - very difficult, so that on average Israeli governments last only half their permitted term (two years instead of four).

In many ways, Israel is a somewhat idiosyncratic democracy. The state was born in war, it has repeatedly engaged in further wars, it has regularly been the subject of suicide bombers and rocket attacks, and it is in a permanent state of war-readiness. It has a large, conscript army (the Israeli Defence Force) and formidable security service (Mossad). Every family has some connection with the army and many of the leading political figures have had senior experience in the military or intelligence. To an extent unequalled in any other functioning democracy, it is security - and not ideology or economics - that is at the heart of political discourse and policymaking.

As in so many states, therefore, democracy here is essentially a work in progress. Some would argue that the nation is politically at a turning point. Avraham Burg, once speaker of the Knesset and deputy president, said in January 2015: "From 1948 to 1976, Israel was relatively secular, socialist, and statehood was its organizing principle. In 1977, with the rise to power of Menachem Begin, this came to an end. Since then, Israel has been in its religious-nationalistic-capitalist chapter, and territory is its organizing principle. Now the country has to choose where the third chapter will take it - to religious and nationalistic aggressiveness or normalcy. The dissatisfaction with Benjamin Netanyahu is a symbol of a far deeper dissatisfaction - not only with the man, but with the stagnation, with the economic and social degeneration."

LINK: Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs guide to the country's poltical system click here

If you would like to comment on this essay e-mail me

For guides to the political systems of other nations click here


The Hebrew University of Jerusalem


Israel is a country that draws a lot of public attention around the globe. Nevertheless, both those who support Israel and those who are critical of its geopolitical standing and policies, usually have a very limited knowledge about the Israeli society and its political system. This course presents Israel from multiple perspectives - political, social, economic and cultural - in an attempt to expose the learners to a cutting edge academic research on the country. Each of the 13 sessions is focused on one aspect of the Israeli society. Every session starts with a general introduction of the issue at hand, hosting one expert or more, who share their most recent studies and insights on that specific field. Every 15 minutes, or so, the students are asked to answer an informative quiz of comprised of a single question. Upon the completion of each class, an online chat will be opened. Students studying for credit are expected to participate in it, ask relevant questions and answer questions about the required readings for this class. Students will graduate from this course with a better understanding of the Israeli society, better knowledge of the Israeli history, politics and economy, and better acquaintance with the varying groups of which the Israeli society is comprised.





Rajya Sabha TV 2019 (24.00)

After a supercharged and intense election campaign, Israelis went to polls on Tuesday to choose their next government.

Most of the world is focused on Whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has led the country for the past decade, will be able to hold onto power or whether Israelis have enough faith in his rival, former Chief of Staff Benny Gantz  to make a big change.

Officially, Israeli elections take place every four years. However, this time Netanyahu chose to dissolve the Knesset nearly a year early, on December 24, and called a snap election for April 9.

This year’s elections also are important as the outcome could have a major impact on Israel’s future, its role in the region, and its relationship with the United States and American Jews.

DC & JERUSALEM 2015 (6.37)

DC & JERUSALEM 2015 (14.19)

DW News 2019 (6.07)

Editor’s Note
:  The Israeli parliamentary system was introduced on its creation in 1948 by Ashkenazim (Jews from Eastern Europe) who adopted their ideas to ensure there could be  no dictatorship. This resulted in proportional representation and coalition government.

Israel is one constituency.  It has 120 seats in a building called the Knesset (meeting). This means that a government needs 61 seats for a majority. The seats a party has is dependent on the percentage of votes they win in an election.  Each party has a ‘list’.  If they have 10 seats then the first 10 names on their list will be appointed.  

Parties grow, shrink, appear and vanish.  In the 2019 election an ‘old’ party called Likud had 35 seats - the highest number it had ever achieved. A new grouping called ‘Blue and White’ appeared for the first time also gained 35 seats.  Likud was asked by the President to form a government.  It could not reach its target of 65 seats.  The President would have asked Blue and White to try.  Before this could happen Likud managed to dissolve Parliament and a new election is being called in September.  The parties that will appear then are unknown.