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EDITORS NOTE: . When Israel came into existence in 1948 it had to create an administrative and judicial system for a population that would be quickly swollen by people arriving with virtually nothing. Those responsible for its design came from an Ashkenazi (East European) background, strong democratic ideals and a desire to
create an electoral system that could not lead to dictatorship or another Hitler gaining power.  They applied proportional representation viewing  the country as a single constituency. Elected members are chosen from a closed-list put forward by each party   The more votes given to a party the more seats they receive. This is called  ‘The  D’Hondt Method’.  
Thus votes are for a party and not a candidate.   The Knesset (parliament)  has 120 seats.

The effect is a multi-party  result. For example in 2015 Likud became the largest party with 30 seats.  To form a government it required an additional 31 seats to give
a majority of 61 seats.  It did this by a coalition giving 64  seats comprising     

Likud,  The Jewish Home, Torah Judaism,  Yisrael Beitei, Kulanu, Shas,
United Torah Judaism

with cabinet posts being divided between them (see Wikipedia).  
This explains why coalitions of about six parties are normal.)    

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 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



IN 2019

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.


The year’s calendar is already partially filled in as party lists close, Israelis vote, Netanyahu seeks immunity, Israelis maybe vote again…
Times of Israel 5 January 2020, Raoul Wootliff, and Jacob Magid

(Editors Note:  The Second Election had the same result as the First Election.  This article gives an indication of the political manoeuvring that is taking place
before the third election)

Last month, as the Knesset Arrangements Committee voted on a bill that set March 2 as the date for Israel’s third election within a year, Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi suggested that lawmakers write into the legislation the date for a fourth election, which could already be calculated to fall on August 11.

He may have been being facetious (and it appears he was wrong in his calculation), but by finalizing the third election date, MKs automatically set in place much of the year’s political calendar.

This includes both the run-up to the election and its aftermath, and indeed the approximate date for a fourth national vote if no government is formed after the third.


Lacking the necessary Knesset support, the transitional government has been unable to pass the 2020 budget — meaning that from the first day of 2020, government ministries have simply been allocated 1/12 of their annual 2019 budget per month, with no adjustment for any new developments.

With the annual budget — which in 2019 stood at NIS 480 billion ($139 billion) — normally growing by NIS 40 to 90 billion to take into account population growth and additional costs incurred, the frozen monthly allocation means that not only must long-term projects be put on hold, but so must payments and investments in basic services, non-governmental bodies and companies that receive government funding.

The lack of an annual budget also means that the government cannot address the national budget deficit, which surged to NIS 14 billion ($3.9 billion) in 2019, already causing a 1.75 percent slashing of ministerial budgets for the final months of last year.


Netanyahu had until midnight on the first day of the year to ask the Knesset to grant him immunity from prosecution in the three corruption cases against him, or he would have automatically forfeited the right to do so.

Announcing the decision in a nationally televised appearance four hours before the midnight deadline, Netanyahu made the move as protection from “trumped-up charges.” The premier has been charged with fraud and breach of trust in three criminal cases and bribery in one of them.

Though Netanyahu is far from guaranteed to receive the backing of a Knesset majority to support such a bid, merely asking for it will likely delay any potential trial by months. His request must by weighed by the Knesset House Committee before it can be voted upon by the plenum, but due to the lack of a functioning legislature amid an ongoing political deadlock, and with new elections set, the Knesset will likely only be able to review and decide on his request after a coalition is formed — if it is formed — following the March 2 vote.


While Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit ruled that Netanyahu does not have to resign as prime minister due to the charges being brought against him, the attorney general said the premier did have to relinquish his other posts — Israeli cabinet ministers facing criminal indictment are required to resign from their cabinet posts, though no such explicit order is outlined in Israeli law for prime ministers.

Netanyahu having announced on January 1 that he would step down from three additional ministerial portfolios that he holds, the official resignation will go into effect on January 5 when he is expected to name new ministers of welfare, agriculture and Diaspora affairs. Due to a now-defunct but not-yet-replaced coalition agreement from the 20th Knesset, one portfolio will go to a Shas lawmaker while the other two will go to Likud MKs.

Last Sunday, the cabinet approved the promotion of United Torah Judaism leader Yaakov Litzman, who has served for years as deputy health minister, to full health minister in Netanyahu’s stead.


Parties have roughly two more weeks before the deadline to file their slates for the March election. While no noteworthy new parties appear to have thrown their hats into the race, factions on both the right and the left are still expected to reshuffle or merge in an effort to end the political deadlock that has plagued the country for over a year.

On the right, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked are set on staging another independent run with their New Right party, which failed to cross the electoral threshold in April. However, Bennett got his wish last year in being appointed Defense Minister and is confident that the senior post is enough to ensure his party will make it into the Knesset this time around, without making the concessions necessitated by merging with other satellite parties to the right of Likud.

This decision has left the remaining national religious parties — Jewish Home, Otzma Yehudit and National Union — on their own to decide how they might best move forward. The former two wasted no time, with respective chairmen Rafi Peretz and Itamar Ben Gvir linking a deal to run as the United Jewish Home.

The crafty political move by the two less popular party leaders has placed National Union chairman Bezalel Smotrich in the hot seat, as an independent run would almost certainly put his hardline party at risk of not crossing the electoral threshold. The Transportation Minister could accept Otzma-Jewish Home’s offer to join their slate and receive two spots on it for National Union candidates, but the Jewish Home-National Union-Otzma Yehudit formula was tested last April and only garnered five seats. Smotrich has hinted at taking his talents to the New Right, but it’s unlikely his brand will jive with the more religiously moderate electorate that Bennett and Shaked are seeking to attract.

The situation is no less chaotic on the left as the Democratic Camp and Labor-Gesher parties have bickered over whether they need to make any changes to their slates ,which received just five and six seats, respectively, last March.

While many pundits have called for the two parties to merge, Democratic Camp may not make it to the negotiation table as a single unit either. The alliance of former prime minister Ehud Barak’s Israel Democratic Party, Stav Shaffir’s Green Party and Nitzan Horowitz’s Meretz party is on the verge of a split, with Barak now back in retirement and Shaffir threatening an independent run over what she claims is an unwillingness of the Meretz old guard to allow for the enactment of significant changes necessary to return the left-wing party to political relevance.


While the vast majority of Israel’s 6.3 million eligible voters will have to wait until March 2 before they can cast their ballot, some 5,000 Israelis stationed in 96 embassies and consulates around the world will have the opportunity to cast their votes three weeks early.

According to Israeli law, private citizens living abroad cannot vote unless they come to Israel. But an exception is made for diplomats also applies to emissaries sent abroad by the Jewish Agency, KKL-JNF, Keren Hayesod and the World Zionist Organization. In addition, their spouses and children (aged 18-20) can also cast a ballot abroad.

All the voting envelopes are then sent to Jerusalem, where they are held in a safe until Election Day. After the polls close in Israel and the counting starts, the diplomats’ box will be counted as well.


As was likely the case in the year’s previous two elections, the March 2 vote will undoubtedly be characterized as a referendum on Netanyahu, whose legal position is as perilous as ever after Mandelblit’s November announcement of three indictments against the premier.

The polarized political reality appears poised for a further exacerbation with Netanyahu in recent months more openly targeting the legal officials responsible for determining his fate and his political opponents more aggressively targeting the Likud leader in turn.

Issues of religion and state that came to the forefront last April and September are unlikely to go away either and parties seem ready to once again ask secular and religious Israelis to pick sides.

Netanyahu spent much of the coalition-building process lambasting Blue and White for cooperating with the majority-Arab Joint List, which the Prime Minister insists is beyond the pale. This led to an uptick in anti-Arab rhetoric that is expected to once again come to a head on the campaign trail. In the last election, this was the case thanks to Netanyahu’s (ultimately unsuccessful) legislative push to allow party operatives to film in Arab community polling stations. With polls indicating that the Joint List will maintain its electoral success, if not build on it, expect it and the public it represents to once again find themselves in the cross-hairs of the majority of other Knesset factions who have deemed them personae non gratae.


Rivlin can begin consultations with party leaders and eventually task the candidate most likely to form a coalition to do so almost immediately after the election. March 4 is the first possible date to begin these sessions, according to The Times of Israel’s calculations, but they typically last several days.

Once a candidate is chosen by the President, that individual has 28 days to present a coalition to the new Knesset and win a vote of confidence. The President is allowed to extend that period by up to 14 days. If the candidate fails, the second-most likely candidate is given a 28-day shot of his or her own.


The pomp and circumstance will return to the Knesset as Rivlin opens parliament, accompanied by an honor guard on horseback and the IDF military band.

In the last ceremony, Rivlin used the opportunity to call on lawmakers to put aside their differences that were exacerbated during the election campaign so that a stable government could be formed. If urgency could be sensed in the President’s voice last October, it will surely be discernible this time around as sending Israelis back to the polls for a fourth time in less than two years would be even more untenable than having them vote three times within a year.

At the last swearing-in, a record low eight MKs were installed for the first time. That record is expected to be broken once again in March, with few rookie candidates campaigning this time around.

June 8: The Knesset’s last chance to come together

If both prime ministerial candidates fail to form a coalition after using their full allotment of time, a final 21-day period is given whereby any Knesset member is eligible to collect the signatures of at least 61 of the 120 MKs recommending that he or she form a government.

f no lawmaker succeeds in doing so by June 8 or thereabouts, new elections will be called on the first Tuesday 90 days later.

If an MK does manage to garner the support of an absolute majority of Knesset members, he or she is given 14 days to try and form a coalition with the ostensible support of the same group that granted them the mandate to make the attempt. But if not enough of those MKs are willing to stick with their recommended candidate, and the nominee fails to build a government, then new elections will be called again.


The idea sounds crazy but so did the second and third elections. What’s more, recent polls indicate that the March vote will leave lawmakers in the same gridlock in which they currently find themselves, with neither Blue and White nor Likud along with their respective partner parties predicted to receive the majority support that they need to form a coalition.

Will Netanyahu be willing to part ways with his right-wing, religious bloc to form a unity government with Blue and White? Will Benny Gantz’s party be willing to swallow sitting in a government with a Likud leader under indictment or opt instead to lead a minority coalition reliant on outside support from the Joint List? These same questions that lawmakers grappled with this year will likely remain relevant if another election is called.

Roger 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



These were the first elections held in Israel, and as such they demanded special preparations. On 5 November 1948 the Provisional State Council decided that the Constituent Assembly would consist of 120 members. On 8 November 1948 a population census was held which was later used in part for the preparations of the voters guide (the census was essential due to the rise of new immigrants and many Arab inhabitants of the British Mandate became refugees after the war). For the purpose of the census the entire country was under curfew for seven hours, from five in the afternoon and until midnight. Another issue was the form the Electoral System should take. Suggestions were made of different Electoral Systems.  Eventually it was decided to maintain the relative electoral system which existed in the elections for the Assembly of Representatives of the Jewish community in British controlled Palestine.  The Constituent Assembly elected would determine the future electoral system in Israel.

A thousand polling stations were prepared across the country. According to census, the number of eligible voters consisted of half a million people.


Elections for the Constituent Assembly were held in newly independent Israel on 25 January 1949. Voter turnout was 86.9%. Two days after its first meeting on 14 February 1949, legislators voted to change the name of the body to the Knesset (Hebrew: כנסת, translated as Assembly). It is known today as the First Knesset


The second government of Israel was formed during the first Knesset. David Ben-Gurion made an attempt to form a minority government consisting of Mapai and Sephardim and Oriental Communities on 17 October, but it was not approved by the Knesset. Two days later President Chaim Weizmann asked Progressive Party leader Pinchas Rosen to form a government, but it was Ben-Gurion who finally managed to do so on 1 November 1950. The coalition partners were the same as in the first government: Mapai, the United Religious Front, the Progressive Party, the Sephardim and Oriental Communities and the Democratic List of Nazareth.

How does the election system work, who is allowed to vote,
and how is the next Prime Minister chosen:
Everything you wanted to know about the Israeli electoral system but were afraid to ask.

Between the spins, the political mergers, and the many candidates vying for a spot in the next Knesset – Israel’s legislature – it’s easy to get lost in the details.

YnetNews 05.02.15

The Israeli electoral system is far from simple or intuitive; its structure will dictate how the elections will play out and shape the identity of the next government.

To guide you through the political forest that is the 2015 March election, Ynet has put together a simple – but thorough – explainer.

Electoral system

Unlike the US, Israelis vote for parties but do not directly determine which politician will head the next government. Instead, voters cast a ballot for one party, and the faction with the most votes gets a chance to form the next ruling coalitions.

Essentially, the elections for the government are actually a vote for who will sit in the 20th Knesset – a 120-person body of MKs.  

The Israeli system differs in one other central way – the entire country functions as a single district. Unlike the British parliament, on which Israel's founding fathers modeled the nascant state's legislature, all 120 seats in the Knesset are elected through a national process – much like a US senator must campaign across his state.

Party lists

Each party puts forward a list of candidates, and the number of seats that each party receives in the Knesset is proportional to the number of votes received: A party that won 15 percent of the general vote will hold 15 percent of the seats in the Knesset seats.

The candidates of any given list are elected to the Knesset based on the order in which they appear – the higher up the list, the greater the candidate's chance of recieving a Knesset seat.

The result is a multi-party system considered to be highly representative – as each citizen has a wide array of parties to choose from, some with only nuanced ideological differences between them. However, this tends to result in highly unstable governments comprising a large number of relatively small parties.

Surplus votes

The excess votes for each party – ballots which do not translate into a whole Knesset seat – are "donated" by smaller parties to their larger allies as part of what is called a "surplus-vote agreement."

For example, in the last elections, all excess votes for Bayit Yehudi were given to the Likud and a similar deal between the two will exist during the upcoming election as well. This method is known around the world as the Hagenbach-Bischoff  method (in Israel the Bader-Ofer method) and is an attempt to strengthen political blocs at the expense of smaller parties.

Thus, when a voter casts his ballot, it is important for him to be aware of the surplus deal the party has signed – as their vote might end up contributing to a different party's success.

At times, surplus deals can lead to conflicting political arrangements.

For example, during the last election, the left-wing Labor signed such a deal with the centrist Yesh Atid in the hopes of strengthening what they thought would be a center-left coalition. However, Yesh Atid's surplus votes ended up helping Netanyahu form his coalition without Labor after the prime minister reached a deal with Yesh Atid chairman Lapid – thus leaving Labor in the opposition.

Election threshold

The minimum number of Knesset seats a party can hold is 4 seats – or 3.25 percent of the general vote. The threshold was put in place to prevent one or two-person parties and to encourage people to vote for larger parties or blocs. In previous elections, the threshold was 2 Knesset seats.

A direct result of this new threshold is the Joint Arab list – a unified bloc of the three Israeli Arab political parties – each of which had averaged 3-4 Knesset seats in past elections and were thus on the cut-off point. To prevent a massive loss in Arab political representation, the three parties banded together.

Although the move forced all three to swallow their political differences, it is expected to enhance their relative power.

Ironically, the new threshold might backfire on its sponsor: Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, whose Yisrael Beytenu spearheaded the Governance Law that saw the threshold rise to four seats is now polling at five seats, a massive decline since their heyday as a party of influence.

The left-wing Meretz – a fixture in Israeli politics – is also hovering around the five-seat mark after the results of the Labor primaries stole their thunder.

Yachad-HaAm Itanu – a Shas offshoot party led by its former chairman Eli Yishai – is currently polling at only four seats, a close call considering the poll’s margin of error.

Who forms next government?

After the votes are tallied and the Knesset seats are distributed – the political game of coalition-forming begins.

Putting together a ruling coalition in Israel is a delicate game of numbers and political wheeling-and-dealing between parties, who must cobble together a majority of 61 Knesset to form the government.

.The heads of the different parties are invited to meet the president and each recommends one person to form the next government. The person with the most recommendations – or the best odds of gaining a majority in the Knesset – is given a mandate by the president to negotiate with the different parties to form a coalition. If they succeed, they become the next prime minister.

The politician hoping to sit at the helm of the new government has 40 days to negotiate with the different parties to join his or her coalition – in return for their support, parties are offered ministerial positions, policy decisions and even a veto right. However,  one party’s demands can often cross another potential partner’s red line.

For example, when the last government was negotiated, religious Zionist leader Naftali Bennett secured the right to vote outside coalition lines in all issues relating to religion and state, thus clearing the way for the Yesh Atid – a secular party – to join the coalition and promote its own agenda.

Should the allotted 40 days pass without a majority reached, the president repeats the process – sometimes extending the mandate to the same person or giving it to someone else. If 100 days pass without a coalition being formed, new elections are called and the entire process begins anew.

For example, in the 2009 election, Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua gained the most votes and was thus selected to lead the coalition building process. However, after two attempts, Livni failed to reach the needed majority after negotiations with Shas went sour.

The responsibility to form the government then fell on Netanyahu, though the Likud had won 27 Knesset seats as opposed to Livni’s 28.

Who can run and who can vote

Parties, lists, and political blocs can run together.

For example, the "Zionist Camp" is running on a joint ticket though it is comprised of left-wing Labor and centrist Hatnua. The parties can chose to remain together after the election – as was the case when Likud merged with Yisrael Beytenu during the current government – or disband into different factions – as the United Arab list is expected to do after the vote.

Any citizen over the age of 18 can vote and participate in the elections, including those with criminal records. However, the voting itself takes place only in Israel, preventing expats and world Jewry from participating.

Diplomats, soldiers and sailors are the exception to this rule and are allowed to vote with absentee ballots.

Although rare, some parties are barred from running. The party lists are confirmed by the Israeli Central Elections Committee, comprised of MKs and a Supreme Court judge. The committee has banned four parties from running in Israel’s history; though all but one ban has been rescinded.

According to the state, a list which acts directly or indirectly against the existence of the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people or against its democratic nature; a list which incites racism; a list which supports the armed struggle of an enemy state or a terrorist organization against the State of Israel cannot participate in the elections.

The Economist explains
The Economist, London, Mar 15th 2015

GOLDA MEIR, the former Israeli prime minister, once told the American president, Richard Nixon: “You are the president of 150 million Americans; I am the prime minister of six million prime ministers.” Israel’s politics have long been a kaleidoscope of parties split along ideological, ethnic and religious lines

Yet the latest opinion polls suggest that a parliamentary election on March 17th may leave the Knesset as fractured as ever. Eleven parties are likely to gain seats. Even a grand coalition of the rivals Likud and Zionist Union, the two largest factions, would be unable to secure a majority. How did Israeli politics become so tangled?

Parties have splintered, merged and changed names since the birth of the Jewish state. The fragmentation has become more acute in recent decades. Take Labour. A socialist-inspired party formed of various mergers of Labour Zionist movements, it was the main force behind the creation of the state under David Ben-Gurion and dominated the early decades of its politics. But it is in the throes of a long decline. Its great rival, Likud, traces its origins to the territorial maximalists led by Zeev Jabotinsky, known as revisionists. They dominated the Herut and later the Gahal parties even as they gained allies. Under Menachem Begin Likud ended the Labour hegemony in 1977 but it, too, is now a much-reduced force.

Israeli political parties often revolve around charismatic figures. Ben-Gurion was a serial splitter. He fell out with Mapai in 1965 and led a breakaway party called Rafi. When it reconciled with the renamed Labour party in 1968, he led another splinter faction called the National List which, after his retirement in 1970, soon joined and then merged with Likud. Apart from Labour and Likud, there are seven other broad groupings. To the left of Labour lie the Zionist leftists (more willing to compromise on land), the communists (who emphasise equality among Arabs and Jews) and a spectrum of smaller Arab parties (nationalists and Islamists). To the right of Likud sits a varied and constantly changing mix of groups, often demanding harsher treatement of Arabs, be they Israeli citizens or Palestinians in the occupied territories.

Israeli politics has long nurtured centrist movements (currently, Yesh Atid and Kulanu), which tend to capitalise on resentment of the big parties and focus on social change: cleaner government, for instance, or a reduction in the influence of religious parties. Indeed, the religious parties are the traditional kingmakers. Their main concern has been to maintain the dominance of orthodox Judaism in personal law (in marriage and divorce, for example), and to secure state funds for religious schools and institutions. But the religious parties are themselves split between the ultra-orthodox sects that in the past resisted Zionism and more modern nationalists (like the National Religious Party) who regard the state as a reflection of God’s will. Shas is a religious party appealing to Mizrahi Jews, who came mostly from Muslim countries. One obvious explanation for the awful fragmentation of Israeli politics is the ideological, religious and ethnic diversity of a country made up of Jews from many corners of the world.

This is aggravated by the electoral system. From the outset Israel adopted a pure form of proportional representation. Over time the threshold for entry to the Knesset has been raised; parties must now win at least four seats. Israel experimented with the direct election of the prime minister in 1996 but soon abandoned the reform. By allowing citizens to split the ticket—ie, to cast votes for two separate parties—the measure made the factiousness of the political system even worse. Neither has ideological turmoil over the territories occupied in 1967 made matters easier. The National Religious Party was once a reliable Labour partner. After 1967 it embraced the religious settlement movement that encouraged Jews to live in the occupied territories, especially the West Bank, as a divinely-ordained duty. In 1976 it broke ranks with Labour, and joined the first Likud-led government in 1977.

Yet the greatest cause of cleavage and counter-cleavage is disillusionment with the failed peacemaking process with Palestinians and the violence that has accompanied it. Israel has moved to the right as it has lost faith in Labour's message: that a negotiated land-for-peace agreement with Palestinians can bring a lasting end to conflict.

That said, some rightists have moved leftward, embracing the idea that Israel cannot forever hold on to a growing and restive Palestinian population. The Likud prime minister, Ariel Sharon, withdrew unilaterally from Gaza in 2005. He left his Likud party and led a centrist breakaway faction called Kadima. After suffering a stroke, he was succeeded by Ehud Olmert, who won the 2006 election, reducing Likud to a rump party with just 12 seats. But Kadima itself lost its way and disbanded. Its former leader, Tzipi Livni, scion of a revisionist family, formed her own centrist party: HaTnua, which has now merged with Labour to form Zionist Union. Increasingly, then, Israeli politics has become a game of minnows. The next coalition will be a challenge to form and probably too unstable to linger long. Soon, no doubt, there will be another election, and another shake of the kaleidoscope.

Now that the role of the people is over, the election will be decided by one man:
President Reuven Rivlin.
Jerusalem Post Analysis Gill Hoffman March 17, 2015

erusalem - With all due respect to the millions of people who gave up time on their vacation day to cast ballots, it was clear from the start that the election would be decided by one man: President Reuven Rivlin.

When the polling stations closed at 10 p.m. Tuesday, so did the irrelevant part of the election when the people had their say. Now the important part of the election begins.

Polls in The Jerusalem Post and elsewhere have found that the people of Israel do not want a national unity government. In past elections they did, but this was the “it’s us or them” election, in which everyone pushed for their own team.

Perhaps now that the election is over, the people will change their minds and favor unity again. But it does not matter, because the role of the people in the election is over.

It’s now Rivlin’s turn to take over, and Rivlin wants a unity government. It’s his job to bring about the strongest and most stable government, and he thinks that is a coalition of Likud and the Zionist Union together.

The leaders of Likud and the Zionist Union, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition leader Isaac Herzog, will push Rivlin to give them a chance without the other. But Rivlin will push back for unity.

His associates say he won’t force a unity government, but he will encourage one. Anyone with a Jewish mother knows that sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between the two.

So a unity government is the most likely coalition. It would include the Likud’s 27-28 seats, Zionist Union’s 27, Kulanu’s 9-10, Shas’s 7, and United Torah Judaism’s 6-7 for a total of 76-78 mandates.

If Netanyahu gets his way and receives the right to form a right-wing government, it would include the Likud’s seats 27-28, Bayit Yehudi’s 8-9, Kulanu’s 9-10, Shas’s 7, United Torah Judaism’s 6-7, and Yisrael Beytenu’s 5 for a total of 62-66 mandates.

If Herzog gets the right to form a government, it’s more complicated. The haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties say they won’t sit in a coalition with Yesh Atid, the Joint (Arab) List says it won’t join any coalition, and Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman says he won’t join a coalition with Meretz even if he is offered the title of president of the United States.

The best Herzog could do is take his 27, Kulanu’s 10, Shas’s 7, UTJ’s 6, and Meretz’s 5. That’s only 55 mandates.

That brings us back to a unity government.

President Rivlin, the choice is yours. This election will be decided by one vote. Published on: March 17, 2015 05:51 PMBy: / Gill Hoffman

Jerusalem - With all due respect to the millions of people who gave up time on their vacation day to cast ballots, it was clear from the start that the election would be decided by one man: President Reuven Rivlin.

When the polling stations closed at 10 p.m. Tuesday, so did the irrelevant part of the election when the people had their say. Now the important part of the election begins.

Polls in The Jerusalem Post and elsewhere have found that the people of Israel do not want a national unity government. In past elections they did, but this was the “it’s us or them” election, in which everyone pushed for their own team.

Perhaps now that the election is over, the people will change their minds and favor unity again. But it does not matter, because the role of the people in the election is over.

It’s now Rivlin’s turn to take over, and Rivlin wants a unity government. It’s his job to bring about the strongest and most stable government, and he thinks that is a coalition of Likud and the Zionist Union together.

The leaders of Likud and the Zionist Union, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition leader Isaac Herzog, will push Rivlin to give them a chance without the other. But Rivlin will push back for unity.

His associates say he won’t force a unity government, but he will encourage one. Anyone with a Jewish mother knows that sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between the two.

So a unity government is the most likely coalition. It would include the Likud’s 27-28 seats, Zionist Union’s 27, Kulanu’s 9-10, Shas’s 7, and United Torah Judaism’s 6-7 for a total of 76-78 mandates.

If Netanyahu gets his way and receives the right to form a right-wing government, it would include the Likud’s seats 27-28, Bayit Yehudi’s 8-9, Kulanu’s 9-10, Shas’s 7, United Torah Judaism’s 6-7, and Yisrael Beytenu’s 5 for a total of 62-66 mandates.

If Herzog gets the right to form a government, it’s more complicated. The haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties say they won’t sit in a coalition with Yesh Atid, the Joint (Arab) List says it won’t join any coalition, and Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman says he won’t join a coalition with Meretz even if he is offered the title of president of the United States.

The best Herzog could do is take his 27, Kulanu’s 10, Shas’s 7, UTJ’s 6, and Meretz’s 5. That’s only 55 mandates.

That brings us back to a unity government.

President Rivlin, the choice is yours. This election will be decided by one vote.


Fathom, Professor David Newman, August 2019

As Israel goes to the polls for the second time in six months, it is time to revisit some old debates about electoral reform, argues David Newman of Ben Gurion University. Future Israeli leaders, he points out, need to be able to put together a government within a few days of the elections, with more than a slender majority of just one or two seats, and to govern for a minimal period of 4-5 years before once again turning to the people. Newman critically reviews the major reform proposals of recent Israeli history – electoral constituencies, direct elections for Prime Minister, and the raising of the electoral threshold – and assesses their relevance for today’s political conjuncture.

As Israel goes to the polls for the second time in six months, it is time to revisit some old debates about electoral reform, argues David Newman of Ben Gurion University. Future Israeli leaders, he points out, need to be able to put together a government within a few days of the elections, with more than a slender majority of just one or two seats, and to govern for a minimal period of 4-5 years before once again turning to the people. Newman critically reviews the major reform proposals of recent Israeli history – electoral constituencies, direct elections for Prime Minister, and the raising of the electoral threshold – and assesses their relevance for today’s political conjuncture.

There is one finding common to all of the polls – and there are many – which have attempted to predict the outcome of Israel’s second elections in five months: there will not be sufficient seats for either of the two major party leaders – Benjamin Netanyahu or Benny Gantz – to form a governing coalition of 61 seats, whoever ends up as leader of the largest party. Despite the various mergers between some of the smaller parties, the right wing splinter factions or the Arab lists, the overall division between the blocs remains largely unchanged although, if the polls are to be believed (which is not necessarily the case) then the party of Avigdor Lieberman could well hold the balance of power, enabling him to be either the kingmaker or the King executioner.

If, as may well happen, it will take Netanyahu a further one to two months to somehow put together the shakiest of coalition governments, it will have been almost a year since the initial dispersal of the Knesset and the calling of the April elections until a new government is sworn in. This is unacceptable for a democracy, for which stability of government and the ability to govern in a smooth fashion is as important as is the principles of proportionality and of achieving as broad a representation of the different interests and sectors in society as is possible.

As someone who occasionally teaches comparative electoral studies, I am fortunate in being able to discuss at length the two electoral systems with which I am most familiar – the British and the Israeli. The two systems are diametrically opposed to each other in that the British system sacrifices proportionality for the stability of government (at least that was the case until BREXIT), while the Israeli system sacrifices stability and smooth governance for the principle of proportionality. They are both exceptional in their total reliance on systems which do not provide internal checks and balances to ensure that both objectives are met to as great an extent as possible.


It is perhaps surprising that despite the exceptional decision to call an immediate second election, despite the knowledge that the overall result is not going to be greatly different from the first one, there has not been any renewed debate about the need for significant electoral reform in Israel. While Netanyahu has been criticised for not allowing the President to exercise his powers and call upon Gantz to try and put a government together following Netanyahu’s failure, it is clear to all that Gantz would have been unable to succeed, with or without the cooptation of the Arab parties, which Gantz was clear that he had no intention of attempting. So while there may not have been an alternative to holding another round of elections, what is the point if the system remains the same and the expected result does not offer any new options for forming a government?

It is a catch-22 situation which requires fresh thinking on the need for electoral reform, not reform which favours one political flavor, but one which will enable future Israeli leaders to put together a government within a few days of the elections, one which will have more than a slender majority of just one or two seats and which can not be brought down all too easily, one which will be able to govern for a minimal period of four to five years before once again turning to the people.

The system adopted by most countries is a variant on mixed electoral systems, with combinations of multi member constituencies (Britain has single member constituencies, Israel doesn’t have any constituencies), party lists and, in many cases, significantly higher lower electoral thresholds to ensure that the smallest of factions and splinter parties have to combine with other small parties over what unifies them, rather than fragment over the nuances which divide them. Experience shows that this allows for governments to change and for elections to be called at intervals of every four or five years, enabling governments to get on with what they were elected to do – govern the country – instead of expending most of their time and energy in holding the coalition together.

Electoral reform is by no means a new topic on the Israeli political agenda. As far back as the 1950’s Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion was a supporter of reform, but the rest of his ruling party, the strong armed Mapai party of Golda Meir, Levi Eshkol and Pinchas Sapir, strongly rejected any such moves. They were not prepared to sacrifice their single party hegemony and their own renewable personal power for the sake of greater democratisation and enfranchisement of those groups who remained powerless for the first thirty years of Statehood.

Menachem Begin’s rise to power in 1977 was, for many, a signal that the existing system with all its flaws, worked. Direct proportionality meant that groups with strong sectoral interests – be they religious, be they Arab, or be they (at that time) under represented Mizrachi-Oriental groups in the periphery, could achieve power if they – the second and third generations of politically aware young adults who did not feel themselves beholden to the Mapai elites – organised along party political lines. Indeed, 1977 was the only date in Israel’s political history where a true ‘revolution’ could be said to have taken place, replacing Israel’s one party hegemonic governments with a real alternative, one which has, in recent years, replaced the old hegemony of the left with a new hegemony of the right.

But the 1980s and 1990s gave rise to a situation in which governments became even shakier than before. Small parties of no more than one or two Knesset members could hold entire governments to ransom. The country had to resort to the establishment of ‘national unity governments’ with the position of Prime Minister being rotated amongst the two major party leaders – albeit in the name of unity but in effect bringing about governments of national paralysis where no major policy decisions could be undertaken. This was especially the case concerning the Arab-Israel conflict, the area within which the greatest differences between the Israeli definitions of what constitutes ‘right’ and ‘left’ exist.

Things came to a head following the attempt by Shimon Peres to bring down the national unity government in 1990 and to replace it with a Labour Party led government with the support of the religious and orthodox parties, including the new player on the block, the Shas party. But in a rousing speech by the leader of orthodox Jewry at the time, Rabbi Shach, Peres’s plans came apart and he was left without a government and, shortly afterwards without a party to lead as his long term rival Yitzchak Rabin – who accused him of a ‘dirty trick’ – replaced him as party leader, won the next election and led Israel towards the Oslo Accords.

The then President Chaim Herzog, a strong supporter of electoral reform, came as close to intervening in the political process as any President has ever done and called for change within the electoral system. The 1980s and 1990s gave rise to intensified debate, accompanied by detailed proposals, and even one short lived attempt, at changing the country’s electoral system, but here we are some thirty years on and the basic system remains pretty much what it always has been, and it is giving us the same problems that we have experienced throughout the country’ political history.


There was much discussion about the need for constituencies – electoral districts – in a country where the entire country is a single constituency.

For Constituencies

The claim that the country’s peripheral regions – the Negev and the Galilee – remain relatively undeveloped and starved of resources because of the lack of regional representation by local members of Parliament was a constant theme. With few exceptions, members of the Knesset resided in the metropolitan centre of the country, Jerusalem and Haifa, close to the party apparatus rather than the constituents, who had little or no say in how they were chosen. Proposals for a mixed system in which half of the Knesset would be chosen through twenty or thirty multi member constituencies, and the remainder from national party lists, were discussed at length. Two versions were proposed, one which split the constituency and national seats 50/50 (60 seats for each), another which proposed two thirds (80 seats) from the constituencies because of the importance of regional representation and only a third from the national lists.

The role of the national lists were to ‘top up’ the overall representation in the Knesset according to the proportion of votes each party received at the nation wide level, thus ensuring a high level of proportionality even if the constituency results would favour the larger parties – who would come out on top in each of the districts. Thus, as has been evidenced in almost all countries employing variations of this system, the ‘topping up’ process gives more seats to the smaller parties. This, in turn, would endanger the status of the party leaders of the larger parties, who would prefer to run on the national list rather than spend their time garnering support within local constituencies, but who may find themselves without any seat in the Knesset. At one point it was even suggested that candidates could choose to run on both the constituency and the national list, a form of insurance policy to ensure their Knesset position. Only in Israel had such a proposal been suggested, while in the many countries employing similar systems, the candidate has to decide which of the two lists was most appropriate for them, and the risk they were prepared to take in order to be elected.

Against Constituencies

There were equally strong arguments against establishing electoral constituencies. In the first place, the question of who would determine the boundaries of the electoral areas and to what extent gerrymandering would take place, especially in areas of high Arab or religious concentration, was clearly on the agenda. Would the task of demarcating the electoral boundaries fall to the politicians themselves or to a neutral commission of judges, geographers and ‘neutral’ think tanks? Would representatives of all the sectoral interests have a say in the demarcation of the boundaries, thus ensuring the ‘packing’ of electoral districts in such a way as to ensure their representation, or would the representatives of the larger parties try to ‘crack’ the ethnic and religious areas in such a way that they would end up being a minority in every constituency and end up with no constituency representatives at all? This was a particular problem in areas such as the Galilee (Arab concentrations), Bnei Brak and Jerusalem (religious and ultra orthodox concentrations).

Another counter argument heard was the fact that Israel is a small country, ‘everybody knows everybody from the army’ and that it was always possible for local government officials to directly contact the government ministers and even the Prime Minister as and when necessary. The idea that central government were unaware of the needs and relative deprivation of the development towns and peripheral regions of the country, was dismissed as being out of touch with the way Israeli society works. Moreover, the question of whether West Bank – Judea and Samaria settlements would also have their own regional representation raised larger international questions of legitimacy and the de facto transfer of civilian functions to the ‘occupied territories’. It was one thing allowing each individual regardless of where he/she resided, the vote – even if it was in the Occupied Territories. It was quite another to formally recognise these areas as part of the civilian functions of the state which claimed, to the outside world, that it had not broken any international law by not formally annexing the territories.

Beyond computerised simulations of the expected results of different forms of the mixed system, the issue of constituencies never went any further, and has not been discussed at any length in the subsequent 25 years. This was also probably due to the fact that from the 1980s onwards, a new group of national politicians, all of whom had previously been local government mayors of development towns – such as Moshe Katzav (Qiryat Malakhi), David Magen (Qiryat Gat) or Meir Shitrit (Yavneh) (to name but a few) – emerged from within the Likud, along with David Levy who had started his political career as a labor activist in Bet Shean, eventually becoming Deputy Prime Minister and holding many other senior ministerial portfolios. Unlike a few Mapai counterparts, such as Avraham Baige Shochat, the legendary Mayor of Arad, who, once promoted to the national ranks promptly left the development town in which he lived and moved to Tel Aviv, these Likud – Mizrachi politicians remained loyal to the towns from which they had emerged. This also gave rise to the argument that the era in which the voice of the periphery was unheard had passed – although judging by current indices of socio economic development it would appear that the gap between the wealthy centre (core) and the less developed periphery, remains as large, if not larger, than it was during that period.


One reform that has actually been put in place has been the gradual raising of the lower threshold for any party list to gain entry to the Knesset. For much of Israel’s history, the lower threshold was set at the extremely low level of one per cent. This resulted in any party or splinter faction which decided to run alone, gaining one per cent of the eligible votes, entering the Knesset with a minimum two seats (one per cent of 120 seats rounded up). These smallest of factions were often need to prop up a government coalition of 61 or 62 seats, meaning they held disproportionate power relative to their actual size. They demanded huge resources for their respective small constituencies, along with ministerial positions around the government table. The more parties required to prop up a coalition, the larger the size of the Cabinet and the number of independent ministries. Time after time, proposals and promises aimed at limiting the number of ministries to 17 or 18 (itself one in every six members of Knesset) have been swept aside as party leaders have to make ministerial promises to a large number of small parties as a guarantee to have them supporting the government coalition. Each independent Ministry requires a minimum of tens of millions of dollars just to fund the key administrative positions and office buildings, resources which could have been distributed to alleviate other welfare, educational and health problems. The oft heard mantra from the government power brokers to counter the criticism of wasted resources is that ‘this is the price we have to pay for democracy’.

Notwithstanding, Israel has raised its electoral threshold three times since the early 1990s. In 1992 it was raised from 1 to 1.5 per cent, in 2003 to 2 per cent and most recently to 3.25 per cent in 2014. Given the rise in the population, this now means that a party requires approximately 140,000 votes to get into the Knesset, giving them a minimum of four seats. Effectively, this has put an end to the smallest of parties, encouraging parties of similar political persuasion to coalesce into larger parties over the issues which unite them rather than splinter and fragment over the minor nuances which divide them. This is true of the Arab parties, the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties and, as would appear to be the case in the forthcoming September elections, with the many right wing factions which have appeared on the political scene in recent years, each vying with the other to propose intransigent policies, arguing that the Likud under Netanyahu is not strong enough in dealing with the Palestinians and the issue of the territories – which some of them propose to annex if they were to hold the reigns of power.

For their part, the smaller parties argue that the raising of the lower threshold is no more than an anti-democratic attempt to prevent them from gaining seats. This argument has been advanced in particular by the representatives of the Arab parties who see it as an attempt to reduce Arab representation within the Knesset. But both the Arab and the Haredi parties have demonstrated that by combining into a single electoral unit (requiring a great deal of internal negotiating over the composition of the joint party list) they are able to obtain significant representation – in both cases double figures – constituting a more powerful lobby than when they operate as small party factions and splinter groups. Following the failure of some of the right-wing splinter factions in the April elections, they have also coalesced into a single right-wing extremist party which, they believe, will be a natural coalition partner for Netanyahu should he emerge again as the leader of the largest party.

The larger parties are ambivalent about the coalescence of smaller parties. On the one hand it is easier for them to deal with fewer, but larger, parties when negotiating a coalition agreement. On the other hand, the coalescence of the smaller right-wing parties means that they will gain seats which would otherwise have gone to the larger parties in the final share out had they failed to reach the 3.25 per cent threshold. Netanyahu can expect to lose some seats as a result of the right-wing factions coming together in a single party, while at the same time ensuring that the right-wing bloc maintains, perhaps even increases its overall power. However, in terms of the broader democratic processes, having fewer, but larger parties, without sacrificing the democratic interests of major sectoral interests, is generally seen as a positive development.

So far, the raising of the threshold to 3.25 per cent has not denied any of the main sectoral groups access to power, and will not for as long as they agree to coalesce around issues of common interest. It has been argued that the threshold could be raised even higher – as much as five per cent and more – without harming such interests.


For a short period in the 1990s a major change in the electoral law was introduced, allowing for direct elections of the Prime Minister. The Israeli voter was presented with the opportunity of two votes, one for Prime Minister and one for the party of his/her choice. In both 1996 and 1999, elections were held in this way, while in 2001 elections were held for Prime Minister alone, with the Knesset remaining unchanged, following Prime Minister Barak’s decision to call for special elections for Prime Minister. He was defeated by Ariel Sharon who, in turn, supported the Knesset decision in 2001 to revert to the previous one-vote parliamentary system, albeit with some minor reforms.

The original decision to opt for direct elections of prime minister was aimed at enabling the Prime Minister to exercise greater executive power without having to resort to the Knesset to approve every one of his decisions, most notably the appointment of the cabinet and the ability to include a larger number of non-political professional experts to key government positions. This partial separation of powers was modeled on an incorrect understanding of both the American and French presidential systems, in which the president is not a member of the Parliament but exercises significant executive powers. However, in the Israel case, the prime minister remained a member of the Knesset and was still reliant on the approval of the ruling government coalition for the passing of laws. The need to create coalition governments did not become any easier, in certain respects it became even more difficult as the vote for parties fragmented even further than before, resulting in the same degree of instability that had previously been the case.

It had been thought, again based on a study of other countries operating similar split systems of government, that once an individual had voted for a prime ministerial candidate, he/she would almost automatically vote for the same party with the second vote, thus reducing the selection of small parties, none of which put forward a candidate for Prime Minister. But the Israeli experience proved otherwise. The electorate decided to use their second vote to opt for smaller parties which, in the past, they may not have chosen. Given their choice of a prime minister from one of the two larger parties, they decided to spread their wings and opt for alternative parties which were closer to their narrow ideological interests – for example one could vote for a right or left-wing prime minister as defined along the Israel-Palestine conflict spectrum, while at the same time voting for a religious or ethnic party which would represent their daily life style interests.

Given what was perceived as a failure of the electoral reform, the Knesset decided to revert to the old system, with all of its faults, and in both 2003 and 2005 Ariel Sharon was elected as Prime Minister, first as head of the Likud party and then as head of the newly formed Kadima party. It is argued that the new system, for all of its initial faults, had not remained in place long enough for political behaviour amongst the electorate to undergo change, such change often requiring at least a decade and a whole new generation of younger voters. Notwithstanding, this attempt at reform has been judged as a failure and probably explains why such little attention has been paid to further attempts at electoral reform in the intervening period.


Electoral reform is not presently on the Israeli political agenda. However, if after holding two elections within the space of five months it proves yet again impossible to put together a ruling coalition, it will be necessary to revisit the subject, to put into place a system which will allow for greater governmental stability. What this may consist of is unclear. Constituencies are not on the agenda today. The further raising of the lower threshold to ensure that only large and medium sized parties are elected (necessitating the coalescence of many of the smaller parties) is a possibility, at least as high as 5-6 per cent. The role of the President in deciding who ultimately is asked to form the government coalition may also be challenged. Indeed it is because Netanyahu did not want President Rivlin to ask Benny Gantz to try and put together a majority government following Netanyahu’s failure to do so, that Netanyahu decide to immediately call for yet another round of elections.

What is perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Israel’s recent elections is the fact that rates of participation have dropped from highs of over 80 per cent in the 1950s and 1960s, to 70 plus per cent in the 1970s and 1980s, to as low as 63 per cent a decade ago. There has been a small upwards movement in the previous two elections but overall participation is still much lower than it was 30 to 40 years ago, in a country where it is often joked that every taxi driver and every Friday night dinner discusses nothing else than politics. This is clearly no longer the case. Much of the public has become dissatisfied with the way the system operates, because of the  growing perception of politicians as out for themselves rather than serving the public good, and because of the inability of successive governments to deal with the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict. A country where participation rates are on the decline indicate an unhealthy political system. Should the second elections in less than six months bring about yet another decrease in participation rates, it would behove the powers that be to revisit the choices of election system which are put before the Israeli public in years to come.

Israel 2019 (3.11)


France 24 (1.18)


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 the perentage of votes they have won gives them 10 seats then the first 10 names on their list will be appointed.  

Parties grow, shrink, appear and vanish.  In the 2019 election two parties won the highest number of seats - an ‘old’ party called Likud  and a new grouping called ‘Blue and White’.

Likud was asked by the President to form a government.  It could not reach its target of 65 seats. The President would then have asked Blue and White to try but before this could happen Likud managed to dissolve Parliament and called a new election in September.

The parties that will appear then are unknown.

A Beginner’s Guide
Israel’s Elections

The Evolution
Israeli Politics

Short Guide
to the
Israeli Political System

IsraelVotes2019 (2)  Whatever
Happened to
Electoral Reform
in Israel?

State and Society

Israeli Legislative Election, 1949

Second Government

for the
(First) Elections
to the Israel Kenesset)

Why Israel
will Hold
a Second
National Election
in 2019

3rd election, immunity,
4th election? Political dates to watch
in 2020

Israel Election Decided
by One Vote

DW News 2019 (5.26)
Israel is in political turmoil after its attorney general announced that he is filing criminal charges against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is being indicted for bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three separate cases. The prime minister has denied wrongdoing and calls the criminal case politically motivated. Netanyahu is battling to stay in power
after September's elections
produced no clear winner.