Israeli Electoral System

How it developed and how it works.

Print this page Print this page

How It Works

This system was incorporated into the basic laws of the State of Israel when the country was founded in 1948. The national legislature was named the Knesset after the rabbinical legislative body in ancient Judea over 2,000 ago, and the number of its members was set at 120, exactly the same as its ancient namesake.

Election to the Knesset is by proportional representation, and there are no districts--the entire country is one district. Knesset elections must be conducted at least once every four years. Each political party presents the public with a list of candidates for Knesset membership, and the number of individuals from that list who get to serve in the Knesset depends on the proportion of votes cast for the party; any party with 2 percent of the total vote gets at least two seats in the Knesset.

The executive branch is not elected directly. It instead arises out of the Knesset, in a sense. After elections for the Knesset have been conducted, the president of the State of Israel will approach the leader of one of the parties--generally the party that has received the greatest number of votes--and entrust him or her the task of forming a government. This means that the selected individual is expected to put together a list of people who will serve as the country's cabinet, each one as a minister responsible for a different department or ministry. This is what is called "the government," and executive decisions may only be taken by a majority vote in the government. The leader of the government, who chairs its meetings and guides its guidelines and agendas, is the prime minister.

However, in order to take office as prime minister at the head of a new government, the person tapped for the job by the president must persuade a majority of the Knesset members (MKs) to confirm the government. This usually involves putting together a coalition of several parties. The prime minister-elect will typically spend a number of weeks conducting intense negotiations with the other parties elected to the Knesset, arranging for their support in a confirmation vote.

In exchange for joining the coalition, parties will demand that they get to have some of their MKs serve in the government as ministers, so that Israeli governments are generally staffed by MKs from a range of parties who must find a way to work together despite their disparate views. Those parties left out of the coalition form the opposition.

The story doesn't even end with the confirmation of a government, however. The opposition can at any time try to remove a government from power by calling for a "vote of no-confidence" in the Knesset. Should a majority of the Knesset join in voting in favor of no-confidence, the government's term in office comes to an abrupt end; this is called the fall of a government. When a government falls, the president may approach any member of Knesset--even the just-deposed prime minister--and ask him or her to try to form a new government that will enjoy majority support in the Knesset. Another possibility is that new early elections may be called for the Knesset.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Ziv Hellman is a Jerusalem-based writer and mathematician. A former editor at the Jerusalem Post, Ziv was a founding member of Peace Watch--the watchdog group reporting on the implementation of the Oslo Agreements. He also led the Israeli elections observer team evaluating the Palestinian Authority elections.