Israel is a parliamentary democracy with legislative, executive and judicial branches. The Knesset is the country's legislative organ. It is located in Jerusalem and includes 120 seats assigned on the basis of nationwide proportional representation. It operates through plenary sessions and through fifteen standing committees.
Knesset members are elected in four-year terms through party lists. They enact laws, supervise all government activities, and can elect or remove the President of the state.
The judicial branch, separate from the Knesset, includes both secular and religious courts.
The government coalition, which forms the executive branch, consists of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet of Ministers. It is responsible for administering internal and foreign affairs, including security matters.
Voting in Israel
National elections for the Knesset are held every four years. All parties that wish to present a list of candidates and participate in the elections must first be registered by the Party Registrar.
Election Day is a national holiday, and voting is possible only on Israeli soil (with the exception of Israeli diplomats, other official envoys, and citizens serving on ships abroad.
The rules of the Israeli electoral system are defined in Article Four of the Basic Law: The Knesset:
- All Israeli citizens over the age of 18 years are eligible to vote.
- Every citizen aged 21 or older is eligible for election to the Knesset.
- To be eligible, candidates must have no criminal record. Moreover, they cannot hold certain official positions when running for office.
- Voters can only vote for closed lists, not for specific candidates.
- The number of seats for each party is proportional to the total number of votes it received.
The electoral process
After the election, the President of Israel consults with representatives of all parties elected into the Knesset. He then assigns the task of forming the government to the member of Knesset considered most capable of forming a viable coalition. This person is normally the leader of the party with the largest Knesset representation, but not necessarily. The person assigned for the task then has 28 days to form a Cabinet, present all Ministers of his Cabinet to the Knesset, and announce the Government‘s basic guidelines. If he or she cannot complete the task within that period, they can ask for a 14-day extension. If the person cannot complete the task after the extension, the President may task a different Knesset member with forming a government coalition.
The process of forming a coalition government – or at least attempting to do so – starts even before the elections, with prospective candidates for premiership promising cabinet positions to leaders of other parties, making statements about who their future coalition partners may be, and leaders of smaller parties posing conditions for joining a future coalition. That jockeying typically continues until the cabinet is sworn in.
Legally, a minority coalition (of less than 61 MKs) may be formed, but de-facto it is impractical, because such a coalition would be susceptible to an immediate vote of no confidence, leading to new elections. Therefore, a future prime minister strives to form a coalition that is as broad as possible, larger – to the extent possible – than a 61 majority.
As soon as the members of the Knesset approve the new Government, the prime minister and the members of his cabinet assume office as part of a coalition of several parties. As cabinet positions are often offered to members of smaller parties, these parties tend to become disproportionately powerful in positions of executive power, and use this influence to strengthen their political agendas.
Although a government is supposed to serve for four years, Israeli governments typically don’t serve their full term because of the shaky nature of their coalition. Unlike most other western democracies, therefore, early elections are held frequently in Israel.
The electoral threshold
In order to be elected to the Knesset, all parties must pass the qualifying electoral threshold. The electoral threshold was raised in 2014 and is currently set at 3.25 %., which means that parties with fewer than the equivalent of 4-5 Knesset seats (depending on the overall turnout rate) would not be able to make it into the Knesset.
Israeli political parties
The nature of the Israeli electoral system allows a large variety of parties to be represented in the Knesset. The major political parties are:
- Likud, led by the current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is a right-wing party. It was founded in 1973 as a challenger to the Labor Party. Likud is a conservative, nationalist Party.
- The Zionist Camp, led by Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni, is a n electoral slate that is the product of a merger between the veteran Labor party and Livni’s smaller Hatnuah party. A social-democratic party, Labor was founded in 1968 and at the time united three socialist labor parties. The party supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and champions a platform focusing on social justice.
- Yisrael Beiteinu (“Israel, Our Home“), led by Avigdor Lieberman, is a secularist, right-wing party that advocates a hard line toward the Palestinians and Israel’s Arab population. The party’s leader, Avigdor Lieberman, supports a two-state solution but conditions it on transferring Israeli areas populated exclusively by Arab citizens to the future Palestinian state.
- Shas, led by Aryeh Deri, is an ultra-Orthodox, Sepharadi religious party that was founded in 1984. It seeks to lead Sephardi Jews back to religious observance and the cultural heritage of their forefathers and expand the funding of religious institutions while focuseing on social services and education.
- Yesh Atid, led by former television news anchor Yair Lapid, who claims to represent the secular center in Israel and opposes the power wielded by religious parties in government. It focuses on domestic causes, but supports a two-state solution.
- Habayit Hayehudi (The Jewish Home), led by Naftali Bennett, is the reincarnation of Israel’s veteran National Religious Party. The Jewish Home strongly supports the settler movement and has several hard-line settlers on its list. It vehemently rejects the notion of an independent Palestinian state. Instead the party is running on a platform to annex 60% of the West Bank known as Area C, where all Jewish settlements are located and which currently falls under Israeli military and administrative control. The Jewish Home is conservative on domestic issues as well
- Kulanu, led by Moshe Kahlon, is a new party, formed last year. It capitalizes on the popularity of Kahlon, a former Likud leader, who as Communications Minister significantly lowered the cost of cellular communications in Israel. Kulanu’s foreign and security agenda is vague. Kahlon has not ruled out the two-state solution.
- Meretz, led by Zehava Galon was created from an alliance between three left-wing parties in 1992. It champions a liberal platform that advocates for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, civil rights, social justice, environmentalism and greater religious freedom in Israel.
- United Torah Judaism – led by Yaakov Litzman is an alliance between two mainly Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox parties, formed in 1992. United Torah Judaism works for the interests of the ultra-Orthodox in education and social welfare as well as on specific issues such as opposition to mandated national military service for the ultra-Orthodox.
- The Joint Slate, (often referred to as ”The United Arab Slate” or “the Arab slate”) brings together three exclusively Arab parties (the nationalist pan-Arab Balad, the nationalist-traditional Ta’al, and the traditional-Islamist Ra’am, loosely affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood) and one Jewish-Arab party, Hadash, which is a reincarnation of Israel’s Communist party. The Joint Slate is headed by Ayman Odeh of Hadash.
Although the voter turnout is relatively high, it has declined substantially over the years. While the voter turnout in the election for the First Knesset was 86.9% in 1949, the voter turnout in the election for the Nineteenth Knesset (2013) was 63.9%.