The Knesset election process explained

The election process in Israel is based on a parliamentary system that is used in many countries around the world.

By RABBI ROBERT B. RUBIN
September 12, 2019 10:06
3 minute read.
The Knesset election process explained

A voter in Jerusalem in the last Knesset election on April 9. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)


If you are not clear on all the steps involved in Israel’s voting system – as the country approaches Election Day on September 17 – then this article is for you. Even if you are very familiar with how the electoral system works, you may find the article helpful in explaining it to others.

Israel is a democracy. It is a robust democracy, with many opinions expressed on many issues, and it is important to understand Israel’s democracy and how it functions, particularly at this time.

The election process in Israel is based on a parliamentary system that is used in many countries around the world. (The US does not have a parliamentary system; it has a representative system, in which people are elected from within specified districts – local districts for the House of Representatives, and states for the Senate.)

Here are the basic steps of an Israeli national election. As you will see, when Israel’s Election Day is over, the actual process of forming a government is only just beginning.

1) There are 120 seats in the Knesset. There are no districts. The national election is for all 120 seats.

2) Before the Knesset election, each party submits a list of individuals in a numbered sequence, and runs that list in the election. The higher up on the list, the safer that slot is to becoming a Knesset member (see No. 5).

3) Each individual voter gets one vote to select one party and its list, from the various parties that are running.

4) Each party receives a percentage of the Knesset seats based on the percentage of the votes received. Fractions of seats are worked out through various calculations, and sometimes through agreements between parties to share excess votes. There is a qualifying threshold of 3.25% of the national vote that a party needs to exceed in order to receive any seats in the Knesset at all. This qualifying threshold means that the smallest possible list of a Knesset party is four seats.

5) An individual listed on their party’s election list gets “elected” to serve in the Knesset (receives one of the 120 Knesset seats) based on how many seats his or her party wins: if a party wins 20 seats, then the first 20 individuals listed on the list become members of Knesset; if a party wins only 10 seats, then only the first 10 receive a Knesset seat, and so on until all 120 seats are assigned according to the percentage of vote totals for each individual party.

After an election, if a Knesset member should pass away or resign, the next person on that Knesset member’s party list – who did not make it into the Knesset in the election itself – moves up and becomes a Knesset member.

6) A ruling majority needs to be formed of 61 Knesset members. Since the first election in 1949, no one party has ever won a majority of 61 or more Knesset seats. Thus, without a one-party majority, a coalition of various parties needs to be formed that adds up to a majority of at least 61.

7) Following the calculation and distribution of the Knesset seats, the president of Israel – mostly an honorary figurehead but with this one important political responsibility – charges the leader of one of the parties with the assignment of forming a majority coalition, with four weeks to do so.

8) Discussions and negotiations take place between various parties. If the party leader chosen by the president is successful in forming a majority coalition, then the proposed governing coalition is presented for acceptance. If that party leader is not successful, the president can grant an extension of another two weeks, or can choose another party leader to attempt to form a majority coalition with four weeks to do so. If the second party leader chosen by the president is successful in forming a majority coalition, then the proposed governing coalition is presented for acceptance. If attempts to form a majority coalition are not successful, a new election can be called, and the entire election cycle would begin again – as happened this year, for the first time in Israel’s history.

Who forms the majority coalition? The president could choose any party leader, though most often the president chooses the leader of the party with the most votes, or seats. Who that is – will be determined on September 17.

Robert B. Rubin is a rabbi living in Brick, New Jersey


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