A primer for the politically perplexed

Comprehending the political system and how it works here is imperative in order to understand the issues diplomats care most about, like whether Israel will go to another war, if a peace agreement can pass, and when the next election will take place.

 By  Growing up in the United States, the political system appeared complicated enough with only two parties.
Where I grew up in Chicago, there was only one: the Democratic Party machine, controlled by the Daley family, which held the mayor’s office for 43 years.
Imagine the culture shock coming to Israel, where more than 30 parties run in every election and 12 parties make it into the Knesset. That culture shock affects not only immigrants and journalists like me, but also diplomats who come to Israel from around the world for a limited time and must regularly report back their observations on key issues.
But comprehending the political system and how it works here is imperative in order to understand the issues diplomats care most about, like whether Israel will go to another war, if a peace agreement can pass, and when the next election will take place.
In light of that pressing need, The Jerusalem Post presents a guide for the politically perplexed: When are elections supposed to take place? Every four years. But the year of an election is decided by the civil calendar and the date by the Jewish calendar.
Elections are set for the third Tuesday in the month of Heshvan (October-November), unless the previous year was a leap year. That is why the next election is set for four years and 10 months after the last one: November 7, 2017, which corresponds to 18 Heshvan 5778.
When do elections really take place? Generally, when the prime minister wants them to take place. Elections are also called when a prime minister loses control over the Knesset or his party, but more often than not he will find an excuse to go to the president to initiate an election when he thinks it is politically beneficial to him.
When and how are coalitions formed? No one party has ever won a majority of the 120 seats in the Knesset (except the former Labor alignment briefly in 1968), so the president must decide which party leader has the best chance of forming a stable coalition.
The party leader designated has six weeks to form a government.
That involves political horse-trading in which portfolios are allocated and coalition guidelines are written about how a government will function and what it will support on key issues. The coalition is currently comprised of Likud Beytenu, Yesh Atid, Bayit Yehudi, and Hatnua for a total of 68 MKs.
Will the electoral system be changed? Yes, minimally. The Knesset is currently in the process of passing legislation that will limit the number of cabinet ministers to nine, deputy ministers to four, and no-confidence motions to once a month. It would make it harder for Knesset factions to break up and would raise the electoral threshold from 2 to 4 percent.
Why can’t a more serious overhaul of the system take place? There are two reasons. First of all, Israelis are scarred by a 1992 decision to elect prime ministers directly.
The move was intended to make governments more stable, but it had the opposite effect. Having two ballots ended up discouraging voters from choosing a potential ruling party and the ruling parties never recovered.
That is why all 120 MKs are still elected by party-list proportional representation, not directly.
The other reason is that coalition agreements tend to include a clause saying that all coalition parties can veto changes in the Basic Laws that are the forerunner to a constitution that may never be completed. Electoral reforms are in that category. The Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party, Shas, has been in most coalitions and its mentor, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, always blocked such changes because the current system served his party well. Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman has also blocked certain reforms that could have obtained a majority.
Who passes what? The Knesset passes legislation in three readings plus in committee.
The cabinet (referred to in Hebrew as the government) makes decisions. Its ministerial committee on legislation decides what bills the coalition will support. The seven-member security cabinet approves sensitive security matters. Its deliberations are supposed to be kept secret. The seven ministers are Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Finance Minister Yair Lapid, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett, and Home Front Security Minister Gilad Erdan. The previous Netanyahu government had an inner security cabinet that had no statutory power, but was Netanyahu’s key advisory forum.
Has there ever been a referendum in Israel? No.
Will there be? That depends on whether there will ever be a peace agreement with the Palestinians. The law requires a referendum on any concession of sovereign territory, in a peace treaty or as a unilateral move. Sovereign territory does not include the West Bank, but it includes all of Jerusalem and any land swaps. The referendum would be on the entire peace treaty or plan, not just the concession of sovereign territory, so it would, practically, include voting on giving away any part of Judea and Samaria if that is part of an agreement or a unilateral disengagement plan.
Who is the Knesset Speaker and what does he do? Likud MK Yuli Edelstein, a former prisoner of Zion in the Soviet Union.
He chairs the most important Knesset sessions, makes key decisions about how the parliament is run, and fills in for the president when he is incapacitated due to medical or legal reasons.
What does the president do and when are they elected? President Shimon Peres is Israel’s head of state. While principally a ceremonial figurehead, he is responsible for appointing a party leader to form a government, dissolving governments and initiating elections. Presidents are elected by a secret ballot vote in the Knesset to one seven-year term. Peres’s term is set to end in July 2014, unless the law is changed to allow the energetic nonagenarian to stay longer.