This article will be a quick (but hopefully incisive?) summary of how Israeli elections work and how these elections influence the composition of the Israeli government.
Israel is a unicameral parliamentary democracy that elects its parliament through a proportional representation system. Now, maybe many of you are scratching your heads and saying “what the hell does that even mean?” Let’s break it down, one concept at a time.
When we say unicameral, we mean that there is only one legislative body in the State of Israel. Unlike, say, the United States, where there are two legislatives bodies, the Senate and the House of Representatives, Israel has only one, what is called the Knesset. The Knesset has 120 seats. The Knesset functions as the sole lawmaking body- all laws of Israel need to be passed with a majority of the Knesset.
Israel is a parliamentary democracy, meaning that the power of the executive of the government is derived from the primary legislative body. What this means is that the real power-holding head of the Israeli government, the Prime Minister, is an elected member of the Knesset. The various executive leaders of the government are drawn from those individuals who have also been elected to the Knesset.
Here’s an example that will illustrate how this functions. Let’s say that we wake up tomorrow and the United States constitution has changed. The Senate has been dissolved and the President and his cabinet members removed from their offices. The United States has become a parliamentary democracy and the House of Representatives is the primary legislative body. Let’s also say that the results of the last midterm election are the same. So, we have a House of Representatives made up of 235 democrats and 199 Republicans.
The Democrats will thus be the ruling party of the United States. Nancy Pelosi, who is the leader of the democrats in the House of Representatives, will likely be chosen to serve as President of the United States. She will appoint a variety of democratic house reps as Vice President, Secretary of the Treasury, Secretary of Defense, etc. Thus the power of the executive of the government is derived from the primary parliamentary legislative body.
There are two paths through which the executive power of the Israeli government can be formed through the Knesset. The first path is a single party winning a majority of the seats in the Knesset in the elections. The Knesset has 120 seats. If, say, the Likud party won 62 seats in the latest Israeli elections, then the head of the Likud would become the Prime Minister of Israel and, if the Likud decided not to partner with any other parties in their coalition, the various cabinet positions like Minister of the Interior, Defense Minister, Foreign Minister, etc., would all be chosen from Likud party Knesset members.
The second path is taken when no single party wins a majority of the seats in the Knesset. In this case, a coalition must be formed that will serve as a partnership between parties to fill the executive role of the government. To give an example, let’s say the Likud party wins 45 seats in parliament. That’s not enough to have a majority to create a coalition. But, let’s also say that the United Torah Judaism party wins 10 seats, the New Right party wins 4 seats and the Shas Party wins 4 seats. All four of these parties together control 63 seats, a majority of the Knesset. If Likud can get these 3 other parties to agree to form a coalition with them then these parties will form a partnership that will hold the executive power of the Israeli government. The leader of the Likud party will be chosen as Prime Minister, but many other ministerial positions will be given to prominent members of these smaller parties who joined the coalition.
In the early years of the Israeli State, a single party winning a majority occurred frequently. But, ever since the 1990’s, there has not been any instance of a single party earning a majority of the seats in the Knesset. This means that this second path of forming an Israeli executive- that of partnerships between parties to form a coalition- has been the way things have worked for a very long time.
So, we know that there is only one legislative body in Israel and we know how an executive body is formed from the Knesset. But, how is this parliamentary body elected in the first place?
If you are an Israeli citizen about to cast your vote in the Israeli elections, you will not be able to vote for a person. You will have to vote for a party. But, you will know what members of this party will be elected to the Knesset if you vote for them. Every party must, as a matter of law, provide an ordered list to the elections authority of which of its members will be elected to the Knesset based on how many seats that party receives in the election. So, you as a voter will know what members of these parties will join the Knesset, depending on how many seats this party receives. But, how do we know which party will have how many seats in parliament?
After voting day, all of the ballots in Israel are tallied up and the elections authority calculates which party received what percentage of the vote. Seats in the Knesset are then assigned to each party depending on what percentage of the vote they won.
Let’s say the Likud party gets 25% of the vote in this election. That means Likud will get ¼ of the seats in the Israeli Knesset- 30 seats. Who will these seats go to? That’s where the list we mentioned earlier comes in. Each seat will be given to each party member from this list in order. So, if Likud wins 25% of the vote, the Likud party will get 30 seats in parliament, meaning that the first 30 people on the Likud party list will become Members of the Knesset (or MK for short).
Now, once the seats are divvied up, how does the process of forming a coalition work? The President of Israel (a ceremonial position, closest akin to the Queen of England in terms of real power), will go to each of the parties who won seats in the Knesset. The President will ask these parties which party they would like to form and lead the new coalition. The President will grant a single party the ability to begin forming the new coalition. Almost always, the President assigns this privilege to whichever party has the most recommendations to form a coalition in terms of total Knesset seats.
Here’s an example: Let’s say 4 parties have each gotten a high enough percentage of the Israeli vote to send members to the Knesset. Likud has 40% of the vote and 48 seats total. United Torah Judaism has 20% of the vote and 24 seats total. The New Right has 20% of the vote and 24 seats total and the Shas party has 20% of the vote and 24 seats total. The President goes to each party. Likud recommends that they themselves form a coalition. United Torah Judaism recommends that they themselves form a coalition. Shas recommends that United Torah Judaism form a coalition. The New Right recommends that Likud form a coalition. So, 48 Knesset seats are parties who want United Torah Judaism to form the coalition and 72 Knesset seats are parties who want Likud to form the coalition. Therefore, the President will give the Likud the ability to form a coalition. Given how Likud received this privilege, it will likely form a coalition with New Right that will have a 72 seat majority of the Knesset.
We’ll stop here for now. Even though we’ve thoroughly gone through the structure of how the Israeli parliament works in the context of forming the Israeli executive body and how the Israeli elections contribute to the makeup of the Knesset, there are still a lot of additional factors and complications in this process. We’ll discuss these other wrinkles in other articles.