Israeli Elections Explained

The Israeli election system is relatively easy to understand in theory, yet in practice it is much more complex. In the US, you decide whose opinions and ideas match yours and vote for him or her. The election of the head of the government is disconnected from the election of the legislature. You can vote for legislators of one party and a President from another party. And there are usually only two major parties in elections. Even if someone else runs for the Presidency, he generally runs alone. When Ross Perot and Ralph Nader ran for president, they were not joined by candidates from their party running for Congress.

Israel, in contrast, has a parliamentary system. You vote for the party whose stance on issues of importance to you match your preferences. The head of the party that earns the most seats in the Knesset (the legislature) then becomes head of the government (Prime Minister). But…here it gets complicated.

Disclaimer: I am not an expert, and this is not meant to be a complete guide to Israeli politics or elections. For authoritative guidance, please consult a qualified politician or Rabbi.

Each party is allotted a number of seats in the Knesset based on the proportion of votes it receives in the election. Each party makes a list of candidates, which is done in different ways by different parties. Some parties, such as Likud (Unity), have primary elections. In others, the important people (either the equivalent of the party’s Board of Directors or the party head alone) decide who will be on this election’s list.

2015 election--party choices and envelope
Ballots & official envelope to put your choice in

Many parties put the name of the party head in their official name, or at least show the name in their advertisements. The party head will be the Prime Minister if they win a plurality of seats and can form a coalition with several other parties For example: In the last election, we had “Likud-Beytenu under the Leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu for Head of Government,” and  “There is a Future Headed by Yair Lapid.”

Each party had to submit its list of candidates last week to the election board, so we now know 26 parties are running. Of course, since the current polls predict the front running party will earn less than 26 seats in the Knesset, most people on party lists know they will not get elected. Rather, they have been given their spot on the list as an honor or a reward for prior work. For some parties, such as “Stop Feeding Our Children Porn,” even number one is an honorary spot, because any party that does not get at least 3.25 % of the votes does not get seated.

No party has ever received a majority of votes (seats). So the head of the party which receives the most votes then negotiates with other parties to get them to join his/her party in a coalition. Of course, in forming a coalition, the party head must agree to some positions or actions that are contrary to the party’s positions. And this gives minority parties their power. The heads of these parties tell the potential Prime-Minister-to-be what they want in exchange for joining the coalition. I know several people who vote for one of the religious parties, even though they know they will not to elect a Prime Minister. They vote for these parties to get enough seats so that the party can influence government activities. And it works–almost every government has included religious parties in the coalition.

Like anything Israeli, what seems clear ends up being more complicated or illogical than it first seems. For example, one of the requisite conditions for a religious party to join the government is appointment of the Deputy Minister of Health.  If it was so important to them, you may ask, why did they not insist on the position of Minister of Health? The ministers, as chief officers of government departments, are members of the cabinet. In the opinion of the Rabbis, all cabinet members  are responsible for all actions taken by the cabinet. If a religious man were minister, he could be responsible for actions that are contrary to strict interpretation of Halakha (Jewish law). The Deputy Minister does not carry the weight of that responsibility. So who is Minister of Health? No one. The chief administrator of the national health department is the deputy to a nonexistent person.

With 26 parties, the newspapers run several stories every day about the elections: what the parties propose to do if elected, what the major candidates from each party are doing, what they are saying about each other.  Subtlety has no place in Israeli electioneering. I still remember a billboard I saw a few years ago. It featured a photo of an influential Rabbi, and the words: “It is forbidden to vote for Ariel Sharon.” Or maybe he wasn’t quite so influential–Sharon became Prime Minister. In 2013, I frequently saw a poster proclaiming  “Bibi (Netanyahu) is good only for the rich.” Another stated, “Only Shas cares about the underdogs.”

The actual voting process here is basically the same as when the country was founded. Because there was a huge immigrant population, few of whom could read Hebrew, each party was assigned a one letter symbol. Remembering one letter is possible, even for people who don’t know the alphabet or can’t read the name of the party they prefer. Today, because of the increase in the number of parties, most parties get a two letter symbol from the Bureau of Elections.

Postcard notification of polling place for Israeli election, 2013
Postcard notification of polling place, 2013

To vote, you show your official ID, drivers license, or passport at your polling place, and receive an opaque envelope. You then go into a voting booth, which is equipped with stacks of paper printed with party symbols. You place a paper with the symbol of the party of your choice in the envelope, seal the envelope, and deposit the envelope in thballot box. And then go to the beach or a national park–election day is a national holiday. Although there is no school and most offices are closed, restaurants and theaters remain open. Grocery and drug stores may open, but must close before noon, by law.

The small slips of paper printed with party symbols tend to migrate. Children seem to love them, and take a few when they get a chance. And thus, the voting slips end up littering the streets for several days following the election. But that too is part of democracy, Israeli style.

For more details, check this article on Tablet.

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