Israel Elections System Marc Schulman

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The Israeli Political System an Election Primer

In order to understand the Israeli elections, one must start with at least a basic understanding of the Israeli electoral system.

Israel is a parliamentary democracy. That means that Israel's government is derived from the members of the parliament. There is no true separation between the executive and legislative branches of the government.

When an Israeli election takes place, the Israeli electorate does not vote for any specific individuals, nor do they vote for a particular candidate to be Prime Minister. Instead, Israelis vote for the parties that will make up the Knesset (parliament). Political parties run on various platforms to receive a number mandates based on the number of popular votes they command. There are 120 mandates that are to be divided.

Once a parliament is elected, the parliament, in turn, elects the government- including all of the members of the cabinet.

Election to the Israeli parliament is based on a system that was put in place at the early Zionist congresses. The Israeli public chooses from a large selection of parties. The number of votes cast are then divided up evenly by to equal 120 Knesset seats. That sum of that number (120th of the popular vote equals the number of votes required to earn one mandate (seat) in the Knesset. Thus, if a party were to get 25% of the votes cast they would then have earned 30 seats in the parliament. Those 30 seats - even if that party were the largest in the Knesset- would not be enough to form a government.

One needs to support of at least 61 members (over half) to form a government. No one party has ever receive that strong of a mandate. This is why the concept of "coalition government" has becomes the norm. After the election the President of the country holds consultations with representatives of the various parties and tries to ascertain which party is most likely to be able to form a new government-(meaning, who will be able to enter into agreements and compromises with enough other parties to compose a coalition with a no less than 61 mandates). That has usually, but not always, been the party with the largest number of votes. (Earlier in Israel's history the largest parties were more dominant than they are today. Then it was clear which party would form the government. Today, with the consistent shrinking of the larger parties the answer to the question of who will build a successful coalition is sometimes less clear.)

The party that the President appoints has 90 days to negotiate agreements with the other parties to gain support of a majority (61+) of the members of the Knesset to form a government. After 90 days, if that party does not succeed, the President can grant them an extension, or turn over the creation of a coalition to one of the other parties.

Over the years the number of parties has increased. Parties initially represented the different ideological strains in the Zionism. Parties ranged from the Revisionists on the right, to Mapam (which was Hashomer Hatzair, secular socialist Zionists) on the left. Traditionally, there was also a religious Zionist movement, as well as parties that represented the Haredi and Arab sectors.

Since the 1970's a number of new types of parties have developed. One category of new parties has been aimed at ethic groups. Two examples of those "ethnic" parties are: Shas (tailored to the immigrants from Arab countries) and Yisrael Beteinu (primarily the party of Russian immigrants.) In the mid 70's new parties in the political middle/center were also formed. Shinui and Dash, both tried to be centrist reformist parties. Since that election a large number of similar parties have emerged, none lasting more than a few election cycles.

As a result of the rise of both the ethnic parties and the centrist parties, the Israeli electorate has become more fractured, with the largest parties in any given election receiving many fewer votes today than in previous elections. This has generally made coalition negotiations considerably more difficult.

Who gets to run Any party can register to run - if they fill out the appropriate form and pay the rather nominal fees to register. Israeli law does not specify how parties should pick Knesset members for their lists. In recent years, some of the main parties, Likud, Labor, Meretz, and part of Habayit Hayehudi, have had closed( member only) primary elections. Other parties, such as Shas, Yesh Atid and Yisrael Beteinu have appointed their members.

Campaigning

Israeli law does not allow for advertisements on broadcast media during the 2 months before the election. The law is silent on Internet advertising, (having been written 55 years ago). Therefore, there are many paid ads on the Internet. Campaigns also spend the money they have on posters, advertisements buses and billboards, as well as newspaper ads. Each party running gets to run a series of free advertisements on Israeli television in the two weeks before the election. The amount of time that is given to each party is proportional to the number of Knesset members in the outgoing parliament. However, even those parties that have no seats in the outgoing Knesset get a minimum amount to time. The ads run together during special times set up for that purpose.

Each party also receives financing from the government, based on the outgoing number of members in the Knesset. According to the rules politicians are not suppose to appear in the broadcast media and actively promote their campaign. That rule is almost impossible to enforce, since the very appearance of the politician is in fact a political promotion. In the weeks before an election politicians fill the airways - they are just stopped when they say: "Vote for my party. "

Voting threshold and extra votes

In order to get into the parliament a party must win at least 2% of the vote – which translates into between 2 and 3 Knesset seats. In 2009 that threshold represented 67, 470 votes. The threshold number was raised from the original 1% required, to 1.5%, and eventually to 2%, in attempts to keep out very small parties and thereby limiting the further fracturing the Knesset. Votes for any party that does not reach the minimum threshold are lost. In terms of building a coalition, it is as if that person did not vote- (though their vote does increase the total turnout.) On the other hand, if a party gets into the Knesset they can make agreements to share their "extra votes" -meaning, if it takes 25,000 votes to be equal to one Knesset seat, and a party receives 160,000 votes, they have 6 seats and an extra 10,000 votes. They can choose whether to sign an agreement to give those extra votes to another specific party, allowing that other party to get one more seat they would not otherwise be entitled to receive.

Turnout in Israel

Voter turnout in Israel reached a high of 84% in 1965. The turnout was 64.72% in 2009. There are three main reasons for the continued drop in voter turnout. There has been a drop in Arab participation in elections; a general drop in party loyalty and affiliation. That drop and party loyalty and affiliation combines with a sense that voting does not matter, keeps down participation. Finally, voters who leave the country remain on the voter rolls. Since there are no absentee ballots allowed (other than for Israeli Embassy and Jewish Agency personnel). This results in a lower effective turnout at the election itself.

The voting age in Israel is 18.