How Do Israeli Elections Work?

Next week, on Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013, Israelis will be heading to the polls to cast their ballot. As this Israeli electoral is different than ours here in the United States, we are pleased to share with you this explanatory piece from the Consulate General of Israel in New York.


For starters, Israel doesn’t have just 2 major political parties. It doesn’t even have 3 or 4. In the upcoming election, there are a whopping thirty-four parties running to get seats in Israel’s legislative body, the Knesset. Are they all going to get seats? Probably not. Israeli law states that you need to have over two percent of the popular vote to get a seat in the Knesset. The 120 seats in the Knesset are divided proportionately between all the parties who received at least two percent of the vote (and thus one seat).

But let’s back up a bit. Unlike the United States, in Israel, you’re not voting for your direct representative. Instead, you vote for a political party. Each party has a list of candidates for Knesset. Should that party do well in the elections and gain 5 seats for example, the top 5 names on their list become Knesset members. So the public knows who they are voting for (the number one spot on every party list is the leader of the party). Each party has to have a pretty long list, in the off chance that they receive a lion’s share of the public’s votes. The closer you are to the top of the list, the more likely you will make it to the Knesset should your party do well.


Now we get to the fun part. Israel’s Prime Minister, who heads the government, is chosen from among the members of the newly-elected Knesset. The best way to think about the difference between the U.S. and Israel’s system is that while America has separate legislative and Presidential elections, Israel’s are combined into one. The process by which Israel chooses its Prime Minister is similar to how the U.S. Congress chooses their Speaker of the House or Senate majority leader. While the public votes for which party they want to have seats in the Knesset, it’s up to the elected officials themselves to “nominate” a Prime Minister.

Usually, but not always, this person is the head of the party that received the most seats. However, because you have dozens of parties vying for the Knesset’s 120 seats, its almost impossible for one party to have a clear majority of 61 or more seats. To date, no single party has received enough Knesset seats to be able to form a government by itself; thus all Israeli governments have been based on coalitions of several parties. Those remaining outside the government compose the opposition.


According to Israeli law, each Knesset term is up to four years. However, coalition governments have an average lifespan of 3.5 years. There are a number of reasons why early elections can take place:

1. The Knesset passes a bill to disperse the Knesset
2. The Knesset has not approved the budget within three months of the start of the financial year
3. The Prime Minister asks the Knesset to disperse
4. A no-confidence vote has passed and a new government has not formed.

In this case, it’s the third option. In the fall of 2012, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for early elections to take place in January of 2013. Whichever party receives the most seats next week essentially has “first pick” over forming a coalition with other parties to get a majority of seats in the Knesset. The President of the State of Israel, largely a ceremonial post, formally requests the leader of the largest party to form a government. When a government has been formed, the designated Prime Minister presents it to the Knesset within 45 days of the election. At this time, he or she announces its composition, the basic guidelines of its policy and the distribution of functions among its ministers.

The Prime Minister then asks the Knesset for an expression of confidence. The government is installed when the Knesset has expressed confidence in it by a majority of 61 Knesset members. Then the new ministers assume their offices.
While in America the term government refers to Federal, Legislative and Judicial branches, in Israel, the term “government” is used to refer to the cabinet positions – everything from Prime Minister to Minister of Transportation. The government (cabinet of ministers) is the executive authority of the state, charged with administering internal and foreign affairs, including security matters. Only members of the political parties which form the majority coalition in the Knesset are appointed to government posts.


Election broadcasts begin on television 21 days before the elections. All election advertising is broadcast free of charge on television and radio, although the parties are responsible for preparing the advertisements at their own expense. Under the principle of equal opportunity, it is prohibited to purchase broadcasting time.

The Election Law contains strict rules regarding the timing, length and content of television and radio election broadcasts. Parties participating in the elections receive broadcasting minutes according to a formula set in law. Each is given a basic and equal allocation of minutes for broadcasts on television and radio. Factions which have candidates who served in the outgoing Knesset are allocated an additional amount of time based on their number of former Members of Knesset (MKs).
For example, each party receives 7 basic minutes of advertising on television and an additional 2 minute per former MK. On radio, each party list receives 15 basic minutes and 4 additional ones per outgoing MK. Parties are also limited in the amount of inches of election advertising they can print in newspapers.

Other restrictions on advertising include:
No use of children under the age of 15
No use of the IDF that creates the impression that the army identifies with a particular party
No use of the names or images of victims of terrorism without their permission or that of their surviving family


On January 22nd, this process will begin in earnest. Election day in Israel is a national holiday in order to enable all potential voters to participate. Free transportation is available to voters who happen to be outside their polling districts on this day. Every Israeli citizen aged 18 or older on election day has the right to vote. Israelis of all ethnic groups and religious beliefs, including Arab Israelis, actively participate in the process. There will be 10,128 polling stations open next week, including 190 in hospitals and 57 in prisons. Soldiers on active duty vote in polling stations in their units. Special arrangements are made for prison inmates to vote, as well as for those confined to hospital. Disabled persons who are ambulatory can vote in special voting stations designed for accessibility.Israeli law does not provide for absentee ballots and in general, voting takes place only on Israeli soil. The sole exceptions are Israeli citizens serving in Israeli embassies and consulates abroad or on Israeli ships.