Israel's 2020 elections in a nutshell

Do you want to know who's who in today's elections in Israel? How the elections work? Here is a primer that summarizes the scene.

Daniel Pinner

OpEds Knesset plenum
Knesset plenum

Here’s a brief explanation of the Israeli electoral system:

Israel uses the proportional representation system. This means that Israeli voters vote not for an individual representative to Parliament, but for a political party. A party which receives, say, 15% of the popular vote country-wide receives 15% of seats in the Knesset; a party which receives 40% of the popular vote country-wide receives 40% of seats in the Knesset.

This means that votes are not regional but sectoral: the entire country constitutes one single electoral unit. This is very different from the USA with its Electoral College system, and in which each of the 50 states constitutes a separate electoral unit; also different from almost all European countries, which are divided into constituencies.

One consequence of this is the plethora of parties which contest every election, and the multitude of parties which invariably end up in the Knesset: last election, half-a-year ago, 30 parties contested the election, of which 9 received enough votes to get into the Knesset.

For the first 40 years of the state, the electoral threshold was 1% of the overall vote. In 1988 the threshold was raised to 1.5%, then to 2% in 2003, and finally to 3.25% in 2014, which is today’s threshold.

Since no party in Israeli history has ever received more than 50% of the popular vote, and since the ruling coalition has to number more than half of the Knesset’s 120 seats (i.e. 61 seats or more), every government in Israeli history has been a coalition.

This time will be no exception.

After the votes have been counted and all 120 Members of Knesset installed, each Member of Knesset will be invited to recommend his or her choice of Prime Minister to the President (currently Reuven “Ruby” Rivlin).

No Member of Knesset has any obligation to recommend a choice of Prime Minister, and the members of the predominantly Arab Joint List might well abstain from any recommendation: the last time than any Arab party recommended anyone as Prime Minister was in 1992, when they all recommended Yitzchak Rabin, head of the Labour Party, to President Chaim Herzog. That is when we got the Oslo Accords.

Although Members of Knesset can recommend anyone they want as Prime Minister, in practice they will recommend the leader of one of the two main parties: either the leader of Likud, incumbent Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, or else leader of Blue-and-White, Benny Gantz.

President Rivlin will then invite whichever candidate receives the most recommendations to form a coalition.

He will then have to construct a coalition of various parties, which together will comprise 61 or more Members of Knesset.

After the elections of April 9th last year, President Rivlin invited the incumbent Prime Minister, Binyamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, to form a coalition. However, with the Left and the Right deadlocked, neither Netahyahu nor Benny Gantz, leader of Blue-and-White, were able to achieve that 61-or-more-seat majority. For the first time in Israeli history no political leader was able to build a coalition within the allotted time, and the result was the second election half-a-year later on September 17th.

The result of that election was the same deadlock with the same consequences, hence Israel’s third election in less than a year.

Will this election break the deadlock? Or will we once again have a stalemate, with neither the Left nor the Right able to form a coalition, and therefore a fourth round of elections in another half-a-year or so?

– Only the electorate can decide that. It depends on how many Israelis go out to vote.u

And now some brief facts and statistics on Israeli electoral history:

Elections in Israel are, by law, always held on a Tuesday. For this there are two reasons, one ideological and one practical.

In the Creation chapter, the phrase “and G-d saw that it was good” occurs six times, one for each Day of Creation, but twice for the third Day of Creation (Genesis 1:10 and 12). Hence in Jewish tradition, Tuesday, the third day of the week, is called פַּעֲמָיִם כִּי טוֹב, “doubly good” (which is a reason that Tuesdays are especially popular days for Jewish weddings).

This is the ideological reason to hold Israeli elections on Tuesdays, the most auspicious day of the week.

The practical reason is that holding elections on Tuesdays allows the country two complete days to get ready, to set up the voting-stations, and so forth, without any risk of having to violate the Sabbath to be ready in time. And then, after the elections, it allows three days to count the votes, to re-count as and when necessary, to check any claims of breaches of voting laws, and the like, again without violating the Sabbath.

This election, however, is an exception:

After the last election, the deadline to form a new coalition expired at midnight on 11th December, and by law, the next elections should have been held 90 days later. This, however, would have brought us to next week, 10th March – but that would have clashed with Purim.

The alternatives, therefore, were either to delay by a week or to advance by a week.

Delaying the elections by a week would have demanded entirely new legislation, so it was easier to advance the elections by a week, to Tuesday 4th March. However, Tuesday happens to be 7th of Adar, which in Jewish tradition is the date that Moses was born and the date he died and is therefore the day the IDF Rabbinate holds a memorial for soldiers whose burial place is unknown (as was the burial place of Moses).

Because of the many events which are held on this day, Moses’ Memorial Day, it was deemed to be an inappropriate day for the elections, hence they were advanced by one additional day to Monday.

The Knesset (Hebrew: “Gathering”) has 120 seats, modelled after the Knesset ha-Gedolah (“the Great Gathering”), the constituent body which governed Israel from the end of the Biblical period, approximately 515 B.C.E., until the Greek invasion in 333 B.C.E., which was composed of Prophets (in its early years), Talmudic sages, scholars, scribes, and other leaders.

Israeli law grants a government the mandate to rule for 4 years; a government can call an early election any time within that 4-year period.

First elections ever: 25th January 1949, just 8 months after independence from the British Empire, while the War of Independence was still raging.

The First Knesset included 117 Jews and 3 Arabs, 108 men and 12 women.

The current (22nd) Knesset includes 14 Arabs and 28 women. This includes Gadir Kamal-Mrich (Blue-and-White Party), the only Druze woman ever to be elected to the Knesset.

The first Government of Israel was sworn in on 8th March 1949, six weeks after the elections. The first ruling coalition consisted of 5 parties: Mapai (46 seats), the United Religious Front (16 seats), the Progressive Party (5 seats), the Sefaradim and Eastern Communities (4 seats), and the [Arab] Democratic List of Nazareth (2 seats).

Highest voter turnout ever: 1949 elections (86.9%)

Lowest voter turnout ever: 2006 elections (63.5%)

Number of eligible voters in 1949: 506,567

Number of eligible voters today: 6,454,438

Number of votes needed for each seat in 1949: 3,592

Number of votes needed for each seat today: estimated approximately 36,000 (the precise number will depend upon how many people vote, how many of those votes are valid, how many go to parties which fail to cross the threshold, etc.).

Number of voting stations today: 11,026

Biggest party ever in the Knesset: Ma’arach (Labour Alignment), 1969-1974, with 56 seats (46.2% of the popular vote).

Longest gap between elections: 11th Knesset, 23rd July 1984-1st November 1988;

Shorter by just 1 day was the 3rd Knesset, 26th July 1955-3rd November 1959.

Shortest gap between elections until the current round: 4th Knesset, 3rd November 1959-15th August 1961.

Number of parties contesting the elections in 1949: 22, of which 12 won seats in the Knesset.

Number of parties contesting the elections today: 29.

Highest number of parties ever contesting an election: 40 in the April 2019 elections, of which 11 won seats in the Knesset.