Israel Votes:
Understanding tomorrow's Israeli election

An election guide for the perplexed: How do Israeli elections work? Who is running and how are seats allotted?

David Rosenberg ,

Likud campaign ad in Jerusalem 2019
Likud campaign ad in Jerusalem 2019
Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

On Tuesday, Israel will hold its 21st general legislative election, giving the country’s 6.34 million eligible voters the opportunity to vote in the 120 members of the next Knesset.

Unlike in the US and most parliamentary systems, Israel is not divided into electoral districts, and the entire country functions as a single de facto district, with all 120 Knesset seats allotted proportionally based on the nation-wide vote.

Minimum Electoral Threshold and Seat Allocation

Any party which receives 3.25% or more of the vote is represented in the Knesset. Given historical trends of voter turnout, it is expected that some 4.4 million or so Israelis will take part in this year’s election – meaning that a party must win about 144,000 votes to pass the electoral threshold.

Each seat will represent some 36,000 to 37,000 votes – not including the seats allocated in the second round of the vote count, based on the votes to parties which did not cross the threshold.

That means that a part can enter the Knesset with a bare minimum of 3.25%, or the equivalent of 3.9 seats. In theory, a party can thus win a minimum of three seats in the Knesset, though practically speaking winning less than four while still crossing the threshold is unlikely.

After the initial seat allocations are made, the votes to parties which failed to cross the electoral threshold are divided up among the remaining parties, in proportion to each faction’s share of the vote. In other words, votes to parties which fail to enter the Knesset are distributed to those parties which passed the threshold, which the larger parties receiving a larger number of those ‘extra’ votes.

For example, in 2015, the two largest parties – the Likud and the Zionist Union – each received two ‘extra’ seats, given to them based on the votes for parties which failed to cross the threshold. The Likud received 23.4% of the vote, or the equivalent of 28 seats, yet in the final count ‘won’ 30 mandates. The Zionist Union, similarly, got 18.6% of the vote, or the equivalent of 22 mandates, yet ‘won’ 24 seats in the final count.

Alliances and Vote Sharing

In addition to receiving extra votes from parties which failed to cross the electoral threshold, lists which do manage to enter the Knesset can also win ‘extra’ seats through vote-sharing alliances with other parties.

Based on the Bader-Ofer method of voting sharing, two parties (or joint lists) may sign a pre-election agreement to ‘share’ surplus votes.

Under this arrangement, if one of the parties in the agreement is just short of an additional seat and the other party has enough ‘extra’ votes beyond the seats they’ve been allocated, those ‘extra’ votes are transferred to the first party, giving them an additional seat.

This happened, for instance in 2009, when the National Union list was just shy of its fourth seat, but had signed a vote-sharing deal with the Jewish Home, enabling it to ‘borrow’ votes pushing it up to the fourth seat.

This election cycle, several large parties signed vote-sharing deals, including the Likud with the Union of Right-Wing Parties, the New Right with Yisrael Beytenu, United Torah Judaism with Shas, the two Arab lists with each other, and Labor with Meretz.

Parties, Factions, and Joint Lists

In elections to the Knesset, parties (miflagot) may run either as independent factions, or join together with other parties to form a joint list.

For instance, since 1992, two small Ashkenazi haredi parties – the Hasidic Agudat Yisrael faction and the non-Hasidic Degel Hatorah – have run for the Knesset on a joint ticket, dubbed the United Torah Judaism list.

Both parties remain independent entities, and run separately in municipal elections, negotiating the terms of their joint ticket every election cycle.

In 2015, four smaller Arab factions – the communist Hadash, secular Arab nationalist Balad, the populist-nationalist Ta’al, and the largely Bedouin United Arab List – ran together on a joint list, unimaginatively named the Joint List.

This year, three right-wing parties – Jewish Home, the National Union, and Otzma Yehudit – formed a similar joint ticket, dubbed the Union of Right-Wing Parties.

Joint lists function in some regards like parties, even though they are in fact collections of smaller parties. While the member factions often retain a high degree of autonomy within the larger list, in terms of elections, they are treated as a single party. The joint ticket submits a single Knesset slate to the elections committee, and runs under a single letter(s) symbol - represented by either one, two, or three letters, which appear on the joint list’s slips in every voting booth around the country.

The Contenders

A total of 47 Knesset slates were registered with the elections committee by the February 21st deadline. These slates include both single-party Knesset lists, as well as joint tickets featuring multiple parties.

Since then, however, six lists have been removed from the election, either after the candidates quit the race or, in the case of one party, were disqualified. A seventh party, Eli Yishai’s Yahad, has also announced it will not participate in the race, with most of the candidates dropping out. As of Monday afternoon, however, two candidates technically remain in the race for Yahad.

Of the 40 parties and joint tickets still running for the Knesset, only 14 have ever polled above the 3.25% electoral threshold, and are thus considered ‘realistic’ bids.

Of those 14, ten have regularly polled above the minimum threshold, and are considered ‘safe’. Four other factions, however, have failed to cross the threshold in some recent polls, while passing it in others.

The ten parties which have crossed the threshold in every poll conducted over the past 30 days are:

1. Blue and White Party
2. Likud
3. Israel Labor Party
4. Hadash-Ta’al joint ticket
5. Union of Right-Wing Parties joint ticket
6. United Torah Judaism joint ticket
7. Shas
8. Meretz
9. New Right
10. Zehut

The four parties which have crossed the threshold in some, but not all of the recent polls, are

11. Yisrael Beytenu
12. Kulanu
13. United Arab List – Balad joint ticket
14. Gesher

Part two of this series, focusing on the entire 40-party field running for the Knesset, can be found here.



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