Israeli Election Coverage, Part I: Democracy and Political Culture

In light of the forthcoming municipal elections, I’ve decided to begin my long-promised series on Israeli politics. It is available as a video below, but if you can’t/don’t want to watch, a slightly expanded article to the same effect is also further down.

Part I: Democracy and Political Culture
Israel is one of only three countries with no formal constitution, but despite some minor changes, the Jewish State has always functioned as a unitary parliamentary republic. Today, I will examine what that means word by word, and in the process explain how Israeli elections work.

In contrast to many western nations, Israel is not a federation. The country is divided into six mehuzot (provinces) and thence fifteen nafot (counties), but they are purely statistical entities and have no autonomy; the national government is the sole lawmaking authority in the land.

Lawmaking power in Israel is vested in a 120-member unicameral legislature called the Knesset, whose members are elected by a form of proportional representation called the Bader-Ofer system. Rather than voting for local representatives, the electorate is tasked with voting for entire parties whose members will be allocated based on their share of the national popular vote, provided that share meets a minimum threshold that currently stands at 3.25% or four seats in the Knesset. Smaller parties that risk missing the threshold can form alliances with other blocs to get in, and larger parties can also agree to pool their combined vote totals to avoid getting rounded down and potentially losing a seat.

Every seven years, the Knesset will appoint someone, usually an elder statesman, to the office of the Presidency. Although mostly a ceremonial role, the President is still responsible for issuing pardons, acting as Commander-in-Chief of the military, and calling for new elections by assent. Most importantly for our purposes, the President must choose a party leader to form a coalition government. If the leader is unable to do this within a month, the President will appoint a different party to the task. Whoever successfully forms a coalition usually becomes Prime Minister, although a coalition agreement can sometimes result in someone else getting the job.

Who votes, and how?
Elections must take place at least every four years, ideally during the Hebrew month of Heshvan (early-mid autumn). However, the fickle nature of coalition governments means that full terms are very rare so early elections are the norm. The campaign season typically lasts no more than three months. To facilitate voting, Election Day is a work holiday, it can’t coincide with any religious holidays, and it must take place on a Tuesday.

All adults holding Israeli citizenship are eligible to vote, but because of the truly arcane balloting system1, voting can only take place in person at your local precinct, with special provisions for combat soldiers, prison inmates, embassy and consulate workers abroad, and settlers in the occupied West Bank. A quarter of a million Israelis living abroad are totally disenfranchised. Voters at their precinct must present their National ID card, possession of which is both free and mandatory.

Political culture
Because Knesset seats aren’t apportioned geographically, there’s no need to form the broad coalitions you find in English-speaking countries, so the partisan layout is very fractured, so much so that no political party or alliance in has ever won a majority of the vote. For the same reason, partisanship is very aregional. One of the woes of the Democratic Party in America is the phenomenon of “self-sorting” where people move to areas where their preferred party is more popular. That doesn’t really happen here. Partisan geography exists, but it’s on the basis of individual towns or even neighborhoods, and even then it isn’t so homogeneous as you see in parts of America or Britain.

As you might expect from this system, political parties are heavily personality-based and can flit in and out of existence in a matter of years instead of the more typical decades. This problem has gotten worse over the past two decades because of a phenomenon called disalignment. In the old days, the Knesset was dominated by one or two parties that could be expected to win at least a quarter of the vote. But that’s no longer the case, increasingly forcing like-minded parties to campaign against each other rather than their opponents.

…And that’s the prologue! Tune in next week when I discuss the longstanding and ever-growing debate over the place of religion in Israel. And if you have any suggestions or questions, please offer them in the comments. As in all other threads, respect the site guidelines and do not threaten any Mayors McSquirrel.