National elections to the Knesset, Israel 's parliament, are held once every four years, unless circumstances call for early elections. Unlike in the United States, voters in Israel vote for a party and not a specific candidate - the head of the party which garners the most votes is then considered the prime minister and is tasked with forming a government.
Israel 's elections reflect the strong democratic tradition of the State of Israel. Election campaigns are a lively affair, accompanied by vigorous debate of the issues. Israelis take a great interest in political affairs, including internal policy and foreign relations, and actively participate in the electoral process.
The framework of the Israeli electoral system is defined in Article 4 of the Basic Law: The Knesset, which states:
"The Knesset shall be elected by general, national, direct, equal, secret and proportional elections, in accordance with the Knesset Elections Law."
- General: On election day, voters cast one ballot for a political party to represent them in the Knesset. Every Israeli citizen aged 18 or older has the right to vote. Israelis of all ethnic groups and religious beliefs, including Arab Israelis, actively participate in the process and for many years, voting percentages have reached close to 80 percent.
- National: The entire country constitutes a single electoral constituency.
- Direct: The Knesset, the Israeli parliament, is elected directly by the voters, not through a body of electors.
- Equal: All votes cast are equal in weight.
- Secret: Elections are by secret ballot.
- Proportional: The 120 Knesset seats are assigned in proportion to each party's percentage of the total national vote. However, the minimum required for a party to win a Knesset seat is 2% of the total votes cast.
Knesset elections are based on a vote for a party rather than for individuals, and the many political parties which compete for election to the Knesset reflect a wide range of outlooks and beliefs.
The direct election of the prime minister, instituted in Israel in 1996, was abolished under the revised Basic Law: The Government (2001) and the the task of forming a government and heading it as prime minister was assigned by the president to the Knesset member considered to have the best chance of forming a viable coalition government in light of the Knesset election results.
Every citizen aged 21 or older is eligible for election to the Knesset, provided they have no criminal record, do not hold an official position (the president, state comptroller, judges and senior public officials, as well as the chief-of-staff and high-ranking military officers, may not stand for election to the Knesset unless they have resigned their position at least 100 days before the elections), and the court has not specifically restricted this right (for example, in the rare case of a person convicted of treason).
Only parties which have been legally registered with the Party Register, or an alignment of two or more registered parties, can present a list of candidates and participate in the elections. Prior to the elections, each party presents its platform, and the list of candidates for the Knesset, in order of precedence. The parties select their candidates for the Knesset in primaries or by other procedures.
Knesset seats are assigned in proportion to each party's percentage of the total national vote. A party's surplus votes, which are insufficient for an additional seat, are redistributed among the various parties according to their proportional size resulting from the elections, or as agreed between parties prior to the election.
The number and order of members entering the new Knesset for each party corresponds to its list of candidates as presented for election. There are no by-elections in Israel . Should an MK resign or pass away in the course of the Knesset term, the next person on that party's list automatically replaces him/her.
According to the Party Financing Law, a treasury allocation for election campaigns is granted to each faction at the rate of one pre-defined "financing unit" per seat won in the previous Knesset elections plus one unit per mandate won in the current Knesset elections, divided by two, plus one additional financing unit. New factions receive a similar allocation, retroactively, based on the number of seats won in the elections.
No faction may receive a contribution, directly or indirectly, from any person or his dependents in excess of the sum established by law and linked to the Consumer Price Index. A faction or list of candidates may not receive a financial contribution from someone who is not eligible to vote in the elections.
The Central Elections Committee, headed by a justice of the Supreme Court and including representatives of the parties holding seats in the Knesset, is responsible for conducting and supervising the elections. Regional election committees oversee the functioning of local polling committees, which include representatives of at least three parties in the outgoing Knesset. Anyone aged 16 or older is eligible to serve on a polling committee.
According to the Basic Law: The Knesset, the Central Elections Committee may prevent a candidates' list from participating in elections if its objectives or actions, expressly or by implication, include one of the following:
- negation of the existence of the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people;
- negation of the democratic character of the State;
- incitement to racism.
With the passing of the Governance bill on March 11, 2014, new policies were in place for the first time during the 2015 election, the most significant of which was the raising of the electoral threshold from 2 percent to 3.25 percent. This change in policy encouraged parties to join forces and run on joint tickets during the election, and the Arab parties especially took advantage of this and formed a singular large ticket out of four small parties. Arab politicians hope that this unification will increase voter turnout among Israeli Arabs.
All citizens aged 18 or older on election day are eligible to vote. Election day is a holiday in order to enable all to participate. Soldiers on active duty vote in special polling stations in their units. Special arrangements have also been made for prison inmates to vote, as well as for those confined to hospital.
Israeli law does not provide for absentee ballots, and voting takes place only on Israeli soil. The sole exceptions are Israeli citizens serving on Israeli ships and in Israeli embassies and consulates abroad.
Election results are published in the official gazette eight days after the elections. The first session of the new Knesset is held approximately two weeks later and is opened by the President, who yields the chair to the oldest member. The Knesset members declare their allegiance, and the speaker of the Knesset and his deputies are elected.
The government (cabinet of ministers) is the executive authority of the state, charged with administering internal and foreign affairs, including security matters. Like the Knesset, the government usually serves for four years, but its tenure may be shortened if the prime minister is unable to continue in office due to death, resignation or impeachment, when the government appoints one of its members (who is a Knesset member) as acting prime minister.
When a new government is to be constituted, the President of the State, after consulting with representatives of the parties elected to the Knesset, assigns the task of forming the government to a Knesset member. This Knesset member is usually the leader of the party with the largest Knesset representation or the head of the party that leads a coalition with more than 60 members.
Since a government requires the Knesset's confidence to function, it must have a supporting coalition of at least 61 of the 120 Knesset members. To date, no 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, with those remaining outside the government making up the opposition.
The Knesset member to whom the task is assigned has a period of 28 days to form a government. The President may extend the term by an additional period of time, not exceeding 14 days.
If this period (up to 42 days) has passed and the designated Knesset member has not succeeded in forming a government, the President may then assign the task of forming a government to another Knesset member. This Knesset member has a period of 28 days for the fulfillment of the task.
If a government still has not been formed, an absolute majority of Knesset members (61) has the option of applying in writing to the President, asking him to assign the task to a particular Knesset member. Such a precedent has yet to occur.
When a government has been formed, the designated prime minister presents it to the Knesset within 45 days of publication of election results in the official gazette. At this time, he announces its composition, the basic guideline 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, and the ministers thereupon assume office.