Israel’s elections are approaching, so it seems like a good time to explain the
complex, confusing and often awkward process that constitutes the heart and soul of Israeli democracy.
In 1948, when the state of Israel was declared, it was decided the Jewish state would be a multi-party parliamentary democracy. The name of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, and the number of parliament members, 120, were derived from Jewish tradition: during the time of the second Temple in Jerusalem there was a legislative forum named the Knesset G’dola, the great assembly comprised of 120 elder communal and spiritual leaders.
The modern Knesset is made up of members of political parties. Once every four years the Israeli public is called to vote. Every citizen over the age of 18 regardless of gender, faith, race, education or economic background has an equal right to vote. Every citizen over the age of 21 has the right to be nominated as a candidate.
On Election Day, the public is asked only one question: to which political party do you give your vote? Each party submits a list of nominees ahead of time. The number of votes a party gets out of the total number of valid votes defines the number of seats the party will get in the Knesset. Voting is done privately and anonymously. Inside the voting booth are ballot slips with a letter representing a political party; the voter puts one in an envelope that goes into the ballot box.
Election Day is a national paid holiday to encourage everyone to vote and to prevent employers on the one hand and unions on the other from trying to manipulate the vote. Apart from a few specific exceptions, an Israeli citizen can vote only in Israel; there is no vote from abroad.
The election process and the vote count are supervised by election committees. Each polling station is supervised by a local election committee of three members, each representing a different political party. Any political party that does not have a representative in a specific local committee has the right to send an official observer.
A new main election committee is assigned the day after the election and is in charge of preparations for the next election. The chair of the main election committee is an active Supreme Court judge elected by fellow judges. All other members of the committee are representatives of the different political parties in the Knesset. The main election committee’s decisions are subject to the Supreme Court’s approval.
Following the election each political party in the Knesset gives the president of Israel a recommendation of who should become the prime minister. It is important to note that the president of Israel does not hold any significant powers and is not elected by the populace. The president is elected by the Knesset and one of his or her main roles is to assign the role of building a government to a potential prime minister. The potential prime minister then has about two weeks to present a government.
The government needs to win a vote of trust in the Knesset in order to be approved. Normally the potential prime minster will sign deals with various political parties in order to get members’ support. In this way the Knesset comprises a coalition of parties that support the suggested government, and an opposition of parties that oppose it. In the upcoming elections, Israeli political parties are divided on three main topics: security and foreign policy, economics and social justice and, last but not least, religious vs. secular relations in Israel.
The upcoming elections will definitely be fascinating and, as always, may bring some interesting surprises. Above all, they are a wonderful celebration of true democracy.
Guy Gelbart is Tucson’s shaliach (emissary from Israel) and director of the Weintraub Israel Center.