Q&A on Israel Elections

Israelis are heading to the polls now. Everyone is excitedly talking about it and you haven’t the slightest idea what it’s all about.

@KolHaolam to the rescue.

Elections in Israel are fundamentally different than in the United States, where you vote, and the candidate with the most votes wins. Israel instead had a parliamentary system.

In a parliamentary system, you vote for parties, not individuals. There are actually dozens of parties running in Israel today. The most famous after Likud, Blue and White, UTJ (the Agudah-Degel party) and Labor.

Voters go to the ballot place, take a paper with the symbol of their preferred party, place it in an envelope and insert it into the ballot box. When all votes are counted, they are divided by 120 corresponding to the number of Knesset seats.

So, for example, if 4 million votes are cast, and Likud gets 1 million, they’ll receive 30 seats in the next Knesset. Will party leader Binyamin Netanyahu become the next prime minister as well? We’re not there yet.

But there’s a catch. Under Israeli election law, a party that receives less than 3.25 percent of voters, they fail to pass and all votes for them are considered “wasted.” Most of the parties vying in the election will be dumped into this category. (The law was made to make it easier to build a coalition and not have to deal with pesky small parties and their fringe issues.)

Then, all the remaining unwasted votes are tallied up again and again divided by 120. So let’s say we now have 3.6 million eligible votes, each Knesset seat is worth 30,000 votes. So for every 30,000 votes a party receives, it gets another man or woman in the Knesset.

Most parties have agreements with each other to “share” extra votes. So if one party gets 140,000 votes and the other has 130,000, they’ll both get four Knesset, with one having an extra 20,000 votes and the other 10,000. That equals 30,000, or enough votes for an additional Knesset seat. Under the pact, the one with the greater number of extra seats gets all 30,000 votes and an extra seat.

Then starts the coalition building process. Assuming that no party gets 61 Knesset seats (that has never happened before in Israeli history), President Reuven Rivlin will meet with the heads of the parties that won Knesset representation and ask who their choice for prime minister is. Based on that, he’ll ask one of parties to build the next government.

Usually this will go to the largest party. But in some circumstances it won’t. Why?

Let’s say Blue and White wins the most votes, as polls indicate. They’ll get 32 seats and the Likud will receive 30. But most of the smaller parties are uncomfortable with having Benny Gantz – or co-leader Yair Lapid – running the country. So they’ll tell Rivlin that they will not support Blue and White. Rivlin will then ask Netanyahu to form the government.

Is that all? Not at all. Netanyahu will then negotiate with the smaller parties to join him in building a coalition of 61. But that’s for a different time.