Israeli Elections – some Frequently Asked Questions

Israel is a parliamentary democracy. The government is comprised of a cabinet of ministers and is headed by a prime minister. It is the executive authority of Israel, charged with administering internal and foreign affairs, including security matters. The prime minister is chosen from among the men and women elected to the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.

The upcoming national elections in Israel will be held on 17 March 2015. These elections will determine the composition of the new Knesset (Israel’s 20th) and of the new government – headed by a prime minister – that will be established based on these results.

Exit poll indications of the result are likely soon after the close of poll at 10pm Israel time (8pm UK time) but it may be some weeks before there is agreement on a new governing coalition and the identity of the next Prime Minister.

What are Israeli elections like?

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 great interest in political affairs, including internal policy and foreign relations, and actively participate in the electoral process. The parties competing for election to the Knesset reflect a very wide range of outlooks and beliefs. In the March 2015 elections, 26 parties will compete.

What are the basic principles of Israel’s election 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: Every Israeli citizen aged 18 or older on election day has the right to vote.

National: The entire country constitutes a single electoral constituency. In Israel’s proportional representation system, candidates represent national parties and not electoral districts or local constituencies.

Direct: The Knesset, the Israeli parliament, is elected directly by the voters, not through a body of electors. On election day, voters cast one ballot for a single political party to represent them in the Knesset.

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 threshold required for a party to be represented in the Knesset is currently 3.25% of the total votes cast.)

When are elections held?

Elections to the Knesset are held every four years, unless one of the following situations occurs:

· The Knesset passes a bill to disperse the Knesset.
· The Knesset has not approved the budget within three months of the start of the financial year.
· The prime minister asks the Knesset to disperse.
· A no-confidence vote has passed and a new government has not formed.

The March 2015 elections were called after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked the Knesset to disperse.

The Knesset can also decide, by a special majority of 80 votes, to prolong its term beyond four years if there are special circumstances. This happened once, in 1973, when the elections to the Eighth Knesset were delayed by two months because of the Yom Kippur War.

Do Israelis vote for parties or individual candidates?

In the elections, voters vote for the party of their choice as a whole and not for a particular candidate on a party list.

Since the entire country is a single electoral constituency, the candidates run on lists representing their nation-wide party. They do not represent electoral districts or local constituencies.

Do Israelis vote for the prime minister directly?

Israelis cast their votes for parties, not for a specific candidate for prime minister. These parties run for seats (mandates) in the Knesset. After the election, the prime minister is chosen from among the men and women elected to serve in the Knesset. Although the president of Israel usually assigns the task of forming a government to the leader of the party that received the most Knesset seats, that does not necessarily happen: the role of the president is to assign the task to the member of Knesset (MK) considered to have the best chance of forming a viable coalition government.

In two past elections (1996 and 1999), Israel adopted the system of direct election of the prime minister. In those elections, voters cast two ballots: one for an individual candidate for prime minister and one for a party list (for seats in the Knesset). The law that changed the electoral system to allow for the direct election of the prime minister was rescinded in 2001.

Who can vote?

Voting is a legal right, protected by the Basic Law: The Knesset, that is granted to every Israeli citizen who has reached the age of 18 or older on election day.

Israelis of all ethnic groups and religious beliefs, including Arab-Israelis, actively participate in the process.

Every eligible Israeli citizen is automatically registered. A total of 5,881,696 Israelis are eligible to vote in the March 17th elections.

What arrangements are made to allow special populations to vote?

Specific arrangements are made to ensure that every eligible citizen in Israel can vote, including soldiers, people with disabilities, the infirm, police officers and prison inmates.

Soldiers on active duty vote in polling stations in their units. People with disabilities who are ambulatory can vote in one of the 2,693 voting stations that are accessible for people with disabilities (of which 1,548 are special voting stations specifically designed for accessibility). Particular arrangements are made for prison inmates to vote, as well as for those confined to hospitals (there are 196 polling stations in hospitals and 57 in prisons or jails). Police officers can vote at any polling station. (Prior to the elections, they are issued a special voter certificate which is handed in upon casting a vote to prevent double votes).

Are absentee ballots permitted?

Israeli law does not provide for absentee ballots and in general, voting takes place only on Israeli soil. Exceptions are made for Israeli citizens serving abroad on official business (as well as their spouses and adult children), who vote in Israeli embassies and consulates abroad or on Israeli ships. Voting took place in 96 Israeli missions across the globe on 5 March 2015.

How does voting take place?

The Israeli voting method is low-tech and very user-friendly, even for voters who have limited knowledge of Hebrew or Arabic (Israel’s two official languages).

Every voter is given an envelope before entering the voting booth. Inside the booth is a tray holding slips of paper. Each slip has the name of a party and the “symbol” of the party (comprised of 1-4 letters). The voter then selects the slip that represents their chosen party from the assortment and seals the slip in the envelope. After exiting the voting booth, the voter places the envelope in the ballot box.

How are voters identified?

Voters can be identified by one of the following identification cards:
· An official Israeli I.D. card with a picture (issued free to all Israelis from the age of 16);
· A valid Israeli passport with a picture;
· A valid driver’s license with a picture;
· A Knesset member I.D. card.

The Interior Minister may approve identification without a photo I.D. in rare cases.

What happens on election day?

Election day is a national holiday in order to enable all potential voters to participate.

Registered voters vote at one of the 10,372 polling stations around the country.

Free public transportation is available to voters who happen to be outside their polling districts on this day.

In the upcoming elections, most polls will open at 07:00 (Israel time, which is 2 hours ahead of the UK) in the morning on election day and close at 22:00 (10 pm). If voters are still in line at 22:00, the polling station remains open until everyone has cast their vote. In smaller communities, hospitals and prisons voting takes place between 08:00 and 20:00 (8 pm). If all the registered voters have voted at a particular station, that polling station may close early.

Voting may take place earlier in special cases. Polling is held twelve days before election day in Israeli diplomatic missions and on ships, while the votes of soldiers may be collected up to 72 hours before election day.

Who is eligible for elected office?

Every citizen aged 21 or older is eligible for election to the Knesset, unless they are excluded by one of the exceptions under the law.

Examples of exceptions include:

· An individual who holds a senior official position, including the president, a chief rabbi, the state comptroller, judges and senior public officials, as well as the IDF’s chief-of-staff and high-ranking military officers. These individuals may not stand for election to the Knesset unless they have resigned their position before the elections in the period specified by law.
· Cases where a court has specifically restricted this right by virtue of a law.

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 national homeland of the Jewish people.
· Negation of the democratic character of Israel.
· Incitement to racism.

This decision can be appealed to the Supreme Court, which has reversed decisions by the Central Elections Committee in the past.

What is the Central Elections Committee?

The Central Elections Committee is responsible for conducting and supervising the elections. It is currently headed by Supreme Court Justice Salim Joubran, an Arab-Israeli lawyer and judge who was appointed to the Supreme Court in 2004. The Committee also includes representatives of the parties who hold seats in the outgoing Knesset.

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.

What must parties do before the elections?

Prior to the elections, each party submits its list of candidates for the Knesset (in order of precedence).
The parties select their candidates for the Knesset in primaries or by other procedures.

Only registered parties or an alignment of two or more registered parties can present a list of candidates and participate in the elections.

How are campaigns financed?

The State of Israel covers most of the parties’ budgets and only a small fraction of party financing originates from sources other than the state budget.

According to the Party Financing Law, a treasury allocation for election campaigns is granted to the factions. Each faction receives an allocation based on the average of one pre-defined “financing unit” per seat in the previous Knesset elections and one unit per mandate won in the new Knesset (retroactively), plus one additional financing unit. The current rate of a financing unit is 1.375 million shekels (approximately USD 344,000). New factions receive a similar allocation, retroactively, based on the number of seats won in the elections. In the last election, held on 22 January 2013, the treasury paid out 195 million shekels (approximately USD 50 million) in party financing.

The law concerning non-public financing, such as membership dues and contributions, is extremely strict and limiting. 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. Corporations are not allowed to make donations to parties.

A faction or list of candidates may not receive a financial contribution from someone who is not eligible to vote in the elections, such as foreign nationals who do not also hold Israeli citizenship.

How do campaign ads meet the principle of equal opportunity?

Election broadcasts begin on television 21 days before the elections. All election advertising is broadcast free of charge on television and radio, although the parties are responsible for preparing the advertisements at their own expense. Under the principle of equal opportunity, it is prohibited to purchase broadcasting time.

The Election Law contains strict rules regarding the timing, length and content of television and radio election broadcasts. Parties participating in the elections receive broadcasting minutes according to a formula set in law. Each is given a basic and equal allocation of minutes for broadcasts on television and radio. Factions which have candidates who served in the outgoing Knesset are allocated an additional amount of time based on their number of former members of Knesset (MK).

For example, each party receives 7 basic minutes of advertising on television and an additional 2 minutes per former MK. On radio, each party list receives 15 basic minutes and 4 additional ones per outgoing MK. Parties are also limited in the amount of inches of election advertising they can print in newspapers.

Other restrictions on advertising include:

· No use of children under the age of 15.
· No use of the IDF that creates the impression that the army identifies with a particular party.
· No use of the names or images of victims of terrorism without their permission or that of their surviving family.

How is the Knesset formed?

Knesset seats are assigned in proportion to each party’s percentage of the total national vote.

The number and order of members entering the new Knesset for each party corresponds to its list of candidates as presented for election. For example, if a party receives 10 seats (mandates) in the Knesset, the first ten candidates on its list enter the new Knesset.

However, each party must receive at least a certain percentage of the votes to enter the Knesset. Currently, the minimum qualifying threshold to be elected is 3.25% of the total votes cast.

A party’s surplus votes, which are insufficient for an additional seat, can be transferred to another party according to agreements made between them prior to the election. If no agreement exists, the surplus votes are distributed according to the parties’ proportional sizes in the election results.

How is the prime minister chosen?

The prime minister is selected from among the Knesset members. The president of the State assigns the task to the Knesset member considered to have the best chance of forming a viable coalition government in light of the Knesset election results.

How is the government formed?

When a new government is to be formed, the president of Israel – after consulting with representatives of the parties elected to the Knesset – assigns the task of forming the government to a Knesset member. This MK is usually the leader of the party with the largest Knesset representation or the head of the party that leads a coalition of 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 single 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. Those remaining outside the government compose 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. There are no further extensions.

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 or her 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 the publication of election results in the official gazette. At this time, he or she announces its composition, the basic guidelines 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 61Knesset members. Then the new ministers assume their offices.

Like the Knesset, the government is elected for four years. Its tenure may be shortened if the prime minister is unable to continue in office due to death, resignation, permanent incapacitation or impeachment, or if the prime minister ceases to function as a member of the Knesset. However, the government may appoint one of its other members of Knesset as acting prime minister.

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