Stage 1: Elections
Every Israeli citizen 18 or over who is located in Israel on Election Day is eligible to vote for one registered political party. Israel had previously experimented with a direct vote for the prime minister, but has since gone back to the current electoral system.
The actual voting process is very low-tech, so don’t expect to hear about any hanging chads. Voters present their national identification cards at their assigned polling stations and are given a blue envelope for the ballot. They step behind a screen, where the ballots for all the parties are laid out, each party’s members having already been chosen by the party. Voters pick a ballot, place it in the envelope, step out from behind the screen and slide the envelope through a slit in the lid of the blue ballot box in the room.
(Gil Cohen Magen)
This is the first election in which the electoral threshold has been as high as 3.25 percent, meaning that a party needs to win at least 3.25 percent of all votes – representing four seats in the Knesset – in order to secure parliamentary representation. The higher threshold is the reason the so-called Arab parties – United Arab List-Ta’al, Balad and the Arab-Jewish party Hadash – are all running together this year, under the Joint List ticket; party leaders feared none of them would win a large enough percentage of votes to get into the Knesset if they did not join forces. Voter location doesn't matter, since the whole country functions as one district.
The distribution of Knesset seats to each party that passes the threshold is determined after the division of the number of all valid votes by 120 (the number of seats in Knesset), in order to determine how many votes entitle a list to a single seat. The number of Knesset seats allotted to each party is a result of the total votes it receives divided by the number of votes for a single seat. Since this allocation does not generally fill all the seats in the Knesset (remember that some of the votes will have gone to parties that don’t make it into the parliament), the party or party alliance with the most surplus votes gets an extra seat, and so on until all 120 seats are filled.
Once the ballots have been counted and the surplus votes allocated, Israel has a 20th Knesset – but no new prime minister as yet. Yes, the head of the largest party often ends up serving as prime minister. Does it have to be that way, though? No.
The election is a crucial step on the road to premiership, but it’s still only the first stage.
Stage 2: Party recommendations
Knesset (Emil Salman)
All elected parties can now recommend a candidate for prime minister (though they are not obligated to do so), and submit the recommendation to the president, currently Reuven Rivlin. They can recommend the head of any of the elected parties, including their own.
One of the major factors in this decision is which parties will serve in the ruling coalition. Even the largest party can’t go it alone, since partners are needed to form a coalition of at least 61 MKs before a new government can be sworn in.
Since there can be no prime minister without a coalition, the premiership is always a function of both the size of the largest party and the size of its political bloc, says Reuven Hazan, chairman of the political science department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. But the issue of political blocs has taken on an outsize role in this election because the two largest parties – Likud and Zionist Union – are polling at under 30 seats. “Today the two biggest parties are under 30, so they’re talking about blocs because there’s no single party that’s close enough to a majority that it can choose who it wants to be prime minister,” says Hazan. “The further a party gets from 61 seats, the more important its partners are.”
Stage 3: Presidential decision
President Rivlin (GPO)
Once the president receives the recommendations, he assigns the task of forming a government to the party leader who has the greatest chance of establishing a coalition – meaning the candidate who has the support of the most MKs. The president is under no obligation to assign the task to the leader of the largest party in the Knesset if that party does not have the most support.
That’s how Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister for the second time (he is currently running for his fourth term, and his third consecutive one). In 2009, after a Tzipi Livni-led Kadima failed to form a coalition following Ehud Olmert’s resignation as prime minister due to a corruption scandal, early elections ended with a very narrow Kadima victory. Though Kadima was the biggest party in the Knesset, winning 28 seats in the election compared with Likud’s 27, the right-wing bloc had become more powerful overall and then-President Shimon Peres tasked the Likud chairman, not Livni, with forming a government. Netanyahu did so and has been in office ever since.
The president is also authorized to recommend a unity government, in which two parties share power and rotate the premiership, but does not have the power to impose it against their will.
Stage 4: Coalition building
Cabinet meeting (Mark Israel Salem)
The candidate chosen by the president, after consultation with the Knesset, does not become prime minister until he or she forms a coalition that is confirmed by the Knesset.
The candidate has 42 days to form a coalition (well, 28 days plus a 14-day extension the president can grant). If the candidate fails to win the support of at least 61 MKs in that time, the president can task another candidate with forming a coalition.
That happened to Peres in 1990, during what has become known as “the stinking maneuver.” Peres, who was chairman of the Labor Party at the time, had attempted to withdraw from a unity government with Yitzhak Shamir’s Likud and form a government with Shas. After the unity government was toppled in a no-confidence motion, Likud and Labor each had the support of 60 MKs, giving the president – who at the time was Chaim Herzog, the father of today’s Zionist Union chairman, Isaac Herzog– the right to decide whom to task with forming a government. Peres got the first shot at it but failed to come up with a coalition, and Shamir became prime minister again.
The second candidate has 28 days to form a coalition, with no possibility of extension. The law also provides for the possibility that the second candidate will fail, in which case a majority of MKs can ask the president to task another candidate with forming a coalition in just 14 days. If the third candidate fails as well, the Knesset is dispersed and new elections held within 90 days.
Stage 5: Knesset confirmation
Once the prime minister-designate has formed a government, the coalition must report to the Knesset what its basic policies are, which parties are in the coalition and who will get which portfolio in the cabinet.
The Knesset needs to confirm the coalition in an investiture vote, essentially the opposite of a no-confidence motion. Then the prime minister and the new government, Israel's 34th, are sworn into office.