Israeli Electoral System

How it developed and how it works.

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The Israeli political system can often appear bewildering to those more familiar with the electoral system of the United States.

The American voter elects individual representatives of district constituencies, while the Israeli voter selects from amongst lists of candidates for the Knesset (Parliament) throughout the country. The American tradition stresses strict separation between the legislative and executive branches (i.e., Congress and the President), while in Israel elected officials often serve simultaneously in both branches.

In the United States, presidents expect to serve out their terms in office barring death or Nixonian-level scandal, and elections for president are conducted under a strict schedule, occurring every four years. In Israel, the prime minister can find himself or herself removed from office on any given day by an act of the Knesset, leading to unscheduled "early elections."

Israeli electoral systemEven the words used in the different countries can mean different things. In the U.S., "the government" generally refers to all public officials, elected or appointed, but in Israel the government is roughly equivalent to what the Cabinet is in Washington.

History

These distinctions are due to the fact that the Israeli system stems from traditions far removed from North America. The roots of the Israeli electoral system, like many other aspects of Israeli society, go back to Central and Eastern Europe in the early years of the 20th century. The political traditions of that place and time stressed a lively ferment of multiple parties and broad ranges of beliefs and manifestos ranging from communism to extreme right and everything in between.

The politics of the early Zionist movement, and later the Jewish community in British Mandate Palestine, reflected this tradition of pluralistic party multiplicity. 

The general Zionist movement prior to the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 included socialist parties, communists, liberals, various religious movements, and a rightist revisionist party. When the state was established, shoehorning such an expansive spectrum of views into a two-party system, as per the Anglo-American traditions, was unthinkable. In order to ensure that all opinions, including minority ones, would be guaranteed expression, representative bodies were elected under a proportional system in which each party had a number of representatives in exact proportion to the number of votes cast for that party so that even parties garnering as little as one percent of the total votes would have a voice.

In 1988 this threshold for representation was raised to 1.5 percent in an attempt to prevent extremist minority views—in this case a political party that was later disqualified from candidacy because it was deemed racist—from gaining representation in the Knesset. In 2006 the threshold for representation was raised again, to two percent.

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Ziv Hellman is a Jerusalem-based writer and mathematician. A former editor at the Jerusalem Post, Ziv was a founding member of Peace Watch--the watchdog group reporting on the implementation of the Oslo Agreements. He also led the Israeli elections observer team evaluating the Palestinian Authority elections.