Israeli Politics: 3 Elections, 11 months

Posted on April 7, 2020 by Ryan Maizel

It’s a confusing time in Israeli politics. On March 2, 2020, Israel had its third election since last April. It’s especially confusing to those of us in the United States when we hear things like, “They can’t form a government!” What does that even mean?! Our American news agencies try to explain it by using comparisons to our own government, which seems only to add to the confusion.

On a recent trip to Israel, I had the privilege of learning about Israel’s politics and political system from Prof. Reuven Hazan, from the Political Science Department at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. I’d like to share a little bit of what I learned, in the hope that it helps us understand what’s going on in Israel’s politics today, and better engage with our fellow Jews there.

 An election is an election… right?

We all know how elections work, right? Someone runs against someone else, everybody votes, and the winner gets the office. Obviously, it doesn’t work quite that way in the United States, so it shouldn’t surprise us that things are a little different in Israel, too. I’m not going to explain the various differences between the types of government – I couldn’t do it justice compared to Prof. Hazan’s explanation – so I’m going to talk about the difference in how the elections work for the legislature, and why that creates the jumble we’re seeing in Israel right now.

Here are two key differences to understand first:

  • In the U.S., we vote for people, but in Israel they vote for parties.
  • In the U.S., we have an election for the executive branch of government (the president, but I’ll call this the “administration”) that is separate from the election of the legislative branch (Congress). In Israel, the legislative branch (the Knesset) forms the administration.

So here’s how the election works: The Knesset has 120 seats available. Multiple parties “run” in the election. (There were effectively eight parties in the most recent elections; I’ll describe them later.) Each party selects its list of up to 120 representatives, and ranks them from number one to number 120. This ranking is important after the election. When Israelis vote, they choose only their preferred party, not a specific person. Once the votes are counted, a party is granted a number of seats in the Knesset proportional to the votes it received. For example, if a party receives 10 percent of the votes, it would be granted 10 percent of the seats in Knesset, or 12 of the 120 seats. These seats will be filled by the first 12 people on the party’s list.

Forming a government… er, administration

With me so far? Now the Knesset has to “form the government.” Just like our own government, Israel’s is made up of various departments responsible for specific public functions – defense, education, etc. – and each needs someone to lead it in order for the government to operate. The most senior official in each department is called a minister, and each department is called a ministry. The prime minister oversees all the ministers. Collectively, the prime minister and other ministers are called the cabinet.

Forming the government is where things start to get difficult in Israel these days. In order to accomplish this, the members of Knesset (“MK”) recommend one person to lead this effort. That person’s job is to negotiate with all the elected parties, or at least enough of them to produce a simple majority, on what roles each party will play in the government – what ministry each will have a representative to oversee. This “coalition government” is then voted on by the Knesset. If they receive a majority of votes to proceed, the ministers take their offices.


Many parties, but who’s celebrating victory?

If the parties can’t form a government that can earn a majority of votes, then new elections have to take place, allowing people to change their votes and realign the Knesset to, hopefully, resolve this. Describing all the parties in depth is more than I can cover, and the Israeli newspapers do a much better job of that. Here’s a brief summary of the parties and their previous coalitions:

  • Endorsed Netanyahu for prime minister last time; these are generally referred to as “right wing,”“conservative” or “hawkish” parties:
  • Likud – Netanyahu’s own party;
  • Yamina/Right Wing Union – combined “Zionist”party;
  • Shas – Orthodox Jewish party; and
  • United Torah Judaism – ultra Orthodox Jewishparty.
  • Endorsed Gantz for prime minister last time; these aregenerally referred to as “left wing,” “progressive” or“dove” parties:
  • Blue and White – generally centrist party;
  • Labour/Meretz – joint party, formed in order to strengthen a recently weak Labour party;


  • Joint List – another joint party, formed of the four Arab parties.
  • Unclear PM endorsement
  • Yisrael Beiteinu – led by Avigdor Lieberman, it generally stands opposite the Orthodox parties.

And, once again, no one group has enough votes for a clear majority! In the meantime – and this is important to recognize – the last government successfully formed stays in place. So, Bibi Netanyahu stays prime minister, and all the other cabinet positions stay the same, as well as the policies they operate under. I wonder if we’ll see another election again, soon!

Ryan Maizel

Originally published in the April 2020 issue of the Shofar. For more issues of the Shofar, visit the Shofar archives.