Israel has an electoral system based on nation-wide proportional representation, and the number of seats which every list receives in the Knesset is proportional to the number of voters who voted for it. The only limitation is the 3.25% qualifying threshold. In other words, a party must receive at least 3.25% of the votes in order to be elected. According to this system, the voters vote for a list of candidates, and not for a particular person on the list. Some political parties hold primaries in which the candidates and their order of appearance are elected by members of the party. Some of the parties elect their candidates via the party's institutions (such as the party center). In some parties, the political leaders appoint the candidates.
The Knesset elections take place once every four years, but the Knesset or the Prime Minister can decide to hold early elections. Under certain circumstances, a Knesset can serve for more than four years.
The electoral system
Israel has an electoral system based on nation-wide proportional representation. In other words, the number of seats that each list receives in the Knesset - the House of Representatives - is proportional to the number of votes it received.
Unlike most of the Western parliamentary democracies, the system in Israel is followed in an extreme manner, and the only limitation placed on a list which participated in the elections that can keep it from being elected is that it must pass the qualifying threshold, which is currently 3.25%. Until the elections to the 13th Knesset the qualifying threshold was only 1%. It was then raised to 1.5%, and during the 16th Knesset, it was raised to 2%. In March, 2014 the qualifying threshold was raised to 3.25% and this threshold will apply to the upcoming elections.
The State of Israel inherited the rigid system of proportional representation from the political system of the yishuv (the organized Jewish community) in mandatory times. This system was based on the zeal with which the various political parties - in which ideology and personalities played a major role - fought to preserve their independence. The justification given for the large number of parties resulting from the system was, that in a period in which major, far-reaching and rapid changes were still taking place in the population make-up as a result of immigration, it was important to enable maximal representation for various groups and opinions.
The legal basis for the system
The electoral system is based primarily on two laws: the Basic Law: the Knesset of 1958 and the Knesset Elections Law (combined version) of 1969. Since the Parties Law of 1992 was passed, only registered political parties can present a list of candidates and participate in the elections.
The principles upon which the electoral system is based
The general framework for the elections was laid down in article 4 of the Basic Law: The Knesset, and according to it the Knesset is to be elected in general, country-wide, direct, equal, secret and proportional elections. This article can be amended only by a vote of an absolute majority of Knesset members.
The principle of the generality
of the elections ensures the active right of every Israeli citizen, who is at least 18 years old, to vote and the right of every Israeli citizen, who is at least 21 years old, to be elected. Even though the Basic Law: The Knesset gave the legislator the power to deny the right to vote to anyone as it may see fit, the Knesset has never made use of this power. Those holding certain official positions, such as the President of the State, the State Comptroller, judges or Rabbinic court judges, career officers, and senior civil servants, may not stand for election to the Knesset. However they can contend if they resign from their post 100 days or 6 months before the elections, depending on the public position, as the law specifies.
The principle of countrywide
elections states that Israel is a single electoral district insofar as the distribution of Knesset seats is concerned.
Direct elections mean that the voter elects the Knesset directly, rather than an electoral college (as is the case in the election of the President in the United States).
Equal elections apply to equality amongst the votes given, and the Supreme Court laid down that the principle of equality relates to equality of opportunities for all the lists participating in the elections as well.
The principle of secrecy ensures fairness in the elections and aspires to prevent the placing of effective pressure on voters, since no one has any way of knowing how they actually voted.
The principle of proportionality manifests itself in that all the lists, which get past the qualifying threshold, are represented in the Knesset by a number of members that is proportional to their electoral strength.
The frequency of elections
The Knesset elections are supposed to take place every four years. The Knesset can decide, by an ordinary majority, to dissolve itself and call for early elections. Under the direct vote for Prime Minister system, the Prime Minister was able notify the President of early elections. After the abolishment of that system, the Prime Minister can recommend to the President to call for early elections, but the Knesset can block that initiative. The elections to the second (1951), fifth (1961), tenth (1981), eleventh (1984), thirteenth (1992), fourteenth (1996), fifteenth (1999), seventeenth (2006), and eighteenth (2009) Knessets were all held before the due date by the Knesset's initiative. The elections for the sixteenth Knesset were brought forward by the initiative of the Prime Minister.
The Knesset can also decide, by a special majority (80 members), to prolong its term beyond four years. This happened in the case of the elections to the eighth Knesset (1973) which were delayed because of the Yom Kippur War. In either case of delayed or early elections, the newly formed Knesset is still meant to serve a full four-year term from the date of elections as determined by the law, regardless of the election date.
Who can participate in elections?
The contest in the elections is among lists of candidates. Since the Parties Law was passed in 1992, only a party, which has been legally registered with the Party Registrar, or an alignment of two or more registered parties, which have decided to run in the elections together, can present a list of candidates and participate in the elections (for example, in the elections for the fifteenth Knesset, the list called "One Israel" was composed of three parties: Labor, Gesher and Meimad). A party can informally add to its list bodies or personalities that are not members of the party and that are not registered themselves as a party (for example, in the elections for the fifteenth Knesset, the Unified Arab List included contenders from the Democratic Arab Party, a registered party, and individuals from the Islamic Movement, a non-registered party).
The following lists may not run in the elections: A list which acts directly or indirectly against the existence of the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people or against its democratic nature, or a list which incites racism.
The distribution of seats among the lists
The lists that have passed the qualifying threshold receive a number of Knesset seats which is propotional to their electoral strength. This is done by dividing the number of valid votes given to the lists which passed the qualifying threshold, by 120, in order to determine how many votes entitle a list to a single seat. In the elections to the second and seventh Knessets the excess votes (the votes received by a list which passed the qualifying threshold, but are not sufficient for a whole seat) were distributed to those lists which had the largest number of excess votes (the Hare method). In the elections to the first Knesset, and since the elections to the eighth, the excess votes are distributed to the lists with the largest number of voters per seat - a method known in the world as Hagenbach-Bischoff (de-Hondt), and is known in Israel as the Bader-Ofer method - named after MKs Yohanan Bader (Gahal) and Avraham Ofer (Alignment) who proposed its adoption. Two lists can reach an agreement regarding the distribution of excess votes between them before the elections.
Who is elected to the Knesset?
The candidates of any given list are elected to the Knesset on the basis of the order in which they appear on it. If a certain party received sufficient votes for 10 seats, the first 10 candidates on its list will enter the Knesset. During the entire tenure of that Knesset, if a Knesset member passes away or resigns his seat for whatever reason, the next candidate on the list will replace him/her.