Israeli voters are going to the polls today (January 22, 2013) to cast their ballots for the 19th Knesset (Israel’s parliament). Unlike in the U.S., where after the ballots are counted the presidential winner can go ahead with selecting his cabinet, the winner of the Israeli elections is not necessarily going to head the upcoming government. For example, Tzipi Livni, who led the party that won the most seats in the Knesset in 2009, failed to form a government and refused to join Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition government. How come?
Israeli voters vote for candidates’ lists, thirty-four in today’s elections. Of those competing only lists that will gain more than 2% of the votes cast will enter the 120-seat Knesset. Candidates’ lists that are elected to the Knesset become “parliamentary groups,” also called “factions”. New parliamentary groups may be added later in accordance with conditions enumerated under the Parties Financing Law (1973), as amended, through breaking off from previous alignment with other political parties or through unification of existing parliamentary groups. The outgoing 18th Knesset, for example, included seventeen parliamentary groups.
According to Basic Law: the Government, the task of forming a government is assigned by Israel’s President to a Knesset Member “who has notified him [or her], that [s]he is prepared to accept the task” within seven days from the publication of the election results. Since the establishment of the state, no candidates’ list ever received more than half of the votes in any election. A notification made by a Knesset Member, therefore, reflects his/her belief in their ability to form a coalition government and head it as Prime Minister. The would-be Prime Minister has 28 days to assemble a majority coalition, a period that can be extended by the President for an aggregate of an additional 14 days. The government and its ministers are installed following a vote of confidence by at least 61 Knesset members.
Unlike the Prime Minister, government ministers are not required by law to be Knesset Members. In reality, however, the number and type of ministerial positions, along with other prized positions (most wanted is clearly the ambassador to the U.S.) obtained by Knesset Members and parties’ activists in negotiations over coalition agreements constitute an integral part of negotiations over the formation of a coalition government .
The composition of a coalition government, and the obligations taken by the Prime Minister in accordance with coalition agreements with other partners to secure a majority government, have an impact on the direction of the government both in domestic as well as in international affairs. In the domestic arena, the new government will have to address economic and social challenges, including the enforcement of military draft to Yeshiva students, and control over Jewish religious conversions. In the international sphere, the Israeli government will have to adopt policies regarding negotiations with the Palestinians, the Iranian development of nuclear capabilities, etc.
Having evaluated the different options before them, and having cast their votes, Israeli voters can enjoy their day off today. Election Day is a public holiday in Israel and most public services are closed except for those designated as “public services that will operate as usual on Elections Day” by the Central Elections Committee (CEC). The CEC is headed by a Supreme Court justice, Justice Elyakim Rubinstein, whom I had the pleasure and the honor of hosting at the Law Library of Congress in 2004.