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Israel's Electoral System
"Take two Israelis," runs the old quip, "and you've got three political parties!" The saying is not without a kernel of truth in a nation where everyone has a strong opinion, and usually will not hesitate to express it. The Knesset, Israel's parliament, reflects this rambunctious spirit, sometimes to the point of paralyzing the parliamentary process and driving the public to distraction.
Israel's electoral system is based on proportional representation. In contrast with the winner-takes-all approach of the constituency system, any Israeli party that wins 2% of the national vote gets the number of seats in the 120-member Knesset to which its share of the ballot entitles it. The system is a legacy of the dangerous but heady days of Israel's War of Independence, in 1948-49. To avoid an acrimonious and divisive election while the fledgling state was still fighting for its life, the founding fathers developed a one-body parliamentary system that gave representation to rival ideological factions in proportion to their comparative strength in the country's pre-State institutions.
The good news is that it's wildly democratic: even relatively small fringe groups can have their voices heard. The bad news is that the system spawns a plethora of political parties, making it virtually impossible for one party to get the majority needed to govern alone. (The past phenomenon of single-member parties was curbed by the introduction of the threshold: a party that wins that share of the vote automatically gets two seats, and more often than not a third one as well.) Consequently, Israeli governments have always consisted of a coalition of parties, inevitably making them governments of compromise. The smaller coalition partners have been able to demand a price for their crucial parliamentary support—influential political positions, budgets for pet projects, and so on—that is often beyond what a minor party deserves, and sometimes at odds with the good of the nation at large.
Israel also has a president—citizen No. 1 but not a political leader—chosen by the members of the Knesset for one term of seven years. After the Knesset elections, the president consults with every party that made the 2% cut, and entrusts the party leader who seems to have the best coalition options with the job of forming a government. If successful within a designated period, he or she becomes prime minister.
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