Israeli Elections 2012 - Introductory Primer


This document is a short primer on the upcoming Israeli national elections Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on May 6 will take place in approximately four months’ time. This is a brief overview of the ballot and what is involved.

By law, national elections for the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, take place every four years, but the government does not serve for a fixed term. Early elections can be called by a majority vote of the Knesset or by presidential decree, usually if the government loses a vote of confidence or on the recommendation of the prime minister. The 2012 elections are expected to be the result of a majority of the 120-seat house voting to dissolve itself, as a majority of members and parties feel the time was optimal.

Israel has a robust and firmly democratic election system, like all democracies, where the voice of the Israeli voters will translate into the peaceful transfer of power to whoever wins the elections.

Electoral System

Israel uses a proportional representation electoral system called the ‘list system,’ in which voters cast their ballot for a particular political party. The number of seats a party gets is in proportion to the number of votes it received in the election. Therefore, if a party takes 10 percent of the vote it gains 12 of the 120 seats. There is a minimum threshold of two percent of the popular vote in order to gain Knesset seats. Before the general election, each party draws up and publicizes a list of candidates in order of preference. The top names on the list are the ones who are elected.

All citizens from 18 years of age have the right to vote by secret ballot. There are approximately 5 million eligible voters, of which about 700,000 are Arab citizens. The official numbers will be announced soon.

The elections are supervised by the multi-party Central Elections Committee (CEC) of the Knesset that is presided over by a Supreme Court judge. The committee has many tasks surrounding the elections, including the authorization and registration of lists running for Knesset, the financing of elections, the organization and implementation of election day, the publication of election results, and appeals on the results. Parties must register in advance with the Registrar of Political Parties, a department of the Ministry of Justice. There are currently some 87 political parties registered in Israel, not all of which are necessarily active.

After the CEC publishes the official results, the president usually asks the leader of the party with the largest number of seats who then has up to 42 days to form a government. Historically, no party in Israel has ever won 61 seats and coalition governments are the norm. If the leader has a coalition, the Knesset holds a vote of confidence and the government is approved by a vote of at least 61 members.

If the leader of the largest party fails to form a coalition, the president can choose the leader of another party to do so. This was the case in the 2009 elections when then Kadima Party leader Tzipi Livni failed to form a government despite having one more seat than the Likud Party, led by current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Schedule of Events

The following is an approximate schedule of events. Dates are only approximate because at the time of writing the actual date had just been announced:

May 7-9 – Knesset votes to dissolve itself. Legislative process is suspended, but parliamentary committees continue to function. Members of Knesset remain as active members.

July 18 – Deadline for submitting candidate lists to the Central Elections Committee.

Aug 23 (approximate) – Voting on ships at sea and Israeli foreign missions abroad.

Sept 4 (approximate) – Election day.

Sept 11 – (approximate) CEC releases official election results.

Sept 12 – (approximate) Leader of largest party begins negotiations to form a coalition government October – President approached with new government, Knesset vote held and government takes office.

Results of the 2009 Elections

While Kadima received the most votes and seats, it failed to form a coalition. The Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu then formed a government with the following parties: Yisrael Beiteinu, Shas, Labor, Jewish Home and United Torah Judaism.


# Votes

# Seats




Likud (current governing party)



Yisrael Beiteinu (current coalition member)






Shas (current coalition member)



United Torah Judaism (current coalition member)



United Arab List - Ta'al



National Union (Ichud Leumi)









Bayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home-current coalition member)



Balad (National Democratic Assembly)



However, last year the Labor Party split, with Ehud Barak’s new Independence Party remaining in the government and Labor joining the opposition.

The Largest Parties and Their Leaders

Likud – major party associated with the center-right, seen as nationalistic. Known for being the government that signed the peace treaty with Egypt. Supported by both blue and white collar as well as secular and traditional Jews.

Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu: former army commando, graduate of MIT who previously served as prime minister from 1996–99. Known for his economic free market policies and for changing his position from opposition to a Palestinian state to embracing the two-state solution.

Kadima­ (Forward) – major centrist party formed in 2005 when former prime minister Ariel Sharon broke off from Likud and also took members from Labor. Known for withdrawing all Israeli settlements from Gaza. Under former leader Tzipi Livni, Kadima became the opposition party after the 2009 elections.

Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz: former Iranian-born IDF chief-of-staff was an un-elected defense minister in the Kadima government headed by Sharon. Defeated Livni in March, 2012 to lead Kadima.

Labor- major left-wing social-democracy party that was headed by both the late Yitzhak Rabin and current Israeli President Shimon Peres, known for signing the Oslo Accords with Yasser Arafat’s P.L.O. Associated with the national Histadrut trade union. Wracked by internal dissent and splits over the past decade, Labor has recently regained stability and some popularity after quitting Netanyahu’s coalition government in January, 2011.

Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich: former well-known journalist and radio talk-show host who entered the Knesset in 2006. Seen as returning Labor’s focus to social and economic issues instead of the peace process.

Shas – Ultra-orthodox religious party affiliated with Middle-Eastern, or Sephardic Jewry, has been a perennial coalition partner in both left and right-wing governments. Concerned with support for its private educational institutions and laws affecting religious issues. Also receives support from non-religious Sephardic Jews.

Shas leader Eli Yishai: Yishai is a veteran politician, but Shas takes its guidance from a council of rabbis headed by former chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Yishai is the non-charismatic leader of a party guided by religious precepts, but that always has its eye on the budget and funding for its religious education network.

Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) – right wing secular nationalist party formerly seen as representing immigrants from the former Soviet Union, but given a broader base by the addition of veteran native Israeli legislators. Supports a two-state solution, but wants to give Arab populated areas of Israel in return for Jewish settlement blocks in the West Bank.

Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman: served as the prime minister’s chief of staff when Benjamin Netanyahu when was prime minister in 1996-7, but resigned from the Likud party over concessions to the Palestinians. Formed the party in 1999 and has led its growth since. Currently serves as foreign minister and is seen as a hard-line nationalist.

Yesh Atid (There is a Future) – Newly formed center-left secular party aimed at what it considers to be the disenfranchised middle and working class, with an emphasis on separation of religion and state. Despite having no history, the party is expected to win seats in the upcoming elections.

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid: former popular journalist and television talk show host, son of the late Tommy Lapid whose Shinui party (now defunct) was elected on an anti-religious platform. Seen as inheriting his father’s mantle, and offering a popular alternative to the mainstream parties.

Independence – Center-left faction that broke away from Labor in 2011, and supports the two-state solution. It is so new that it does not yet have a definitive set of policies or an election platform.

Independence leader Ehud Barak: The former prime minister, IDF commander and Labor Party leader lost popularity in Labor, exacerbated by his serving as defense minister under Benjamin Netanyahu. Facing a rebellion in Labor, Barak split off and formed Independence with four other Knesset members with the rest of Labor quitting Netanyahu’s coalition government.

Other Parties to Watch: With dozens of parties running, only a few are mentioned below in this initial guide to the 2012 elections: Arab parties will probably poll the same as they did in the 2009 elections. Meretz was a perennial left-wing coalition partner, but a good showing by Labor may take away Meretz votes and shut it out of the Knesset. Hadash is a joint Arab-Jewish communist party, always in opposition. Former Shas leader Arye Deri is expected to announce a new party and may take seats from Shas.


Like other democracies, polling companies will work overtime between now and the elections. The three main television news channels (1, 2, and 10), the major newspapers and most parties will all be conducting polls and publishing results throughout the campaign. On election night the three television stations announce the results of their exit polls at 10 p.m. immediately after the voting closes.

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