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5 things to know about Israeli elections

Election Day is essentially a holiday in Israel, with schools and offices closed, giving people no reason not to head to the polls.
A rotating billboard that shows the faces of the two candidates for Israel's prime minister, incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and opposition leader Yitzhak Herzog, in Tel Aviv, Israel on March 12, 2015.
A rotating billboard that shows the faces of the two candidates for Israel's prime minister, incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and opposition leader Yitzhak Herzog, in Tel Aviv, Israel on March 12, 2015.

Israeli voters will head to the polls Tuesday in an election that will come down to the wire, according to recent polls. Between the many parties and candidates vying for the 120 seats in Israel’s parliament, called the Knesset, there are a lot of moving parts that might seem more complicated than an American election. Here's what you need to know:

1. Israeli voters won't be voting directly for the next prime minister

When Israelis go to the polls on Tuesday, they won’t be voting directly for a politician the way Americans vote for a president during an election. Rather, voters cast a ballot for a particular political party -- this year there are 10. The party with the most votes then has a chance to form the next governing coalition.

After the votes are tallied, the leaders of the various parties meet with the Israeli President -- currently Reuven Rivlin -- and each of them recommends one person to be named prime minister and form the next government. The person who receives the most recommendations is given a mandate by the president to negotiate with the different parties to form a coalition. Whoever receives this mandate has 40 days to negotiate with the other parties to join his or her coalition, in return for ministerial posts, policy agendas, or simply the party’s support.

2. Building a ruling coalition is a game of numbers

Parties vying to form a new government must control 61 seats or more of the 120 seats in the Knesset. The person who succeeds in doing so becomes the next prime minister, the most important seat in the parliament. 

If 40 days pass without reaching a majority, the president repeats the process, sometimes giving the mandate to the same candidate or to someone else. If 100 days pass without a coalition formed, new elections are held and the entire process begins anew. This has never happened.

Due to the delicate nature of forming a government with other parties, it is not always the party who wins the most seats in the election that ends up leading the new government, nor is the person first chosen to lead the coalition guaranteed to become prime minister. For example, in 2009, Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua party won the most votes, and she was selected to form a governing coalition. Yet after two unsuccessful attempts, Livni failed to reach a majority. The task of forming a new government then fell to Netanyahu, who became prime minister despite having secured 27 seats compared to Livni’s 28.

3. Parties can join forces to increase their chances of winning 

Several months before election day, each party releases its list of candidates, with the faction leader at the top of the ticket. For example, Prime Minister Netanyahu is at the top of the Likud party’s ticket, and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid is at the top of his. The number of seats a party secures in the Knesset is proportional to the number of votes that party received. So, a party that wins 20% of the vote on Tuesday will win 20% of the Knesset’s 120 seats. The candidates put forward on each party list are elected based on the order in which they appeared on their party list. The higher up a candidate is on a party’s list, the greater the chance he or she has of gaining a Knesset seat.

Sometimes individual parties unite to increase their chances of winning votes from a wider segment of the population. During this election, for example, Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua party joined with Isaac Herzog’s Labor party to form the center-left Zionist Union.

Four major Arab parties have united during this election to form the Joint (Arab) List. Approximately 20% of Israel’s 6 million voters are Palestinians, also known as Arab Israelis. The unification of the Arab parties is expected to increase the historically low turnout among Israeli Arabs, who voted at a rate of 57% in the last election, compared to the national turnout of 67%. The Arab parties currently hold 11 seats out of 120 seats in parliament, but if Arab turnout is as high as it is expected to be, they could hold as many as 18 seats.

4. Election Day should be every four years. But with a vote, it doesn’t have to be that way

Elections have rarely been held every four years in Israel. The last election was just over a year ago, in January of 2013. In December of 2014, amid opposition from within his own government, Netanyahu fired Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, declaring, ”I will not tolerate any opposition in my government.” In the same move, he called for early elections, and a week later the parliament voted to dissolve itself and declared early elections would be held in March. 

5. How the voting process works

Election day in Israel is treated as a holiday. Schools, banks and government offices are closed, and most people have off from work. With no mail-in ballots, this “holiday” encourages people to head to the polls. Voter turnout is typically higher in Israel than in the U.S., with an average turnout of 70%, versus 60% among Americans.

There are 11,666 polling stations across the country, including at hospitals and prisons. With all of Israel being under one time zone, all of the polls close at 10pm. The only people who are allowed to send in absentee ballots are diplomats, government officials, security personnel and seamen who are stationed oversees.

Breaking it down: The parties and its leaders

Likud: Center-right party led by three-term Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who if he wins a fourth term, will become the longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history.

Zionist Union: Center-left party co-led by Labor leader and head of the government opposition, Isaac Herzog, and Hatnua leader and former Justice Minister Tzipi Livni

Joint (Arab) List: Unified bloc comprised of the four major Arab parties, led by Arab Israeli lawyer and politician Ayman Odeh

Yesh Atid: Centrist, secularist party led by former Minister of Finance Yair Lapid, once a popular Israeli news anchor

Kulanu: Centrist party led by former Likud minister Moshe Kahlon

Jewish Home: Right wing religious party led by Economic Minister Naftali Bennett

Yisrael Beiteinu: Ultra-nationalist, secularist party led by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman

Meretz: Leftist, secularist party led by liberal MK Zahava Gal-On

Shas: Ultra-Orthodox Sephardic Jewish party led by Moroccan-born Israeli politician Aryeh Deri

United Torah Judaism: Ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi Jewish party led by German-born Yaakov Litzman, a Deputy Government Minister, and Moshe Gafni, a former chairman of the Knesset financial committee

The latest polling

The results of the final election polls, reported by Israeli Channels 2 and 10 on Friday:

Zionist Union: 26 seats

Likud: 22 seats

Joint (Arab) List: 13 seats

Yesh Atid: 12 seats

Jewish Home: 11 seats

Kulanu: 8 seats

Shas: 7 seats

United Torah Judaism: 6 seats

Meretz: 5 seats

Yisrael Beiteinu: 5 seats