Israeli politics ‘101’: Electing a prime minister and forming a government coalition

On Tuesday, April 9, Israelis will elect their legislative branch, the Knesset. But they won’t actually know the final results of the top job until weeks later.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with President Reuven Rivlin during the Israel prize ceremony at the International Conference Center (ICC) in Jerusalem on May 2, 2017. Credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with President Reuven Rivlin during the Israel prize ceremony at the International Conference Center (ICC) in Jerusalem on May 2, 2017. Credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party is expected to win the upcoming Knesset elections, but it might take as long as two months to know if Netanyahu has been re-elected for a fifth term as premier.

On Tuesday, April 9, Israelis will elect their legislative branch, the Knesset. Israeli citizens do not elect their executive or judicial branches.

Israelis will know the election results in terms of the number of Knesset seats each party will have, but will not know who their prime minister will be or what their next government will look like because of how the Israeli political system works. After the last elections in 2015, even when it was overwhelmingly likely that Netanyahu would be re-elected, the process after the elections to form a new government took about two months.

How is the Israeli prime minister chosen? It is a three-phase process.

A three-phase process

The first phase takes places on April 9, and that is the elections for Knesset. Theoretically, if a party received a majority—61 of the 120 Knesset seats—the process would end there. However, there has never been a party in Israeli history that has achieved a majority on its own. Therefore, the next two phases are necessary to choose the next Israeli chief leader and form a coalition government.

Unofficially, the second phase starts the day after the Knesset election, when the party leaders start to talk to each other. Officially, the second phase begins after the official election results are published on April 17 and official consultations begin.

During the second phase, each party that has been elected to the Knesset sends a delegation to the President’s Residence and nominates a candidate for prime minister. Pressure is applied by the candidates for prime minister on the parties that remained neutral during the election campaign to gain their support. In the great majority of cases, one of the candidates receives at least 61 nominations from Knesset members; the president’s role is mainly ceremonial.

The president has seven days, until April 23, to ask a candidate for prime minister to form the next government. This year, the Jewish of Passover holiday starts on Friday, April 19. That could lead Israeli President Reuven Rivlin to conduct the second phase as quickly as possible and even start unofficial consultations before the official election results are published.

The third phase begins when the president announces his decision on which candidate can attempt to form the next government and ends when the Knesset approves the government presented by that candidate by a majority vote. The candidate for prime minister is given 42 days to form a government. That means that he or she would have until June 4—almost two months after the election—to sign coalition agreements with other parties and present his or her coalition government to the Knesset.

The 2009 case study

Sometimes, the leader of the largest party does not become prime minister. A great case study is the 2009 election, when Tzipi Livni won Phase 1 with her then-party Kadima Party winning 28 seats to Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party with 27. On election night, many in the media decided to crown Livni Israel’s next premier.

However, Netanyahu won Phase 2 after he was nominated by 65 Knesset members. Livni entered the President’s Residence with her party’s 28 seats, and by the end of Phase 2 was left with just 28 nominations after no other party agreed to nominate her despite her phase one victory.

Parties that don’t nominate the prime minister candidate in Phase 2 can sign a coalition agreement and vote in favor of the government in Phase 3. Additionally, parties that nominate the Prime Minister in Phase 2 can be left out of the new government if they don’t sign a coalition agreement ahead of Phase 3.

The 2009 example can also explain the fluctuations between Phase 2 and Phase 3. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who had not nominated Netanyahu in Phase 2, brought Labor and their 13 seats into Netanyahu’s coalition government in Phase 3. National Union and their four seats were left out of Netanyahu’s government, despite their Phase 2 nomination of Netanyahu.

April 9 election

Netanyahu is expected to win Phase 1 on April 9. The question is if his natural coalition partners will win a majority of Knesset seats. If Likud and other parties that have committed to nominating him for prime minister again—HaYamin HeHadash led by Naftali Bennett, Shas led by Aryeh Deri, United Torah Judaism led by Yaakov Litzman and Bayit Yehudi—win a combined 61 seats or greater, then Netanyahu’s re-election will be merely a formality.

Kulanu led by Moshe Kahlon, Yisrael Beiteinu led by Avigdor Lieberman and Gesher led by Orly Levy are expected to join the coalition as long as Netanyahu is not indicted on charges that are currently being reviewed by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit. Mandelblit has sent one of the cases back to the police for further investigation, which increases the chances that this scenario plays out, and gives Netanyahu added flexibility for the second and third phases.

You have read 3 articles this month.
Register to receive full access to JNS.

Just before you scroll on...

Israel is at war. JNS is combating the stream of misinformation on Israel with real, honest and factual reporting. In order to deliver this in-depth, unbiased coverage of Israel and the Jewish world, we rely on readers like you. The support you provide allows our journalists to deliver the truth, free from bias and hidden agendas. Can we count on your support? Every contribution, big or small, helps remain a trusted source of news you can rely on.

Become a part of our mission by donating today
Thank you. You are a loyal JNS Reader.
You have read more than 10 articles this month.
Please register for full access to continue reading and post comments.
Never miss a thing
Get the best stories faster with JNS breaking news updates