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Reading the Israeli Electorate

- Abstract

Israel’s elections last May held two surprises: Benjamin Netanyahu’s upset victory over Shimon Peres in the contest for Prime Minister, and the dramatic gains made by smaller parties in the contest for the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. While analysts have focused on the first surprise, the meaning of the elections only becomes apparent in the light of the second.

Up until this year, Israelis voting in national elections could cast their ballot only for the party, not for the man, of their choice. Under Israel’s system of proportional representation, any party that garnered 1.5 percent of the vote was assured of at least one Knesset seat; the head of the party scoring highest would then be invited to assemble a governing coalition, i.e., one controlling at least 61 of the 120 seats in the Knesset. Effectively, this meant that a voter wanting a say in the choice of Prime Minister would be well advised to cast his ballot either for Labor or Likud, the two largest parties, for it was a sure bet that the leader of one of them would be asked to put the governing coalition together.

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