The Knesset sits at the very center of Israeli politics. It is Israel’s parliament, and it makes up the legislative branch of the government.
Its 120 seats – up for grabs in the March 17 election – are split up between the various political parties running in the election. The most important seat is that of the Prime Minister, but for all of the position’s prestige, the Prime Minister depends entirely on the support of the remaining Knesset members.
This reliance is a consequence of how Israelis vote. They do not vote for a particular politician, but for a political party, and the leader of that party has a chance to become the next Prime Minister.
Even the most successful party will not bring in enough votes to win a majority of the Knesset seats. In fact, because there are several competitive parties, the most popular party may win no more than 25 seats, less than a quarter of the Knesset.
After the election
Each political party meets with the President the day after the election and suggests whom they favor for Prime Minister. The President then invites the favored person to build a coalition government.
This stage is where the parties play politics, trading political favors and Cabinet positions for support in the coalition. The most important Cabinet positions are considered to be the ministers of defense, finance and foreign affairs.
The party that wins the most seats in the election isn’t necessarily guaranteed to have the next Prime Minister. It depends entirely on the politician’s ability to make the right deals to build a coalition. Israelis saw this happen in 2009, when Tzipi Livni’s Kadima party won the most seats, but she couldn’t piece together a coalition. Instead, Benjamin Netanyahu became Prime Minister because he had the Knesset’s support.
Technically, 61 seats is enough for a majority in the Knesset, but prime ministers generally want at least 65 or 66 seats. That gives them a bigger majority and a more secure administration, allowing them to push through any political resistance in the Knesset.
Who are the ‘Kingmakers’?
Oftentimes in Israeli politics, one or two of the smaller parties hold a tremendous amount of influence. These parties decide who gets to make a coalition government. Their support allows an aspiring Prime Minister to have the backing of a majority of the Knesset members. When this situation happens, these parties are called “Kingmakers.” Their support decides who becomes prime minister.
What led to this election?
The Knesset elections are supposed to be every four years (the last election was in 2013), but the parliament can vote, by simple majority, to dissolve, at which time early elections are scheduled.
In this case, lawmakers in December voted 93-0 to dissolve the Knesset. Netanyahu had called for the dissolution when he sacked two senior members of his coalition Cabinet for criticizing government policy.