The country of Israel operates under a parliamentary system of government. In a parliamentary system, if no political party wins a majority of seats in the legislature, then the parties negotiate amongst themselves until some combination of them that cumulatively has enough seats for a majority is able to reach an agreement to come together and form a government and appoint a Prime Minister. If prior to the next scheduled election, one or more parties pulls out of this coalition and leaves it short of a majority, this typically leads to early elections being scheduled to start the process over.
Occasionally in a parliamentary system, even when a single party does have a majority of seats by itself, it will enter into a coalition with one or all of the other parties. Typically this kind of “national unity government” occurs during wartime or when there is a desire for greater legitimacy that the government is acting for all the people and not just the faction that voted for it.
Coalition governments are more likely in a country with many political parties and a proportional representation electoral system. (Proportional representation means that seats are allotted according to a party’s overall percentage of votes. So in a 100 seat legislature, if a minor party received just 5% of the vote, they’d still get 5 seats. Whereas in a winner-take-all electoral system such as in the United States, there would be separate local elections in each of 100 districts, and it’s unlikely such a minor party would gain a plurality of votes in any of them, thus leaving it with zero seats.) When parliamentary seats are widely distributed like this among many parties, it’s harder for any one party to gain a majority by itself.
When an election results in no party obtaining a majority of seats, minor parties can be in a powerful position of leverage as tie-breakers. Imagine, for example, if the United States used a system like this, and the Republicans held about 45% of the seats, the Democrats held about 45% of the seats, and the Space Party that wanted to send a manned mission to Mars held about 10% of the seats. Even assuming the Republicans, the Democrats, and most or all of the 90% of the populace that didn’t vote for the Space Party all thought a manned Mars mission was a bad idea, chances are it would happen anyway. Even with only 10% of the seats, the Space Party would be in a position to offer to the two major parties that whichever will agree to the manned Mars mission, they will enter a coalition with them and support the main items on their agenda.
The Israeli parliamentary system illustrates many of the above points.
The Israeli parliament, called the Knesset, is a 120 member unicameral body elected to four year terms according to a party-list system of proportional representation. Voters do not vote for individual candidates but for parties, with the parties listing their candidates in order of priority. So, for example, if a candidate is 40th on the list for the Likud Party, then he or she will only gain a seat in the Knesset if Likud obtains enough votes to be allotted at least one-third of the seats.
Not only are coalition governments possible in Israel, they are pretty much automatic. Since the first Knesset in 1948, only for a brief period in 1968 and 1969 did a party have a majority by itself and not need to form a coalition. And really even that comes with an asterisk, for the “party” was “Alignment,” a temporary party formed when Labor and Mapam allied with each other and ran as one party. So basically a coalition that happened to be formed before the election rather than after.
There has been a predictable instability in Israeli governments due to their being formed by coalitions. Though theoretically elections are every four years in Israel, in fact the average government has lasted approximately two years before having to hold new elections when its coalition falls apart.
In contrast to the way the electoral system in the United States makes it all but impossible for any independent or any party other than the Republicans or Democrats to ever get off the ground (e.g., you’re “wasting” your vote if you vote for Ralph Nader), the Israeli system encourages minor parties, from the “Man’s Rights in the Family Party” to the “Holocaust Survivors and Ale Yarok Alumni Party.”
An important consequence of the leverage provided by the system to minor parties has been the disproportionate strength of the Religious Right in Israel. Though no such party has ever come close to gaining a majority in the Knesset by itself, like the Space Party they have often found themselves in the enviable role of tie-breakers, where their cooperation will enable one of the major parties-even one with whom they have little or nothing in common-to form a government. In this way they have been able to advance various policies, such as the controversial building of settlements in occupied territories, that might otherwise have not happened.
So Israel’s use of a parliamentary system based on proportional representation has influenced the resulting governments and their policies, which in turn has profoundly affected the history of Israel, the Middle East, and indeed the world.