About a year after the elections to the 24th Knesset, the Knesset is once again facing a crisis. The unlikely coalition that survived thanks to the one vote has lost the parliamentary majority. Does this mean that the Knesset will disperse and new elections will be held? Is it possible that the government will be replaced and the Knesset not disperse? And can a minority government now govern? While the options at hand generate concern and a sense of instability, they also reflect the broad range of mechanisms in place in a parliamentary system for dealing with situations of political crisis.
Note: This article was originally published in 2008 and updated in December 2014 and May 2022.
Dissolving the Knesset prior to the date designated for the next election is not a rare occurrence in Israel. In fact, most of the Knessets served for less than the official term of four years: In the 66 years of the state's existence, there have been 19 Knessets, meaning that the average term of Israel's parliament is almost three and half years. Actually, since 1988, no Knesset has reached the end of its official term in office. During the same period, there have been 33 governments; in other words, the turnover of government coalitions is much higher. This indicates that the parliamentary system, in which it is possible to change the government without changing the Knesset, contributes to the stability of Israel's political system. Yet, as we can see in the current political circumstances, it is not always possible to realize this advantage of the parliamentary system, since sometimes it is impossible to build an alternative coalition given the specific combination of political parties within the Knesset.
Israel's Basic Law: The Knesset and Basic Law: The Government specify several ways to dissolve the Knesset. The current method of disbanding the Knesset, namely, by passing a law for this purpose by a majority of Knesset members (under articles 34 and 35 of the Basic Law: The Knesset) is only one of the means available to dissolve the Knesset prior to the official end of its term. This method reflects the principle that elections are to be moved forward only if there is a broad consensus in the Knesset that there is a need to go back to the voters. This broad agreement is reflected in the fact that the current law to disband the 19th Knesset and hold elections on March 17, 2015 was approved by 93 members of the Knesset.
Does the fact that the 19th Knesset is dissolving itself after only two years of its term prove the instability of the parliamentary system? Should the frequent elections over the past decades be attributed to failings in the parliamentary system? Not necessarily. In truth, the parliamentary system is better equipped than a presidential system with mechanisms for stability, checks, and balances, which are intended to enable the political system to continue functioning in an effective, legitimate manner without continually resorting to elections. In contrast, in a presidential system, a president who does not enjoy the confidence of the public can continue to serve unimpeded. This can lead to a continuous state of stagnation, since the president is rendered incapable of acting by an oppositional parliament that does not support his policies. A parliamentary system is immune to such shortcomings—a government that does not enjoy the confidence of the Knesset or is unable to function will not last. In a parliamentary system, there is also greater responsiveness to the public due to the ability of elected representatives to take a vote of no confidence in the government, thereby regaining legitimacy in the eyes of the voters.
This article reviews the different ways of dissolving the Knesset as enumerated in the Basic Law: The Government, and the Basic Law: The Knesset, with the aim of showing how each method includes checks, balances, and political “shock absorbers” that are intended to attempt to stabilize the system before taking the election route. At the same time, the different methods show that when there is no support for the government, when the Knesset is not fulfilling its role, and when there is a majority in the parliament that sees a need to dissolve it, the Knesset is disbanded, and the public is once again called to the polls. In other words, to prevent frequent shocks to the political system, elections are as a last resort.
Ways to Dissolve the Knesset
Israel's Basic Law: The Government and its Basic Law: The Knesset spell out different circumstances in which the Knesset can be dissolved before the end of its term. As we will see below, this is not an automatic process. The Knesset is dissolved only when it is certain that no member of Knesset is capable of putting together a government that will win the confidence of the Knesset, or when a majority of Knesset members feel that the Knesset should be dissolved, or when the Knesset is not fulfilling one of its most important roles: passing the state budget. The various mechanisms for dissolving the Knesset afford sufficient time to Knesset members to express their confidence in an alternative government, yet set a limited amount of time until new elections are held, so as to reduce the period of public and political uncertainty.
Dissolution of the Knesset due to failure to form a new government or failure of the new government to win the confidence of the Knesset
Article 11 of the Basic Law: The Government, states that if, after a reason has emerged for forming a new government, no candidate has managed to assemble such a government, or if a government was formed but did not gain the Knesset's confidence, the Knesset will be dissolved before the end of its term.
Justification for creating a new government can arise under several conditions:
• After elections
• Upon the resignation of the Prime Minister
• Upon the death of the Prime Minister
• Upon the Prime Minister’s removal from office by the Knesset due to a criminal offense
• When the Prime Minister has ceased serving in the Knesset.
When any of these circumstances arise, the President, following consultations with the heads of the factions, charges one Knesset member with the task of forming a government. This first candidate is given a period of 28 days, with a possible extension of up to 14 days, to assemble a new government. If the candidate does not succeed, the President is entitled to assign the task to a different Knesset member. If, after 28 days, the second candidate also has been unsuccessful, a majority of Knesset members can request the President to assign the task to a different Knesset member. That MK is then given 14 days in which to form a government.
In the event that none of the candidates is able to assemble a government, or the government that is assembled does not win a vote of confidence from the Knesset, in essence- the Knesset has decided to dissolve itself. In such a case, elections must take place on the last Tuesday prior to the end of the 90-day period that began when the President announced that the candidate was unable to form a government, or from the date that the government was not approved by the Knesset.
The procedure described here, according to which several candidates are granted the opportunity to try to form a government, while the timeframe for this task is limited in order to reduce the period of uncertainty, serves as a stabilizing mechanism for the political system.
Dissolution of the Knesset following a vote of no-confidence in the government, without obtaining the support of a majority of Knesset members in an alternative government
Article 28 of the Basic Law: The Government, discusses the Knesset’s right to take a vote of no confidence in the government. The uniqueness of the no-confidence motion mandated by Israeli law is that this it is a constructive vote of no confidence:
"Expression of no confidence in the government will be made by a majority of members of Knesset, who express confidence in another government that has announced the outlines of its policy, and the composition and division of roles among ministers ...; The new government will begin its work once the Knesset has expressed confidence in it, and from that moment on, the ministers will take office."
The advantage of this mechanism is that it turns the vote of no confidence in the incumbent government into a vote of confidence in an alternative government, although the new government still needs a vote of confidence. This is a mechanism that is intended to stabilize the political system. It creates a situation in which no-confidence motions are not submitted constantly, since a consensus is required around an alternative government. At the same time, it prevents the creation of a political vacuum, since it makes a clear statement as to which alternative government has the support of a majority of Knesset members. If the constructive vote of no confidence fails, the government continues to serve.
In the current crisis, this option means that instead of dissolving the Knesset and going to the polls, a constructive no-confidence motion will be submitted, that includes a proposal for an alternative government that has the support of a majority of Knesset members (at least 61), thus replacing the government.
Dissolution of the Knesset by the Prime Minister
Article 29 of the Basic Law: The Government, stipulates that the Prime Minister pending the approval of the President, has the authority to issue an order dissolving the Knesset if s/he is convinced that the Knesset is oppositional, meaning that a majority of its members are opposed to the government and that consequently, the government cannot function properly. The order to dissolve the Knesset enters into effect 21 days after it is issued; however, even in this case, a stabilizing mechanism is in place. Such a decision by the Prime Minister in effect dissolves the government, but does imply the automatic disbanding of the Knesset. Knesset members are entitled to submit a request to the President requesting him or her to assign the task of forming an alternative government to a specific member of the Knesset. If that Knesset member does not succeed in putting together a government within a period of 28 days (with an extension of up to 14 days), or the government that is presented does not win a vote of confidence from the Knesset, only then is the Knesset dissolved. In such a case, elections must take place on the last Tuesday within 90 days from the publication of the order to dissolve the Knesset if another candidate was not presented to form a government; 90 days from the time of the President’s announcement that the alternative candidate was unable to form a government; or 90 days from the date that the government that was presented did not receive the confidence of the Knesset.
Here too, we see that there are no automatic mechanisms in a parliamentary system; at the same time, the mechanisms that do exist make it possible to deal with an oppositional parliament coupled with a government that is unable to function. These mechanisms stand in contrast to a presidential regime, where such a situation can continue for a prolonged period, since the parliament is unable to bring a vote of no confidence in the president.
Dissolution of the Knesset by means of a special law for this purpose
The Knesset can decide to dissolve itself prior to the conclusion of its term if a law for this purpose is passed by a majority vote (articles 34, 35 of the Basic Law: The Knesset). The requirement of a majority of members of the Knesset (at least 61) to enact such a law is a stabilizing mechanism, aimed at preventing a situation in which a random majority can decide to dissolve the Knesset. Only when there is a consensus among Knesset members that new elections should be held can such a law be passed. The law must note the date of the new elections, which must be no later than five months from the date that the law is passed.
Dissolution of the Knesset due to inability to pass the Budget Law
If the Budget Law is not passed by the Knesset within three months of the beginning of the fiscal year, this is tantamount to the Knesset deciding to dissolve itself (article 36 of the Basic Law: The Knesset). In such a case, elections must be held within 90 days of the determining date. Exceptions to this are if negotiations took place to form a government concurrent with the passage of the Budget Law; if a law was passed dissolving the Knesset; or if elections were held after the date for submitting the budget. In these cases, the operative date is 45 days from the formation of a new government, or three months from the start of the fiscal year—whichever is later.
This provision is intended to prevent a situation in which a Knesset that is not fulfilling its role continues to serve. The passage of the Budget Law is seen as approval of the government’s plan of action for the coming year; thus, failure to pass this law has practical implications and serves as a test of the ability of the Knesset and the government to act in the best interests of the public. If they have failed, and did not demonstrate the responsibility required of elected representatives, new elections must be held. This is a further example of how the parliamentary system increases the responsibility of elected representatives toward the public. However, it should be noted that this is an exceptional mechanism that does not exist in other democracies, and some propose to separate the vote on the budget from the continuation of the Knesset term.
Ways to Dissolve the Knesset and Set a Date for New Elections
|Law||Article||Reason for Dissolving the Knesset||Date of the Elections|
|Basic Law: The Government||11||The last Tuesday before the end of the 90-day period from the president's announcement or the failure to win confidence|
|Failure to form a new government and receive the confidence of the Knesset after a reason was presented to form a new government|
|28||The last Tuesday before the end of the 90-day period from the president's announcement or the alternative government's failure to win confidence|
|A constructive vote of no confidence that fails due to the alternative candidates inability to form a government|
|29||Dissolution of the Knesset by the Prime Minister and inability to form an alternative government||The last Tuesday before the end of the 90-day period from the day that the dissolution order goes into effect, or from the day in which the period for forming the government is up, or from the day of informing the present, or from the day in which the government fails to win the Knesset's confidence.|
|Basic Law: The Knesset||34, 35||Passage of a law to dissolve the Knesset by a majority vote||Within five months of the passage of the law|
|36||Inability to pass the state budget||The last Tuesday before the end of the 90-day period from the determining date, which is three months after the start of the fiscal year or 45 days after the formation of the new government.|
Another option for dealing with a political crisis that threatens the coalition majority: Minority government
As previously mentioned, dispersing the Knesset and going to the polls are just one option. Another option is to continue the government's tenure as a minority government. Although in Israel's political history, minority governments have only served for short periods, and have been the result of a political crisis (for example, the Barak government in 2000, the Rabin government in 1993), minority governments are not uncommon in parliamentary democracies and are often a political culprit. In order to function as a minority government, a "blocking bloc" is needed from the outside, that is, parties that support the government but are not part of it, or build ad hoc coalitions with rotating partner parties in order to promote legislation and policy.
The current crisis reveals how fragile the coalition that supports the government in a parliamentary regime can be. When it comes to such a narrow coalition, the retirement of one MK has the potential to undermine the entire government. However, the various options reviewed, all demonstrate that dispersing the Knesset and going to the polls are not the only option for dealing with a crisis in a parliamentary regime. In any case, none of the scenarios are automatic, allowing political actors to keep on trying and find a way out of the crisis.