Due to the way the Israeli political system works, the January 22nd election is nearly a year ahead of schedule. The early vote date is expected to give an edge to the incumbent, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and his conservative Likud party.
Why a “snap” election?
In Israeli democracy, election dates are not set in stone like they are in the United States. Instead, a vote for the parliament, known as the Knesset, must be held at least every four years, but can happen on any date within that time frame. An early or “snap” election can be called either by a vote of the majority of the Knesset members or by an executive edict.
“Elections were legally scheduled for October 2013, but elections in Israel are rarely held at their legally designated time. They're usually held early largely because of the coalition nature of the Israeli government.” said Natan Sachs of the Brookings Institution.
A “coalition” is a like a clique formed by parties with similar interests that is used to garner the majority of votes in the Knesset needed to pass laws.
Early into a new term, the coalition tends to stick together in order to govern, but as elections approach they tend to fracture as politicians focus on getting votes. This means it is easier to govern and pass laws right after elections than three years into a government.
Israel is facing a looming budget crisis, and Mr. Netanyahu said that his coalition’s inability to agree on a budget forced him to call elections as soon as possible. With a new government, he will have the votes necessary to easily pass the budget.
"I have decided that it is in Israel's better interest to go to elections now and as quickly as possible," he said in a nationally televised address. "For Israel, it is preferable to have as short a campaign as possible, one of three months over one that would last in practice an entire year and damage Israel's economy."
However, some critics say that he has called the election early to ensure his own victory. Mr. Netanyahu is currently popular in Israel, and with a liberal opposition that is currently fractured and leaderless, he is expected to win reelection easily.
A victory on the 22nd will give him another four-year mandate to rule.
Israeli Labor party leader Shelly Yachimovich speaks on the phone with potential voters. Labor is polling better this year than they were in the last election
How Israeli elections work
When Israeli citizens vote, they do not vote for individual candidates like Americans do. Instead, they vote for the party they prefer, and the party then nominates members to hold seats in the Knesset in proportion to the number of votes they receive. Therefore if one party gets 25 percent of the vote, they will populate 25 percent of the Knesset.
The parties elected to the Knesset then attempt to form coalitions in order to have the largest voting bloc. The leader of the largest voting bloc then becomes prime minister.
In the last election, held in 2009, the center-left Kadima party won the most seats in the Knesset. However, because the religious and right-wing parties were able to gain more seats in total, their coalition leader, Mr. Netanyahu, was able to gain the country's top office.
Implications for Iran, Middle East policies
The election could affect what happens in the Middle East over the next few years. Netanyahu is known for his strong stance against Iran.
“My priority, if I'm elected for a next term as prime minister, will be first to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons," Netanyahu told a delegation of U.S. senators who visited last week.
He has also had a tense relationship with U.S. President Barack Obama, disagreeing with him over details of the Palestinian peace process and other issues.