Being a civil servant I'm not allowed publicly to express political opinions. But I don't see why that should stop me from explaining how the political process happens. So, just a few hours before voting begins, here goes:
All citizens from the age of 18 can vote. Each citizen has one vote, which is cast for a party list. Not for an individual. There's no mandatory process to construct the list. It used to be that each party appointed a team of power-brokers who met in a smoke-filled room, and a list emerged from the room. In the 1980s some parties began experimenting with ways to appear more receptive to public opinion or at least to aspire to some sort of transparency, and they replaced the Vaada hamesaderet, the organizing committee, with elections in a large central committee, or eventually even with a primary election by all card-carrying party members. Nowadays some parties have primary elections (Likud and Labor, Meretz and Beit Yehudi), others have rabbis who choose for them (the various ultra-orthodox parties), lots of backroom deals (the Arab list, I think), or simply powerful leaders who decide between their two ears (Lapid, Liberman, Kahlon, Livni).
The lists are submitted to the Central Election Committee a month or six weeks before the elections, and then locked until the next election. If at any point from then on someone drops out for whatever reason - boredom, say, or death - they're replaced by the top candidate from the list who is not yet in the Knesset. This means there are no by-elections or special appointments to the Knesset. In the past there have been cases of MKs who resigned days before the elections and were thus replaced for those remaining days; in this election Uri Orbach passed away a few days after the lists were submitted, and everyone below him (he was 5th in Bayit Yehudi) moved up one notch.
This system means MKs are responsible to various constituents or political strongmen, but not directly to voters in a national election.
There are 120 seats in the Knesset. Until not long ago the threshold for entering the Knesset was 1% of the votes, which means not much more than the 1/120th required in any case. In recent elections the threshold has been rising (well, the Knesset keeps passing laws to raise it, it doesn't happen of its own accord), and this time it stands at 3.25%, which means a list must have enough votes to garner four seats, or else it doesn't enter the Knesset and all its votes are regarded as disqualified. The first result of this change is that the three Arab lists, none of which were certain they'd pass the threshold on their own, created a joint list which may end up the third largest party.
The actual act of voting is done by inserting a small rectangular piece of paper into a blank envelope. There are no hanging chads in Israeli elections. The funny thing about these ballots is that each of them bears a letter or combinatoin of letters which are not the name of their party. This goes back to the early years of the state, when large numbers of new immigrants couldn't be counted on to be able to read the names of parties in Hebrew. This was resolved by allocating a letter to each party. By an astonishing coincidence the top political party of the day, Ben Gurion's Mapai, ended up with the letter A (aleph). The National religious party got B (bet), the ultra-orthdox got C (gimel) and so on. There have since been about 1,456 permutations of parties, and today the only party which still has its original latter is the Gimel party, which has however changed its name from Agudat Yisrael to Yahadut Hatorah (more than once, I think). The distant descendant of Mapai, which in this election calls itself the Zionist Camp, somehow acquired the letters aleph-mem-tav back in the 1960s; since these letters spell the word Emet, Truth, the party changes its name just about each electoral cycle but always holds on to its letters. A matter of superstition, perhaps.
The polls are open from 7am to 10pm, tho in cases where people arrived before 10pm the voting sometimes goes on for another bit. At 10pm sharp the various TV stations publish their exit polls, based on something like 25 voting stations of thousands. These exit polls are rarely precise, and tend to differ from each other by one or three seats, and also from what will eventually be the official results. This makes for fine and nail-biting drama for many hours into the night, but doesn't effect the real results.
The bulk of the ballots are counted by early next morning. There are still no final results, however, since the soldiers of the IDF, many tens of thousands of them, have voted on their bases in what are called double envelopes, because they're double. Each anonymous vote goes into a blank envelope. Each envelope then goes into a second envelope on which the soldier writes his or her full name and ID number. These envelopes are all sent to the Knesset, where large teams of folks check each name against the names of people who voted in the polling stations. Having identified the voter and ascertained they didn't vote twice the outer envelopes are discarded and the real envelopes then sent to a different table where they're counted. This takes a few days, so the final results are unknown. Even then there can be last-moment changes, since there are elaborate mechanisms to divide the final portions of MK seats which are left hanging - say, between a party with 5.6 seats and another one with 38.4. The larger party will probably get the entire seat, but not always. Don't ask.
When results are close it can happen that the outcome of the election remains hanging for almost a week after polling day. Which isn't as bad as it sounds, since in any case elections are merely a milestone along the road to creating a new government, not a final outcome.
Once the official results are in, and then another few days pass for the central election committee to prepare a letter to the president containing the information everyone already knows, the next stage of the process can begin.
In theory, the president chooses an MK - any one of the 120 new MKs - and tasks him or her (should I say "it"?) with creating a government which will receive 61 votes of support from the 120-member Knesset. If only it were remotely so simple!
No party has ever won 61 seats, so every Israeli government ever has been a coalition. (And this will most likely remain so for the next few centuries, opinionated and argumentative Jews being opinionated and argumentative Jews). The thing is, it used to be a mildly predictictable coalition of three parties, say, or four. These days it's rather more challenging. I'll write about the present alignments in a follow-up post; here I'm simply describing the mechanism.
The president invites each party in the Knesset to send him a delegation which will recommend whom he should task with building a coalition. Often the outcome of these deliberations is clear in advance, when there's a large party and a reasonably plausible set of parties to build a coalition from. Sometimes this isn't the case. Two elections ago Zipi Livni "won" the elections with 28 seats, but Netanyahu, having "lost" with 27 seats, set up a coalition and ruled because he had more potential partners, and they recommended him to President Peres.
This time all polls suggest this stage will be nightmarish. Which means the results of the elections may prove to be no more than general guidelines, or vague recommendations; the real result will be hammered out much later.
Once the president (his name has recently changed from Peres to Rivlin) tasks someone with building a coalition, that someone has about 5 weeks to get the job done. This ensures that it won't happen in less than five weeks: what politician would agree to finalize such fun negotiations before the end of the allotted time?
Having convinced at least 61 MKs to support him, the fellow goes to the Knesset, presents his new cabinet and is voted in, thereby becoming Prime Minister. All the while until then the previous one is still on the job. There was one case in the late 1980s when Shimon Peres (he who was later president) found out he lacked 61 votes only at the very last minute, when he was already in the Knesset building. Zipi Livni in 2009 was tasked with creating a coalition but failed. So it ain't finished till it's finished.
I think that more or less covers it all, except for the intricacies and crucial minutiae. In the next post I'll try and talk about who's running this time and who they'll never join in forming a coalition. All the while without indicating where my own preferences might lie, which I'm not allowed to tell.