On this day: Israel held first ever elections for Knesset in 1949

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As Israel heads to a fourth election in two years, we look back at Israel’s first-ever election for Knesset, a step in the formation of Israeli democracy that took place 72 years ago today.

The first-ever election for the Knesset was not technically for Israel’s parliament but for its “Constituent Assembly,” a committee that was to be temporary and draft the nation’s constitution. When it became apparent that there were ideological differences too great to bridge in order to write the constitution, the Transition Law was ratified two days after the formation of the assembly, turning the Constituent Assembly into the Knesset.

Israel’s first election for Knesset was scheduled to take place in October of 1948, but was postponed due to Israel’s bloody and long-fought War for Independence that lasted over nine months and left thousands dead.

As Israel approaches elections during the coronavirus pandemic, Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch (Likud) caused a political storm on Wednesday, when he warned that the March 23 elections could end up having to be postponed due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Kisch stressed that he was expressing his own personal point of view, and that the decision would be made solely by the Central Elections Committee. He also said that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had not spoken about such a possibility.

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At the first assembly, Chaim Weizmann was elected as Israel’s first president.

Voter turnout was nearly 90%, with 434,684 votes counted from a total of 506,567 eligible voters (87%). Out of 21 parties that ran, 12 made it into the Knesset with at least one seat.

Mapai, the party of David Ben-Gurion and known as being pro-Western, received the most votes with 35.7% of the vote. Mapam, the party known as being pro-Soviet until the death of Joseph Stalin, was second with 14.7% of the vote. The party with the third most votes, winning 16 seats was the United Religious Front.

Issues of religion and state were also a topic Israelis voted on in the first election, according to Israel’s Democracy Institute. This issue has been an important topic in Israel’s most recent elections with issues like the draft law and public transportation on Shabbat discussed in coalition agreements and campaign ads.

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Israel’s first coalition had 73 members and the first government had 12 ministers, the fewest ever. Today’s government has 35 ministers, making it the biggest – and most expensive – in Israeli history.

Zachary Keyser and Gil Hoffman contributed to this report. 

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