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For a time, Israel's prime minister was unlike most others, being elected by popular vote and not by the parliament. While the Knesset was elected by proportional representation on a statewide level, the prime minister was elected in a national winner take all election, with a runoff election two weeks later if no candidate won the first. This unique system was first employed in 1996, and later abandoned when the Knesset ended up badly spread.

The Knesset can remove the prime minister by a two-thirds vote (80/120), and can vote no confidence by a simple majority of 61 (which means that the assembly is dissolved as well). In either case, new elections must be held.

When are elections held? According to law, on the third Tuesday of Heshvan (or the first Tuesday, if following a Hebrew leap year). This usually comes in November. However, the Knesset is allowed to approve a different date, and have extended and shortened their term on many occasions, as the following table indicates.

                       Born             Term        Died
 M  David Ben-Gurion   Poland    1886   1948-1953   1973
 M  Moshe Sharett      Ukraine   1894   1953-1955   1965
 M  David Ben-Gurion (2)                1955-1963
M/L Levi Eshkol        Russia    1895   1963-1969   1969
 L  Golda Meir         Russia    1898   1969-1974   1978
 L  Yitzhak Rabin      Palestine 1922   1974-1977   1995 (assassinated)
Lik Menachem Begin     Poland    1913   1977-1983   1992
Lik Yitzhak Shamir     Poland    1915   1983-1984
 L  Shimon Peres       Poland    1923   1984-1986
Lik Yitzhak Shamir (2)                  1986-1992
 L  Yitzhak Rabin (2)                   1992-1995
 L  Shimon Peres (2)                    1995-1996
Lik Binyamin Netanyahu Israel    1949   1996-1999
 L  Ehud Barak         Palestine 1942   1999-2001
Lik Ariel Sharon       Palestine 1928   2001-
Party abbreviations: M = Mapai, L = Labor Party, Lik = Likud. Note that Israeli governments are coalitions, and therefore this designation only reflects the prime minister, not necessarily the majority of the Knesset.

You may notice that all of Israel's prime ministers are Ashkenazim—European Jews—despite the fact that the Ashkenazim only make up around half of Israel's citizenry. Many political thinkers believe that this is because the African and Asian Sephardim in Israel have arrived without an adequate knowledge of democracy, and believe that as future Sephardi generations grow up in a democratic environment, the ethnic tilt in Israeli politics will change.

Unlike most other industrial democracies, elections in Israel generally revolve around defense policy and religious policy, not the economy. The two major historical factions in Israel, Mapai/Labor and Herut/Liberal/Likud, chiefly fought across these lines, and there is little reason to believe that the situation will change in the near future.

principal source: Arian, The Second Republic - thanks to arieh and da-x for clarifications

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