A Page from History: Israel's First National Elections
January 26, 1949: The First Knesset elections
During the establishment of the state of Israel in May 1948, Israel's national institutions were established, which ruled the new state.
These bodies were not elected bodies in the pure sense, and their members originated from the management of the Jewish agency and from the management of the Jewish National Council.
The Israeli Declaration of Independence stated:
"We declare that after the termination of the British Mandate, from the 15 May 1948 and until elected authorities of the state would be established in accordance with a constitution accepted by the Elected Constituent Assembly not later than October 1, 1948 - the Provisional State Council would act as the temporary State Council, and its executive institution, the Provisional government of Israel, would constitute the temporary Government of the Jewish state, which would be named Israel."
However, the elections were not held before the designated date due to the War of Independence, and were actually cancelled twice. Israel's first election was eventually held on January 25, 1949, as the war raged on and voter turnout was close to 90 percent.
The election was in fact for a body called the Constituent Assembly and the first act of the newly minted lawmakers was to change its name to the Knesset or hebrew for 'assembly'.
As a prerequisite to run elections, Israel carried out its first census in November 1948. Conducted under a seven-hour general curfew, the census found half a million Israelis of voting age. (By contrast, 5.5 million Israelis were eligible to vote in January 2013.)
On the day of elections, all factories and business establishments in Israel were closed from 8 A.M. to midnight to permit all residents to go to the polls. The government proclaimed election day a national holiday.
Sentiment on Israel’s first Election Day was festive. "The main street of this city, like the central square of every town in the country, was the scene of numerous meetings with one party following another to the microphones according to a pre-arranged schedule. The crowds listened patiently and almost no disorder vas reported. Police and ambulances stationed in Mograbi Square, the traffic hub of Tel Aviv, stood by with nothing to do. The major contenders in the propaganda fight are the Mapai end the freedom Movement, both of which have flooded Tel Aviv with posters."
Addressing an election meeting, Premier David Ben Gurion stressed Israel’s peaceful intentions toward its neighbors and expressed the hope that the Jewish state could develop good relations with the surrounding Arab countries. He insisted that not one drop of blood will be shed” by the Jews to aid the creation of a Palestine Arab state, adding that Israel will not interfere in Arab internal politics.
Speaking at a conference in Tel Aviv, Col. Moshe Dayan, then-Israeli military commander of Jerusalem, declared that Israel will never agree to the internationalization of the new city of Jerusalem. He added that negotiations on Jerusalem with the Arabs are difficult because the latter do not feel that they have lost the war. He insisted that the only way to secure Jerusalem for Israel was to link it with the re-ire of the territory of the Jewish state by establishing a chain of settlements.
Menachem Beigin, who was at that time leader of the Freedom Party, asserted at ceremonies marking of a Heruth settlement–named “Ramat Reziel” – that “we can now replace a of fighting for a policy of colonization. We can change our policy since the of Israel is already firmly established,” he added.
Of the 21 parties on the ballot, 12 made it into the Knesset. David Ben-Gurion’s Mapai party, the predecessor of today’s Labor Party, dominated with nearly 36 percent of the vote, giving it 46 of the Knesset’s 120 seats.
The Knesset subsequently held its very first session at the Jewish Agency headquarters in Jerusalem, but later convened in Tel Aviv at the seaside Kesem cinema (now the site of the Opera Towers or Migdal Opera), before moving permanently to Jerusalem.
Israel is today, fast approaching it's 20th Knesset election.