Israel: The State System

January 1st, 2013

The State System

Israel is ruled according to a parliamentary, democratic system that originated in Mandatory Palestine. In Israel, democratic rule is rooted in the following principles and institutions: basic laws that lay down the order of government and citizens’ rights; elections to the house of representatives and to municipal councils every few years, following which, a central government and local authorities are set up, based on the principle of the rule of the majority, with the rights of the minority guaranteed by law; the principle of the separation between the legislative branch, the executive branch, and the judiciary, to which the institution of state control has been added;  and freedom of the press.

Although in the1948 Proclamation of Independence David Ben Gurion declared that the Constituent Assembly (which turned into the First Knesset) would draft a constitution for Israel, a constitution has yet to be ratified 58 years later. The initial work was disrupted due to differences of opinion among the religious parties. A series of Basic Laws were thus created to serve in place of a constitution and were intended to together form the constitution in the future. The task of creating and developing a constitution is still underway.

The existing basic laws include:

The Knesset: the Israeli Parliament

The Knesset is Israel’s legislature. Its name and fixed membership number of 120 is from the Knesset Hagedolah (Great Assembly), the representative Jewish council convened in Jerusalem by Ezra and Nehemiah in the 5th century B.C.E.

The major function of the Knesset is to enact laws and revise them as necessary. While the Government is the sponsor of most legislation, any Member of the Knesset (MK) can present a bill, known as a “private member’s bill.” Bills go through three stages, beginning with a first reading, i.e., a general debate in the plenum. At this stage the bill may be accepted and referred to the appropriate committee, removed from the Knesset table, or returned to the Government. If the bill is accepted, it goes to a committee for the resolution of details. Additional duties include establishing a government, making policy decisions, reviewing government activities, and electing the President of the State and the State Comptroller.

Inside the Knesset

The Knesset works in a plenum and committees. The plenum, the supreme authority of the house, has two annual sittings of the duration of at least eight months. Together, the two sittings form a session. The plenum elects the Speaker of the Knesset and one or more deputy speakers (the law does not specify the number). Deliberations in the plenum, presided over by the Speaker or a Deputy Speaker, are open to the media and the public. The agenda of Knesset meetings is set by the Speaker in accordance with Government proposals. One meeting each week is set aside for consideration of private members’ bills. Every day that the Knesset is in session, time is reserved for ministers to reply to questions.

The Knesset has 12 standing committees: House (or Knesset) Committee, dealing with the Knesset agenda; Finance, Economics, Defense and Foreign Affairs, Interior and Environment, Immigration and Absorption, Education and Culture, Constitution, Law, and Justice; Labor and Social Affairs, Public Audit (Control), War against Drug Affliction, and Advancing the Status of Women.

Debates in the Knesset take the form of general debates, motions for the agenda, parliamentary questions, and motions of no confidence. A general debate is held on bills or general matters of a political or other nature. Debates on bills conclude with a vote; debates on general matters may end without voting. A motion for the agenda is a preliminary debate concerning the inclusion of an issue raised by an MK on the Knesset agenda. A parliamentary question is asked by an MK of a minister on ministry affairs, to draw the attention of the Government and the public to an issue that, in the presenter’s opinion, needs corrective action. Parliamentary questions are presented in writing, and the minister must reply in the Knesset plenum within a period of time set by Knesset bylaws. Since 1984, oral parliamentary questions have also been allowed; these must be replied to within two days, at which time members of other Knesset factions may ask additional questions. Any Knesset faction may submit a motion of no-confidence in the Government; the Knesset must vote on the motion at its first meeting during the week following submission of the motion.

The Knesset Speaker

The Knesset Speaker is elected by the plenum, as are his deputies. The Speaker conducts the affairs of the Knesset, represents it externally, preserves its dignity, the decorum of its sittings and the observance of its Rules of Procedure. The Speaker, or one of his deputies, presides over the sittings of the plenum, conducts them, puts resolutions to the vote and determines the results of these votes, as well as those in the elections for various state positions for which the plenum is responsible. In the absence of the President of the State from the country, the Speaker acts in his place. The Speaker and Deputy Speakers together constitute the Knesset Presidium, which approves the tabling of private Members’ bills and the urgency of Motions for the Agenda.

Knesset Speakers since the first Knesset

The Secretary General of the Knesset

The Secretary General of the Knesset, who is appointed by the Knesset Speaker and his deputies, functions as the director general of the Knesset. The Secretary General, or one of his deputies, is present in the Knesset plenum when it is sitting. The task of the Secretary General during the sitting is to advise the Speaker on matters of the Rules of Procedure, procedure and custom, and to manage the list of speakers. The Secretary General is a member of the Association of Secretaries-General of Parliaments.

For further information about the Knesset:

Directory of Knesset Members
http://www.knesset.gov.il/mk/eng/mkmain_eng.asp

Watch the Knesset live
http://www.knesset.gov.il/broadcast/eng/screen_eng.asp

The Electoral System

Israel has an electoral system based on nation-wide proportional representation, and the number of seats which every list receives in the Knesset is proportional to the number of voters who voted for it. The only limitation is that a party must receive at least 2% of the votes in order to be elected. According to this system, the voters vote for a party list, and not for a particular person on the list. Since the institution of the primary system in some of the parties, these parties directly elect their candidates for the Knesset. Some of the parties elect their candidates via the party’s institutions. In the ultra-religious parties their spiritual leaders appoint the candidates. The Knesset elections take place once every four years, but the Knesset or the Prime Minister can decide to hold early elections, and under certain circumstances, can serve for more than four years.

The framework of the Israeli electoral system is defined in Article 4 of the Basic Law: The Knesset, which states:

“The Knesset shall be elected by general, national, direct, equal, secret and proportional elections, in accordance with the Knesset Elections Law.”

The Basic Law: The Government 5752-1992 entered into effect with the elections to the 14th Knesset (1996). On March 7, 2001, the Knesset voted to change the system of direct prime-ministerial elections and restore the one-vote parliamentary system of government that operated until 1996, approving a reformed version of the original Basic Law: The Government 1968. This revised law is now in effect.

  • General: On election day, voters cast one ballot for a political party to represent them in the Knesset. Every Israeli citizen aged 18 or older has the right to vote. Israelis of all ethnic groups and religious beliefs, including Arab Israelis, actively participate in the process; and for many years, voting percentages have reached close to 80 percent.
  • National: The entire country constitutes a single electoral constituency.
  • Direct: The Knesset, the Israeli parliament, is elected directly by the voters, not through a body of electors.
  • Equal: All votes cast are equal in weight.
  • Secret: Elections are by secret ballot.
  • Proportional: The 120 Knesset seats are assigned in proportion to each party’s percentage of the total national vote. However, the minimum required for a party to win a Knesset seat is 1.5% of the total votes cast. The lists that have passed the qualifying threshold receive a number of Knesset seats that is proportional to their electoral strength.

Every citizen aged 21 or older is eligible for election to the Knesset, provided that they have no criminal record, do not hold an official position (the president, state comptroller, judges and senior public officials, as well as the chief-of-staff and high-ranking military officers, may not stand for election to the Knesset unless they have resigned their position at least 100 days before the elections), and the court has not specifically restricted this right (for example, in the rare case of a person convicted of treason).

The Basic Law states that early elections are to be held under the following circumstances: A decision by the Prime Minister to dissolve the Knesset, a decision by the Knesset to dissolve itself before its term is completed, a vote on a motion of no-confidence in the Prime Minister, and the failure to pass the budget law within three months of the beginning of the financial year.

The Effect of “Direct Elections” for Prime Minister

In the past, the task of forming a government and heading it as prime minister was assigned by the President to the Knesset Member considered to have the best chance of forming a viable coalition government in light of the Knesset election results. This usually meant the chairperson of the party with the most votes. This resulted in a situation which accorded undue influence to small factions which, in return for their support of the coalition, made demands inconsistent with their relative size. In order to prevent this, in 1992 the Knesset enacted legislation providing for the direct election of Prime Minister.

The Knesset and the Knesset Election Law, inaugurated a new electoral system in Israel where two separate ballots are cast:  for the political party chosen by the voter to represent him/her in the Knesset, and the other for Prime Minister.

The new electoral system, however, did not achieve its desired ends. In many democracies, voters cast their ballot for a party mainly due to the personality of the leader that they wish to see as Prime Minister of their country. Israelis could now vote for a candidate for Prime Minister from one of the major parties and vote for a smaller interest party. Therefore the original problem of disproportionate power in the hands of small parties was exacerbated, leading to unstable governing coalitions vulnerable to crises and threats by its members to bring down the government.

The first beneficiary of the direct election system was Benjamin Netanyahu who beat Shimon Peres to become Prime Minister in 1996. The next Knesset elections in 1999 saw Ehud Barak displace Netanyahu who gave up his Knesset seat and the leadership of the Likud Party. Ariel Sharon assumed the interim leadership of Likud with the task of rebuilding the party after its electoral defeat. Ehud Barak’s coalition, however, started to unravel, finally falling apart as it lost its parliamentary majority as different parties deserted the Prime Minister.

The realization that the direct election for Prime Minister had not worked led to the repeal of the Basic Law: The Government in March 2001. Israel has since reverted to the original system of elections.

Who votes?

All citizens aged 18 or older on Election Day are eligible to vote. Soldiers on active duty vote in special polling stations in their units. Special arrangements have also been made for prison inmates to vote, as well as for those confined to hospitals. Israeli law does not provide for absentee ballots, and voting takes place only on Israeli soil. The sole exceptions are Israeli citizens serving on Israeli ships and in Israeli embassies and consulates abroad.

The Executive Branch: The Government

The Government determines its own working arrangements and the manner in which it adopts decisions. It usually meets once weekly, and otherwise by means of standing or occasional Ministerial Committees, some of whose decisions require the approval of the Government as a whole. The Government can also be called together for special sessions as necessary for particular issues.

The number of Ministries maintained by the Government varies from time to time according to the needs and to coalition constraints. Governments generally include the following ministries:

  • The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development
  • The Ministry of Communications
  • The Ministry of Construction and Housing
  • The Ministry of Defense
  • The Ministry of Education, Culture and Sports
  • The Ministry of Environment
  • The Ministry of Finance
  • The Ministry of Foreign Affairs
  • The Ministry of Health
  • The Ministry of Immigrant Absorption
  • The Ministry of Industry and Trade
  • The Ministry of the Interior
  • The Ministry of Justice
  • The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs
  • The Ministry of National Infrastructures
  • The Ministry of Public Security
  • The Ministry of Religious Affairs
  • The Ministry of Science and Technology
  • The Ministry of Tourism
  • The Ministry of Transport

For further information about the Ministries:

Directory of all government ministers
http://www.knesset.gov.il/govt/eng/GovtByNumber_eng.asp

Ministerial positions held by women
http://www.knesset.gov.il/govt/eng/GovtByParameter_eng.asp?par=1

How is a Government formed? What is a coalition?

The Government (cabinet of ministers) is the executive authority of the state, charged with administering internal and foreign affairs, including security matters.

  • The government usually serves for four years, but its tenure may be shortened if the prime minister is unable to continue in office due to death, resignation or impeachment, or when the government appoints one of its members (who is a Knesset member) as acting prime minister.

When a new government is to be formed, the President of the State, after consulting with representatives of the parties elected to the Knesset, assigns the task of forming the government to a Knesset member, usually the leader of the party with the largest Knesset representation.

  • A government must have a supporting coalition of at least 61 of the 120 Knesset members. To date, no party has received enough Knesset seats to be able to form a government by itself. Thus all Israeli governments have been based on coalitions of several parties, with those remaining outside the government making up the opposition.
  • The Knesset Member appointed has 28 days to form a government. If this period (up to 42 days with extensions) has passed and the designated Knesset Member has not succeeded in forming a government, the President may then assign the task of forming a government to another Knesset Member.
    • If a government still has not been formed, an absolute majority of Knesset Members (61) has the option of applying in writing to the President, asking him to assign the task to a particular Knesset Member. Such a precedent has yet to occur.

Once a government has been formed, the designated Prime Minister presents it to the Knesset within 45 days of publication of election results. At this time, he announces its composition, the basic guidelines of its policy, and the distribution of functions among its ministers. The Prime Minister then asks the Knesset for an expression of confidence. The government is installed when the Knesset has expressed confidence in it by a majority of 61 Knesset members, and the ministers thereupon assume office.

What happens if the government falls?

If a certain party pulls out of a coalition, the government can fall. The prime minister then must try to form new coalitions to form a government (needs 61 seats in the Knesset in his coalition). If he does not succeed, he can call for early elections, which must happen within 90 days.

The Prime Minister

The Prime Minister heads the Cabinet of Ministers.  This Cabinet is charged with administering internal and foreign affairs, including security matters. It holds vast policy-making powers, and is authorized to take action on any issue which is not legally incumbent upon another authority.

All the ministers must be Israeli citizens and residents of Israel. With the approval of the Prime Minister and the government, Ministers can appoint a Deputy Minister in their ministry; all must be Knesset members.

If the Prime Minister is unable to continue in office due to death, resignation or impeachment, the government appoints one of its members (who must be a Knesset Member) as acting prime minister. In the case of a vote of no-confidence, the government and the Prime Minister remain in their positions until a new government is formed.

Israel’s Prime Ministers:

  • 1948-1953 David Ben-Gurion
  • 1954-1955 Moshe Sharett
  • 1955-1963 David Ben-Gurion
  • 1963-1969 Levi Eshkol
  • 1969-1974 Golda Meir
  • 1974-1977 Yitzhak Rabin
  • 1977-1983 Menachem Begin
  • 1983-1984 Yitzhak Shamir
  • 1984-1986 Shimon Peres
  • 1986-1992 Yitzhak Shamir
  • 1992-1995 Yitzhak Rabin
  • 1995-1996 Shimon Peres
  • 1996-1999 Binyamin Netanyahu
  • 1999-2001 Ehud Barak
  • 2001-2006 Ariel Sharon
  • 2006-2009 Ehud Olmert
  • 2009- ? Binyamin Netanyahu

The President

The President is elected by a simple majority of the Knesset from among candidates nominated on the basis of their personal stature and contribution to the state. The President is elected for one term of seven years.

Presidential duties are mostly ceremonial, but are nonetheless defined by the law. Among his formal functions are the opening of the first session of a new Knesset; accepting the credentials of foreign envoys; signing treaties and laws adopted by the Knesset; appointing judges, the governor of the Bank of Israel and heads of Israel’s diplomatic missions abroad on the recommendation of the appropriate bodies; and the pardoning prisoners and commuting sentences, on the advice of the Minister of Justice. In addition, the President performs public functions and informal tasks which include citizens’ appeals, lending prestige to communal and social associations, and strengthening public actions such as the fight against road accidents.

Israel’s Presidents:

  • 1948-1952 Chaim Weizmann
  • 1952-1963 Yitzchak Ben Zvi
  • 1963-1973 Shne’or Zalman Shazar
  • 1973-1978 Ephraim Katzir
  • 1978-1983 Yitzchak Navon
  • 1983-1992 Haim Herzog
  • 1993-2000 Ezer Weizman
  • 2000-2007 Moshe Katzav
  • 2007-  Shimon Peres

Comparison: Israeli vs. United States system

The Israeli parliamentary system differs from the United States government on many levels. In the United States, Members of Congress represent a particular region or state, and tend to focus on issues that concern their local constituents. Israel’s system is national rather than regional. Therefore, rather than voting for candidates who will share regional concerns, Israelis vote for specialized parties with independent interests. Under the Israeli system, the voter elects the Knesset members directly, rather than via an electoral college (as is the case in the election of the President in the United States).

The United States government is made up of three branches: Legislative (Congress), Executive (President), and Judicial. As such, the President’s role is not defined by each party’s relative representation in Congress. Furthermore, because the United States system is bipartisan, it is very clear which party is in control.  In contrast, in the Israeli government, there are 28 political parties.  In Israel, because the President’s position is mostly ceremonial, the Prime Minister and his entire Cabinet, also members of Knesset, hold the power of executive and legislative branches.

Under the Israeli system, the Prime Minister must form and maintain a coalition of 61 members of Knesset (a majority of the 120 seats), in order to pass the bills that are vital to his government. Furthermore, the Prime Minister must hold the majority to stay in power and prevent a vote of no-confidence. A vote of no-confidence is a declaration by the Knesset that they are unsatisfied with the current administration, and are initiating new elections. Without the 61-member majority, the Prime Minister possesses no authority.  If the Prime Minister cannot form a coalition government, he or she is forced to call for elections within 90 days.

Political Parties

There are a total of 28 registered political parties in Israel. A complete list of the parties currently holding seats in the Knesset can be found at: http://www.science.co.il/Parties.asp.

Brief descriptions of some of the larger parties are as follows:

  • The Labor Party
    The Labor Party was established in 1968 as the dominant left-of-center party in Israel. Until Menachem Begin’s victory in 1977, every Israeli Prime Minister came from Labor. Since 1977, Labor leaders Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak have served as Prime Ministers. The Labor Party has a principled commitment to the maintenance of a democratic form of government; to the enhancement of the social and economic well being of all of Israel’s citizens; to the strengthening of Israel’s economy based on free market principles; and, to the achievement of a comprehensive peace with security in the Middle East involving a two-state solution with the Palestinians and supports unilateral separation and a security fence if negotiations fail.
  • Likud Party
    Since it’s creation in 1973, the Likud party has become one of Israel’s major conservative parties. In Hebrew, Likud means “unity.”  Likud’s platform includes a peace treaty based on “peace for peace,” maintaining the status quo in religion/state issues and reforms in public health, education and welfare.
    http://www.likud.org.il/ (Hebrew only)
  • Kadima
    Prime Minister Ariel Sharon left Likud in November 2005 to form the Kadima party on the basis of creating a new party that was defined by broad popular support which “works to ensure the future of Israel as a Jewish democratic state.” Kadima identifies the advancement of peace with the Palestinians as a primary goal, and states that it is willing to make significant “compromises to further the path leading to the determination of Israel’s permanent borders and peace for its citizens – whilst safeguarding Israel’s security, continuing to wage an unremitting war against terrorism and upholding the country’s national and security interests.”
  • Meretz
    Meretz is a party that stresses equality among Israeli citizens. It recognizes all streams of Judaism, and does not support the budget structure that provides extra money and special privileges to the Ultra Orthodox.  Regarding the Palestinians, Meretz believes in “[ex]hausting every opportunity to return to the negotiating table and reach a political settlement with the Palestinians. A comprehensive program to end the occupation: erecting an effective border fence, compensating settlers to move within adjusted 1967 frontiers, maintaining Israel’s defense from inside internationally-recognized borders. Withdrawal of Israeli soldiers from the territories and their replacement by a temporary international security and civil monitoring force.”
  • Shinui
    This party is a secular Zionist party, devoted to the separation of Church and State.  It favors negotiations with Palestinians after a cessation of terrorism, an evacuation of settlements in areas around dense Arab populations, and the construction of a security fence as a defense against terrorism.  Supporters believe that Yeshiva students should also be drafted into the army, religious courts should become civil courts, and commerce should be allowed on Shabbat.

Religious Parties

  • Shas
    The Shas party represents ultra-orthodox Sephardic Jews, many of whom receive religious exemption from serving in the army.  It supports autonomy for Palestinians, but opposes a Palestinian state.
  • National Religious Party (NRP)
    The NRP is primarily comprised of Ashkenazi Orthodox Jews, who do serve in the army.  This party opposes the creation of a Palestinian state and supports settlements for the reason that they are part of the biblical land of Israel. The party holds the Torah and Jewish tradition as the basis for the legal system and is committed to the preservation of the religious character of the country and to ensure the availability of all religious services to the public and to individuals by means of state, local, and other public institutions.
  • United Torah Judaism
    This faction believes that the land of Israel was given to the Jews by God, but it opposes the creation of the state before the coming of the messiah.  It also opposes negotiations with the PLO and the creation of a Palestinian state.  It is comprised of two parties- Agudat Yisrael and Degel Hatorah.

Arab Parties

  • Balad (National Democratic Assembly), Hadash, Ta’al (Arab movement for change)
    These parties hold the platform that within Israel equality should be given to all individuals and religions.  On the issue of a Palestinian state they believe that Israel should withdraw from all Arab territories occupied before 1967 to create a Palestinian state, with East Jerusalem as the capital.  It calls for the help of the International community to solve the refugee problem in accordance with UN resolutions.
  • Oda
    A Marxist party which consists primarily of Arab workers. It opposes the current Israeli regime, seeking an alternative that will replace (1) the Arab leadership inside Israel, (2) the Palestinian Authority (3) the Islamic current, which seeks to lead the Arab masses toward a dead end of otherworldly extremism.

The Judiciary

The Israeli courts deal with cases raised by citizens against other citizens, by the state against citizens, and even by citizens against the state.

The sessions of the courts of law are usually public, unless under special circumstances it is decided to hold closed hearings. When more than one judge presides, and the judges do not agree on a verdict, the opinion of the majority is decisive. Israel does not have trials by jury.

The Israeli courts accept both criminal and civil cases. There are three levels of regular courts: magistrate courts, which have the authority to try light and intermediate offenses, or civil cases in which the sum claimed is no higher than a million shekels (approximately U.S. $300,000); district courts, which try serious offenses, and civil cases in which the sum claimed is more than a million shekels; and the Supreme Court, which sits in Jerusalem. The number of judges serving on the Supreme Court is determined by the Knesset. The judges elect a permanent President of the Supreme Court and a deputy from amongst themselves.

The Supreme Court hears appeals for both verdicts given by district courts - in this capacity it is called the Supreme Court of Appeals and the verdict is final; and by persons who feel that they have been wronged by one of the State authorities or statutory bodies. In the latter capacity the court is called the High Court of Justice, and functions by means of orders.

In addition to the ordinary courts, there are special courts, which are authorized to deal with specific matters, including: the military courts, the labor courts, and the religious courts. There are religious courts of each of the four main religious denominations: Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Druze. Each religious court can only try cases applying to members of its own religious community who are citizens of the State of Israel or permanent residents there.

For further information:

Guide to Israeli Legal System:
http://www.llrx.com/features/israel.htm

  1. Jewish Virtual Library, “The Knesset,” http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Politics/knesset.html
  2. Website of the Israeli Knesset: http://www.knesset.gov.il/description/eng/eng_work_org.htm
  3. Kadima Party Website: http://www.kadimaisrael.co.il/12-en/Kadima.aspx
  4. Jewish Virtual Library, “Israel: How the Government Works,” http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Politics/how_govt_works.html