Israeli democracy

Israeli democracy & elections

  • Political structure

    ​Israel is a parliamentary democracy, consisting of legislative, executive and judicial branches. Its institutions are the Presidency, the Knesset (parliament), the Government (cabinet), the Judiciary and the State Comptroller.

    The system is based on the principle of separation of powers, with checks and balances, in which the executive branch (the government) is subject to the confidence of the legislative branch (the Knesset) and the independence of the judiciary is guaranteed by law.
    The President, nasi in Hebrew, bears the ancient title of the head of the sanhedrin, the supreme legislative and judicial body of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel in ancient times. He is the head of state and his office symbolizes the unity of the state, above and beyond party politics.

    Presidential duties, which are mostly ceremonial and formal, are defined by law. Amongst 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 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.

    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.

    The Knesset​
    is the parliament of the State of Israel; its main function is to legislate. It took its name and fixed its membership at 120 from the knesset hagedolah (great assembly), the representative Jewish body convened in Jerusalem by Ezra and Nehemiah in the 5th century BCE.

    A new Knesset begins to function after general elections, which determine its composition. In the first session, which is opened by the president, the Knesset members declare their allegiance, and the speaker of the Knesset and his deputies are elected.

    The Knesset operates in plenary sessions and through its committees. In plenary sessions, general debates are conducted on government policy and activity, as well as on legislation. Debates are conducted in Hebrew, but members may speak Arabic, as both are official languages; simultaneous translation is available.

    A bill may be presented by an individual Knesset member, a group of Knesset members, the Government as a whole or a single Minister. When a Ministry initiates a bill, a memorandum on the proposed law is passed to the Ministry of Justice for comment on its legal aspects, to the Ministry of Finance for economic and budgetary review, and to the rest of the Government Ministries for their remarks. If the memorandum is approved, the bill is passed on for formulation towards its being presented to the Knesset, and approval by the Government. Private members' bills do not require Government approval.

    The bill is presented to the plenary for a first reading, and a short debate on its contents. It is then referred to the appropriate Knesset Committee for detailed discussion and redrafting, if necessary. The bill is returned to the plenary for a second reading, presentation of reservations by committee members, and a general review. If, thereafter, it is not found necessary to return the bill to the committee, a third reading takes place, at which a vote on the bill is taken.

    The Knesset is elected for a tenure of four years, but may dissolve itself or be dissolved by the prime minister before the end of its term. Until a new Knesset is formally constituted following elections, full authority remains with the outgoing one.
    The Government (cabinet of ministers) is the executive authority of the state, charged with administering internal and foreign affairs, including security matters. Its policy-making powers are very wide and it is authorized to take action on any issue which is not delegated by law to another authority. Like the Knesset, 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, when the government appoints one of its members (who is a Knesset member) as acting prime minister. In the case of a vote of no-confidence, the government and the prime minister emain in their positions until a new government is formed.

    Forming the government - Following consultations, the president presents one Knesset member with the responsibility of forming a government. To do so, the Knesset member has to present, within 28 days of being given the responsibility for forming a government, a list of ministers for Knesset approval, together with an outline of proposed government guidelines. Once approved, the ministers are responsible to the prime minister for the fulfillment of their duties and accountable for their actions to the Knesset. Most ministers are assigned a portfolio and head a ministry; others serve without a portfolio but may be called upon to take responsibility for special projects. The prime minister may also serve as a minister with a specific portfolio.

    All the ministers must be Israeli citizens and residents of Israel; they need not be Knesset members, but a majority usually are. Ministers, with the approval of the prime minister and the governmment, may appoint a deputy minister in their ministry; all deputy ministers must be Knesset members. 

    The government determines its own working and decision making procedures. It usually meets once a week but additional meetings may be called as the need arises. The government may also act by means of ministerial committees.

    To date, all governments have been based on coalitions of several parties, since no party has received enough Knesset seats to be able to form a government by itself.

    The Judiciary​ - The absolute independence of the judiciary is guaranteed by law. Judges are appointed by the president, upon recommendation of a special nominations committee, comprised of supreme court judges, members of the bar and public figures. Judges' appointments are for life, with a mandatory retirement age at 70. 

    Magistrates' and district courts exercise jurisdiction in civil and criminal cases, while juvenile, traffic, military, labor and municipal appeal courts each deal with matters coming under their competence. There is no trial by jury in Israel.

    In matters of personal status such as marriage, divorce, and maintenance, guardianship and the adoption of minors, jurisdiction is vested in the judicial institutions of the respective religious communities: the rabbinical court, the Moslem religious courts (sharia courts), the religious courts of the Druze and the juridical institutions of the nine recognized Christian communities in Israel.

    The supreme court, located in Jerusalem, has nationwide jurisdiction. It is the highest court of appeal on rulings of lower tribunals. In its function as a high court of justice, the supreme court hears petitions against any government body or agent, and is the court of first and last instance. 

    Although legislation is wholly within the competence of the Knesset, the supreme court can and does call attention to the desirability of legislative changes; sitting as the high court of justice, it has the authority to determine whether a law properly conforms with the Basic Laws of the state.
    Basic Laws - Israel has no formal constitution. However, most chapters of the prospective constitution have already been written, and enacted as Basic Laws.

    The Basic Laws are adopted by the Knesset in the same manner as other legislation. Their constitutional import is derived from their nature and, in some of them, from the inclusion of "entrenched clauses" which require a special majority to amend. 

    The State Comptroller and Ombudsman - The state comptroller carries out external audit and reports on the legality, regularity, economy, efficiency, effectiveness and moral integrity of the public administration in order to assure public accountability. Israel recognized the importance of state audit in a democratic society and in 1949 enacted a law establishing the state comptroller's office. Since 1971, the state comptroller also fulfills the function of ombudsman, and serves as an address for any person to submit complaints against state and public bodies which are subject to the audit of the comptroller. 

    The state comptroller is elected by the Knesset in a secret ballot for a seven-year term of office. The comptroller is responsible only to the Knesset, is not dependent upon the government, and enjoys unrestricted access to the accounts, files and staff of all bodies subject to audit. The comptroller carries out his/her activities in contact with the Knesset state audit affairs committee.

    The scope of state audit in Israel is among the most extensive in the world. It includes the activities of all government ministries, state institutions, branches of the defense establishment, local authorities, government corporations, state enterprises, and other bodies or institutions declared subject to audit.

    In addition, the state comptroller has been empowered by law to inspect the financial affairs of the political parties represented in the Knesset: political parties election campaign accounts, as well as current accounts are audited. When irregularities are found, monetary sanctions are imposed.​

  • Elections

    ​Knesset elections are general, national, direct, equal, secret and proportional, with the entire country constituting a single electoral constituency. On election day, voters cast one ballot for a political party to represent them in the Knesset.

    Because of the importance attributed to the democratic process, election day is a holiday. Free transportation is available to voters who happen to be outside their polling districts on this day, and special arrangements are made to enable military personnel and Israelis on assignments abroad, to vote.

    A central elections committee, headed by a justice of the supreme court and including representatives of the parties holding seats in the Knesset, is responsible for conducting the elections. Regional election committees oversee the functioning of local polling committees, which include representatives of at least three parties in the outgoing Knesset.

    Knesset elections are based on a vote for a party rather than for individuals, and the many political parties which compete for election to the Knesset reflect a wide range of outlooks and beliefs.

    Israelis take a great interest in the political scene, both in internal affairs and security as well as in foreign relations. In all elections to the Knesset so far, some 77-87 per cent of eligible voters cast their ballots for one of the many political parties running for the Knesset. To every Knesset 10-15 parties have been elected, and in the course of every Knesset, factions have both split and united.

    Prior to the elections, each party presents its platform, and the list of candidates for the Knesset, in order of precedence. The parties select their candidates for the Knesset in primaries or by other procedures.

    Parties represented in the outgoing Knesset can automatically stand for re-election; other parties may present their candidacy by obtaining the signatures of 2,500 eligible voters and depositing a bond, which is refunded if they succeed in receiving at least one and one half percent of the national vote, entitling them to one Knesset seat. 

    Knesset seats are assigned in proportion to each party's percentage of the total national vote. A party's surplus votes, which are insufficient for an additional seat, are redistributed among the various parties according to their proportional size resulting from the elections, or as agreed between parties prior to the election.

    An allocation funding the expenses of election campaigns is granted to each party from public funds, based on its number of seats in the outgoing Knesset. New parties receive a similar allocation retroactively for each member elected. The state comptroller reviews the disbursement of all campaign expenditures.

    Every citizen is eligible to vote from age 18 and to be elected to the Knesset from age 21. The president, the state comptroller, judges and senior public officials, as well as the chief-of-staff and high-ranking military officers, are disqualified from presenting their candidacy, unless they have resigned their position at least 100 days before the elections.​