Israel's governmental system is based on several basic laws enacted by its unicameral parliament, the Knesset. The president (chief of state) is elected by the Knesset for a 5-year term. Since August 2000, this post has been filled by Moshe Katsav. The prime minister (head of government) exercises executive power and is selected by the president as the party leader most able to form a government. After the president's selection, the chosen prime minister has forty-five days to form a government. In the May 1996 elections, Israelis for the first time voted for the prime minister directly, but direct election has since been repealed. The members of the cabinet must be collectively approved by the Knesset. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (from the Likud party) was first elected 17 February 2001, and re-elected 28 Jan 2003, forming a coalition government with Shinui, National Union, and the Mafdal (National Religious Party). (In addition, Yisrael Ba-Aliya dissolved itself into Likud.)
The Knesset's 120 members are elected by secret ballot to 4-year terms, although the prime minister may decide to call for new elections before the end of the 4-year term. Voting is carried out using the highest averages method of party-list proportional representation, using the d'Hondt formula. General elections are closed list; that is, voters vote only for party lists and cannot affect the order of candidates within the lists. There are no separate districts; all voters vote on the same party lists. Suffrage is universal among Israeli citizens aged 18 years or older. Polling locations are open in Israel and in settlements in the occupied territories; absentee ballots are limited to diplomatic staff and the merchant marine.
The independent judicial system includes secular and religious courts. The secular courts are consisted of a three-tier system: Magistrate Courts serve as courts of first instance; above them are the District Courts which serve as appelate courts and also serve as courts of first instance for some cases; at the top of the judicial pyramid is the Supreme Court which is situated in Jerusalem. Marital issues (especially divorce) are under the jurisdiction of religious courts. Israeli law is composed of both laws enacted by the Knesset and of Ordinances which were enacted by the British Mandate rule (until 1948) and later adopted and revised by the Knesset. Israel's legal system is best described as a "mixed" one: it belongs to the western legal systems, it is heavily influenced by the Anglo-American legal system, has some aspects which are typical to the Civil Law tradition, and has unique characterisitics which are induced from the fact that Israel is a Jewish and democratic state. The courts' right of judicial review of the Knesset's legislation comes into effect in cases of non-conformation of legislation to the Basic Laws, in problems of execution of laws and when the validity of subsidiary legislation is in question. In December 1985, Israel informed the UN Secretariat that it would no longer accept compulsory International Court of Justice jurisdiction.
Israel has no formal constitution. Some of the functions of a constitution are filled by the Declaration of Independence (1948), the Basic Laws of the parliament (Knesset), and the Israeli citizenship law.
Israel is divided into six districts (mehozot, singular - mehoz): Central, Haifa, Jerusalem, Northern, Southern, Tel Aviv. Administration of the districts is coordinated by the Ministry of Interior. The Ministry of Defense is responsible for the administration of the disputed territories.
Israeli politics is dominated by Zionist parties which traditionally fall into three camps, Labour Zionism, Revisionist Zionism and Religious Zionism (although there are several Orthodox religious parties which do not consider themselves Zionist).
From the founding of Israel in 1948 until the election of May 1977, Israel was ruled by successive coalition governments led by the Labour Alignment (or Mapai prior to 1967). From 1967 to 1970, a national unity government included all of Israel's parties except for the two factions of the Communist Party of Israel. After the 1977 election, the Revisionist Zionist Likud bloc, then composed of Herut, the Liberals, and the smaller La'am Party, came to power forming a coalition with the National Religious Party, Agudat Israel, and others.
As head of Likud, Menachem Begin became Prime Minister. He remained Prime Minister through the succeeding election in June 1981, until his resignation in the summer of 1983, when he was succeeded by his Foreign Minister, Yitzhak Shamir. After losing a Knesset vote of confidence early in 1984, Shamir was forced to call for new elections, held in July of that year.
The vote was split among numerous parties and provided no clear winner leaving both Labour and Likud considerably short of a Knesset majority. Neither Labour nor Likud was able to gain enough support from the small parties to form even a narrow coalition. After several weeks of difficult negotiations, they agreed on a broadly based government of national unity. The agreement provided for the rotation of the office of prime minister and the combined office of vice prime minister and foreign minister midway through the government's 50-month term.
During the first 25 months of unity government rule, Labour's Shimon Peres served as prime minister, while Likud's Yitzhak Shamir held the posts of vice prime minister and foreign minister. Peres and Shamir switched positions in October 1986. The November 1988 elections resulted in a similar coalition government. Likud edged Labour out by one seat but was unable to form a coalition with the religious and right-wing parties. Likud and Labour formed another national unity government in January 1989 without providing for rotation. Yitzhak Shamir became Prime Minister, and Shimon Peres became Vice Prime Minister and Finance Minister.
The formation of the Labour-Likud coalition in 1984 resulted in the Mapam party leaving the Labour Alignment to join other members of the Israeli peace camp in forming the left wing Meretz party.
The national unity government fell in March 1990, in a vote of no-confidence precipitated by disagreement over the government's response to U.S. Secretary of State Baker's initiative in the peace process.
Labour Party leader Peres was unable to attract sufficient support among the religious parties to form a government. Yitzhak Shamir then formed a Likud-led coalition government including members from religious and right-wing parties.
Shamir's government took office in June 1990, and held power for 2 years. In the June 1992 national elections, the Labour Party reversed its electoral fortunes, taking 44 seats. Labour Party leader Yitzhak Rabin formed a coalition with Meretz (a group of three centre-left parties) and Shas (an ultra-Orthodox religious party). The coalition included the support of Arab and communist parties. Rabin became Prime Minister in July 1992. Shas subsequently left the coalition, leaving Rabin with a minority government dependent on the votes of Arab and communist parties in the Knesset.
Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing Jewish radical on November 4, 1995. Peres, then Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, once again became Prime Minister and immediately proceeded to carry forward the peace policies, as well as the economic liberalization policies, of the Rabin government and to implement Israel's Oslo commitments (including military redeployment in the West Bank and the holding of historic Palestinian elections on January 20, 1996).
Enjoying broad public support and anxious to secure his own mandate, Peres called for early elections after just 3 months in office. (They would have otherwise been held by the end of October 1996.) In late February and early March, a series of suicide bombing attacks by Palestinian terrorists took some 60 Israeli lives, seriously eroding public support for Peres and raising concerns about the peace process. Increased fighting in southern Lebanon, which also brought Katyusha rocket attacks against northern Israel, also raised tensions and weakened the government politically just a month before the May 29 elections. This was further exacerbated by the fact that despite the sharp increase in economic growth rates (brought about by immigration and the peace process), Labour's economic liberalization policies only further increased social and economic gaps.
In those elections - the first direct election of a prime minister in Israeli history - Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu won by a narrow margin, having sharply criticized the government's peace policies for failing to protect Israeli security. Netanyahu subsequently formed a predominantly right-wing coalition government publicly committed to pursuing the peace process, but with an emphasis on security first and reciprocity. His coalition included the Likud party, allied with the Tsomet and Gesher parties in a single list; three religious parties (Shas, the National Religious Party (Mafdal), and the United Torah Judaism bloc); and two centrist parties, The Third Way and Yisrael b'Aliyah. The latter is the first significant party formed expressly to represent the interests of Israel's new immigrants. The Gesher party withdrew from the coalition in January 1998 upon the resignation of its leader, David Levy, from the position of Foreign Minister.
The February 17, 2001 elections resulted in a new "national unity" coalition government, led by Ariel Sharon of Likud, and including the Labour Party. This government fell when Labour pulled out, and elections held 28 January 2003, resulted in the following party structures:
Party (translation in quotes, party leader in parentheses) - percent of vote by party -
- Likud Party "Union" (Ariel Sharon - prime minster) - 29.4% (38 seats)
- Labour Party or Avoda "Labor" (Amram Mitsna) - 14.5% (19 seats)
- Shinui "Change" (Yosef Lapid) - 12.3% (15 seats)
- Shas or Mifleget HaSfaradim Shomrei Torah "Orthodox Sephardi Party" (Eliyahu Yishai) - 8.2% (11 seats)
- HaIhud HaLeumi "National Union" (Avigdor Lieberman) - 5.5% (7 seats)
- Meretz "Vigor" (Yossi Sarid) - 5.2% (6 seats)
- Yahadut HaTora "United Torah Judaism" (Yaakov Litsman)- 4.3% (5 seats)
- Mafdal or Miflaga Datit Leumit "National Religious Party" (Ephraim Eitam) - 4.2% (6 seats)
- Hadash "Democratic front for peace and equality" (Muhammad Baraka) - 3.0% (3 seats)
- Am Ehad "One Nation" (Amir Peretz) - 2.8% (3 seats)
- Balad or Brit Leumit Demokratit - Al-Tajamu' Al-Watani Al-Demokrati "National Democratic league" (Azmi Bishara) - 2.3% (3 seats)
- Yisra'el Ba'Aliya "Israel on the rise (also immigration)" (Natan Sharansky) - 2.2% (2 seats)
- Raam "United Arab List" (Abd al-Malik Dahamshah) - 2.1% (2 seats)
- Yisra'el Ba'Aliya dissolved into Likud shortly after the elections.
- Meretz became Yachad in 2004.
14 parties didn't pass the qualifying threshold of 1.5%. These parties got 4.0% of votes in total. For a complete list of political parties, see list of political parties in Israel. Information on past elections can be found at the archive.
Political pressure groups and leaders:
- Gush Emunim, Israeli nationalists advocating Jewish settlement on the West Bank and Gaza Strip and opposing evacuation of any of these settlements. (Largely defunct)
- Israeli peace camp is a coalitions of parties and non-paralaimental groups which desire to promote peace between Israel and its Arab neighbours and resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One of its major groups are Peace Now (see below).
- Peace Now supports territorial concessions in the West Bank and was critical of government's Lebanon policy.
- The Kibbutzim Lobby, which seek to receive financial aid from the government.
- The Agricultures Lobby, which seek to receive financial aid and tax relief on water.
- The Lobby For Promoting the Status of Women, a feminist group which co-operates with the Knesset.
- Neturei Karta, Radical Ultra-orthodox group that rejects Zionism and refrains from taking part in elections. They have very tiny effect on the Israeli politics.
- Yesha Council (Yesha being a Hebrew acronym for Judea, Samaria and Gaza), a loose formation of local office-bearers in the Disputed Territories that claims to represent the interests of the Israeli settlers in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
- Geneva Initiative and People's Voice (HaMifkad HaLeumi), two peace initiatives led by prominent Israeli and Palestinian public figures that surfaced in 2004. These initiatives are based on bilateral understandings between the two sides, and offer models for a permanent agreement.
- Histadrut (Union; short for the General Union of the Workers in Israel), an umbrella organization for many labor unions in Israel. In the past, was identified with the different forms of the Israel labor party; nowadays, the chairman of the Histadrut is Amir Peretz, head of the socialist Am Ehad party (which eventually merged into the Labor in 2004).
- Several left-wing organizations calling soldiers to refuse service in the West Bank and Gaza; the best known is HaOmetz LeSarev (Courage to Refuse).
- Notable rabbinic figures have considerable influence on several Israeli parties and politicians, notably Shas and United Torah Judaism.
Major issues in Israeli political life include:
conventional long form: State of Israel
conventional short form: Israel
local long form: Medinat Yisra'el (Hebrew: מדינת ישראל)
local short form: Yisra'el (Hebrew: ישראל)
Data code: IS
note: Israel proclaimed Jerusalem as its capital in 1950, but most countries maintain their embassies in Tel Aviv.
Independence Day is known as Yom Ha'atzma'ut, 14 May 1948; note -Israel declared independence on 14 May 1948, but the Jewish calendar is lunar and the holiday may occur in April or May. Its Hebrew date is 5 Iyar.
International organization participation:
BSEC (observer), CCC, CE (observer), CERN (observer), EBRD, ECE, FAO, IADB, IAEA, IBRD, ICAO, ICC, ICFTU, IDA, IFAD, IFC, ILO, IMF, International Maritime Organization, Inmarsat, Intelsat, Interpol, IOC, IOM, ISO, ITU, OAS (observer), OPCW, OSCE (partner), PCA, UN, UNCTAD, UNESCO, UNHCR, UNIDO, UPU, WHO, WIPO, WMO, WToO, WTrO.
White with a blue hexagram (six-pointed linear star) known as the Magen David (Star of David) centered between two equal horizontal blue bands near the top and bottom edges of the flag.