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The Knesset is Israel’s parliament. Its name and number of members (120) come from the "Knesset Hagdola" ("Great Assembly") which was the representative Jewish body convened in Jerusalem in the 5th Century BCE. Members of the Knesset are elected by general elections. The Knesset operates in plenary sessions and through its standing committees. In plenary sessions, general debates are conducted on government policy and activity, as well as on legislation. Debates can be conducted in the official languages of the state: Hebrew or Arabic.

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, it must first be approved by the Government before going to the Knesset. Bills by private members do not require Government approval.

A proposed 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 time a vote on the entire 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 parliament.

Elections for the Knesset are general, national, direct, equal, secret and proportional, with the entire country constituting a single electoral constituency. All citizens over the age of 18 are entitled to vote in national elections and may be elected to the Knesset from age 21.

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 serving as diplomats abroad to vote.

A central elections committee, headed by a justice of the Supreme Court and comprising 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. Parties represented in the outgoing Knesset can automatically stand for re-election; new 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 a half percent of the national vote, entitling them to one Knesset seat.

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. 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.

On election day voters cast one ballot for the party of their choice. Knesset seats are then assigned in proportion to each party’s percentage of the total national vote.

 A Free People in Our Land: Israel as a Parliamentary Democracy

The Knesset building
(Photo: Sasson Tiram)

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The Government (consisting of the Prime Minister and cabinet of ministers) is charged with administering internal nd foreign affairs, including security matters. Its policymaking powers are very wide and it is authorized to take
action on any issue that is not delegated by law to another authority. 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.

A new Government is formed after elections. The President designates, after consultations, one Knesset member with the responsibility of forming the Government and becoming its Prime Minister.

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, in which case the Government ppoints one of its members (who is a Knesset member) as acting Prime Minister. In the case of a vote of noconfidence, the Government and the Prime Minister remain in their positions until a new Government is formed.

The Government determines its own working and decisionmaking 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 ever received a majority of Knesset seats to be able to form a Government by itself.

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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.

Magistrate and district courts exercise jurisdiction in civil and criminal cases, while juvenile, traffic, military, labor and municipal appeal courts deal with matters coming under their respective 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 courts, the Moslem religious courts (sharia courts), the religious courts of the Druze and the juridical institutions of the 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 the 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.

The Supreme Court building with the Knesset in the background
(Photo: Sasson Tiram)

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This office was established by law in 1949, in recognition of the importance of a system of checks and balances as a crucial element of a democratic society. The State Comptroller carries out external audits and reports on the legality, regularity, economy, efficiency, effectiveness and moral integrity of the public administration in order to assure public accountability. 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 or her activities in contact with the Knesset state audit affairs committee.

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Israel’s Declaration of Independence proclaims that a constitution for the newly formed state would be drafted by an elected constituent assembly within a few months from the establishment of the state. Due to a lack of consensus on the actual content of the constitution, mainly on the role that religion would play in the newly emerged state, the drafting of the constitution was deferred by the first Knesset. Instead, the first elected Knesset, which was empowered to formulate the constitution, adopted the Harrari Resolution (named after the Knesset member who sponsored the act). This resolution provided that the Knesset would gradually draft a constitution by the adoption of Basic Laws, to be enacted one at a time.

The Basic Laws, when complete, will,
with Knesset approval, be consolidated into a binding constitution. Although not yet complete, eleven Basic Laws
have already been enacted and a few are in the process of being legislated.

Most of the Basic Laws deal with the logistics and roles of the various institutions in a democratic political system. These Basic Laws are as follows:

The President of the State, consolidates a wide range of laws pertaining to the President’s functions and service in office;

The Knesset, sets out the procedures for being elected to Israel’s parliament and those by which the Knesset itself is governed. One of the more important provisions in this law was an amendment prohibiting the election to the Knesset of any party or person whose goals directly or otherwise (1) negate the existence of the state as a Jewish and democratic state, (2) incite racism, or (3) support armed struggle by a hostile state or terrorist organization against the State of Israel;

The Government, sets the rules and principles regarding the service of the elected Prime Minister and his cabinet, the formation of the Government and the qualifications for becoming a minister, the functioning and procedures of the Government, and issues pertaining to the continuity of the Government or conditions for its being succeeded by a new Government;

The Judiciary, ensures the independence of the judiciary and the courts, and deals with the nature of judicial proceedings, the appointment of judges and the structure of the courts;

Israel Lands, sets out the principles of the state’s relationship to the land and the conduct of land transactions;

The State Comptroller, sets out the authorities vested in this position in its supervision of government activities and as national ombudsman, and its responsibility only to the Knesset;

The State Economy, sets out the basic framework for the workings of the nation’s economy, budget and production of currency;

The Military, deals with all aspects of the Israel Defense Forces as constituting Israel’s official military institution;

Jerusalem, the Capital of Israel, establishes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and therefore accords the city a special status. This law also secures the rights of all religions to maintain their holy sites.

Two Basic Laws that were enacted over the past decade have been hailed as the "bill of rights" section of the proposed constitution and contain the basic foundations for the protection of human rights as encapsulated in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. These two Basic Laws are:

Human Dignity and Liberty, (1992) protects "human dignity and liberty, in order to establish in a Basic Law the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state";

Freedom of Occupation, (1994) guarantees the right of every citizen or inhabitant to engage in any occupation, profession or trade.

The Basic Laws, although enacted as regular laws by the Knesset, have a quasi-constitutional status. Some contain "entrenched clauses", requiring a special majority of the Knesset in order to amend them. The Supreme Court has been interpreting secondary legislation on the basis of whether such legislation is consistent with the provisions of the Basic Laws. By attempting to subordinate all new and existing legislation to the principles derived from the Basic Laws, the Israeli Supreme Court is setting clear guidelines for the norms expected from a true democracy.

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Three types of local authorities are recognized by law: municipalities, that manage the larger urban areas with populations over 20,000; local councils, which are the governing bodies for towns with populations between 2,000 and 20,000; and regional councils, which are responsible for several villages or localities within a certain radius.

Each local authority functions through by-laws consistent with national laws, approved by the Ministry of the Interior. Local authorities are responsible for collecting local taxes, which, along with allocations from the state budget, serve to provide social, educational, cultural and sanitation services for their residents.

Local authorities are managed by a council headed by a mayor or head of council. The number of council members representing each authority is determined by the Ministry of the Interior, according to each authority’s population. A central volunteer body, the Union of Local Authorities, was formed to represent local authorities before the national governmental bodies and provide guidance to the authorities themselves.

Elections for local government are conducted by secret ballot every five years. Ballots are cast in a similar manner to those cast for national elections. Residents vote for a party list of candidates and the number of seats attained by each party is proportional to the percentage of votes received by the party. All residents over the age of 17 may vote in a local election and those elected must be 21 or older.

 A Free People in Our Land: Israel as a Parliamentary Democracy

A voter placing her ballot in national elections
(Photo: Israel Government Press Office)