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Politics of Israel

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 selects, the choice 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1996 elections, Israelis for the first time voted for the prime minister directly, but direct election has since been repealed.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 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 for party lists rather than for individual candidates, and the total number of seats assigned each party reflects that party's percentage of the vote (see Party-list proportional representation). Successful Knesset candidates are drawn from the lists in order of party-assigned rank. All members of the Knesset are elected at large. Suffrage is universal among Israeli citizens 18 years old. Polling locations are open in Israel and in settlements in the occupied territories; absentee ballots are limited to dimplomatic staff and the merchant marines.

The independent judicial system includes secular and religious courts. The secular courts have a mixture of English common law and British Mandate regulations, while the religious courts are for personal matters. The courts' right of judicial review of the Knesset's legislation is limited. Judicial interpretation is restricted to problems of execution of laws and validity of subsidiary legislation. The highest court in Israel is the Supreme Court, whose judges are approved by the president and serve life-time terms. In December 1985, Israel informed the UN Secretariat that it would no longer accept compulsory ICJ 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 occupied territories.

Table of contents

Political conditions

From the founding of Israel in 1948 until the election of May 1977, Israel was ruled by successive coalition governments led by the Labor alignment or its constituent parties. From 1967-70, the coalition government included all of Israel's parties except the communist party. After the 1977 election, the 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 Labor and Likud considerably short of a Knesset majority. Neither Labor 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, Labor'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 Labor out by one seat but was unable to form a coalition with the religious and right-wing parties. Likud and Labor 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 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.

Labor 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 Labor Party reversed its electoral fortunes, taking 44 seats. Labor Party leader Yitzhak Rabin formed a coalition with Meretz[?] (a group of three leftist parties) and Shas[?] (an ultra-Orthodox religious party). The coalition included the support of two Arab-majority 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 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 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.

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, 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 "national unity" coalition government, led by Ariel Sharon of Likud, and including the Labor Party. This government fell when Labor pulled out, and elections held 28 January 2003, resulted in the following party structures:

Party (party leader in parenthesese) - percent of vote by party -

Likud Party (Sharon) - 29.4% (38 seats)United Torah Judaism (Yaakov Litsman)- 4.3% (5 seats)
Labor Party (Amram Mitsna) - 14.5% (19 seats)Am Ehad (Amir Peretz) - 2.8% (3 seats)
Shinui (Yosef Lapid) - 12.3% (15 seats)Hadash (Muhammad Baraka) - 3.0% (3 seats)
Shas (Eliyahu Yishai) - 8.2% (11 seats)Balad (Azmi Bishara) - 2.3% (3 seats)
National Union (Avigdor Lieberman) - 5.5% (7 seats)Yisra'el Ba'Aliya (Natan Scharansky) - 2.2% (2 seats)
Meretz (Yossi Sarid) - 5.2% (6 seats)United Arab List (Abd al-Malik Dahamshah) - 2.1% (2 seats)
National Religious Party (Ephraim Eitam) - 4.2% (6 seats)

Yisra'el Ba'Aliya dissolved into Likud shortly after the elections.

14 parties didn't pass the qualifying threshold of 1.5%. These parties got 4.0% of voices 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
  • Peace Now supports territorial concessions in the West Bank and is critical of government's Lebanon policy.

Political issues

Major issues in Israeli political life include the approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict specifically and the Arab-Israeli conflict generally; the relationship between segments of Judaism and the secular or religious nature of the state of Israel; and the economy.

Country name:

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

Capital: Jerusalem
note: Israel proclaimed Jerusalem as its capital in 1950, but most countries maintain their embassies in Tel Aviv.

National holiday:

Independence Day, 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.

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.

Flag description:

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.

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