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A SHORT GUIDE TO THE

ISRAELI POLITICAL SYSTEM

Contents


INTRODUCTION

For anyone interested in political systems, that of the state of Israel is particularly fascinating for a number of reasons.

  1. Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, arguably the most troubled region in the world where Israel is surrounded by states and forces that wish that it did not exist and have repeatedly tried to ensure that it does not.

  2. It is one of a tiny number of countries in the world - another is the United Kingdom - that does not have a written constitution, since religious political parties blocked adoption of a constitution at independence in 1948 and the project has never been completed. Instead there are 11 Basic Laws. In 2003, the parliament began to draft an official constitution based on these laws - but the project continues.

  3. It is one of around a half of countries in the world (many of them smaller nations) that has a unicameral legislature. This is called the Knesset.

  4. It is highly unusual in operating both a national list system of election to the legislature together with a low minimum threshold for membership of the legislature (currently 3.25%) which, in the current fractured state of Israeli politics, virtually guarantees fragmented representation in the legislature and a coalition in government.

  5. Probably more than any other stable democracy in the world, it has a fluctuating structure of political parties with mergers, splits, and creations almost a permanent part of the political scene.

  6. Whereas in most democracies, the main cleavage between the largest political parties is ideological - broadly Left versus Right - in Israel politics is more complicated than that with issues like security and religion having a major influence in the orientation of parties and the voting by electors.

  7. Although the ultra-Orthodox community only makes up about 10% of the Israeli public, it dominates state policy on issues of religion in the public sphere.

  8. More so that any other democratic state in the world, Israel owes its existence to the political, economic and military support of the United States - although this does not guarantee American influence (for instance, President Barack Obama failed to halt the continued spread of illegal settlements on the West Bank as part of an effort to encourage peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians).
THE EXECUTIVE

The head of the Israeli state is the President who is an apolitical ceremonial figurehead. The President is elected by the Knesset for a seven year term and is limited to a single term. The current holder of the position is Reuven Rivlin, a member of the Likud Party and a former Speaker of the Knesset, who is known to Israelis as 'Ruby'.

The Prime Minister is normally the leader of the political party with the largest representation in the legislature, certainly of the political party with the largest representation in the governing coalition. Currently the position is held by Benjamin Netanyahu (known as 'Bibi') who is leading his third consecutive and fourth overall government.

The version of proportional representation that operates in Israel virtually guarantees that the government will be a coalition and a period of six weeeks is granted to the winner of an election to form a coalition which can command a majority of seats in tne legislature. Following the election of March 2015, it took until one hour short of the deadline to complete the negotiations to form such a coalition.

After the March 2015 election, a government was formed with a bare majority (61 seats) in the 120 seat Knesset - a coalition between five parties: the right-wing Likud Party (30 seats), the centrist, socio-economic-focused Kulanu (10 seats), the national-religious, right-wing, Jewish Home (8 seats), and the ultra-orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism (7 and 6 seats respectively. Then, in May 2015, a deal was done to add the five seats of the hard-line Yisrael Beiteinu to the government, bringing the total number of seats under the control of the government to a more comfortable 66.

Israel has an unusual system of deputy leaders of three kinds: Acting Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, and Vice Prime Minister.

The Acting Prime Minister takes the place of the Prime Minister if he or she is temporarily incapacitated while the incumbent is still in office for a period up to 100 consecutive days. The holder of this position can additionally be head of a Government Department. In the current Cabinet, nobody has been appointed to this position.

Deputy Prime Minister and Vice Prime Minister are honorary rather than official executive positions. In the current Cabinet, there are three Deputy Prime Ministers and four Vice Prime Ministers. Talk about jobs for the boys (they are in fact all men).

The Prime Ministers appoints a Cabinet, the membership of which must be approved by the Knesset. Any new appointment to the Cabinet must similarly be approved by the Knesset. Most Ministers are members of the Knesset although only the Prime Minister and the Designated Acting Prime Minister are formally required to be members.

The size of the Cabinet varies, but it is currently 22. In addition, there are eight Deputy Ministers outside the Cabinet.

The Cabinet meets weekly on a Sunday in Jerusalem.

THE LEGISLATURE

Israel has a single chamber legislature called the Knesset - meaning literally gathering or assembly - which consists of 120 members (MKs) elected for a maximum term of four years. In practice, Knesset terms rarely last the full four years and, since the 1988 election, no Knesset has finished its four-year term - the average term is a mere two years. The last election was due in January 2017 but was called for March 2015. So the next election is now due in March 2019.

The simplest way of describing the electoral system of Israel is to call it national list system.

This means that the whole country is in effect regarded as one constituency and voters, instead of choosing one candidate for their local constituency as in many countries, choose one list of candidates from a number of lists, each compiled and presented by a political party on a national level. Although national list systems do not have to operate this way, in Israel closed lists are used which means that the party determines the order of the candidates on the list and most voters have no influence over or choice of that order.

A voter can influence the national list which he or she prefers by joining that political party and voting in party primaries. Not all parties have primaries - some are run as autocracies with the party leader alone deciding - but the larger secular parties (Likud, Labour, Meretz) all have primaries, so individual voters can in those circumstances influence a national list.

Originally the Israeli electoral system had no specified threshold that a political party had to reach before it could secure representation in the Knesset which in practice meant that, if a political party secured one 120th of the vote on a national basis (that is, a mere 0.83%), it would be represented in the legislature. This meant that a lot of very small parties could secure representation in the Knesset. Then a threshold of just 1% was introduced. This has been progressively increased to 1.5%, then to 2% in the last but one election, and now to 3.25% in the last election.

Initially, the threshold was raised to prevent Rabbi Meir Kahane, an extreme right-winger and racist, from being re-elected to the Knesset. In recent years, the threshold has been raised further as a ploy to keep the Arab parties out, all of which would have struggled with the 3.25% requirement. Its effect has been to lead to mergers of the Arab parties into a single large bloc (now the third largest in the Knesset) and even to cause some of the right-wing grouplets to unite into a larger party (Yahad) which came in a just under the threshold in 2015.

Many other democratic countries operate list systems but on a sub-national level - for instance, the 16 Lander in Germany or the 16 'regional' constituencies in Italy. But Israel is unique in having a national list system. All countries with list systems operate a threshold but this is usually 3-5% (it is 5% in Germany). Israel's threshold of 3.25% is low by international standards.

This is the simple way of explaining Israel's electoral system. The formal way of describing it is to call it the highest averages method of party-list proportional representation using the d'Hondt formula.

The highest averages method requires the number of votes for each party to be divided successively by a series of divisors and seats are then allocated to parties that secure the highest resulting quotient or average, up to the total number of seats available. The d'Hondt formula is the most widely used for list systems and involves using the divisors 1, 2, 3, 4, etc. This system tends to give larger parties a slightly larger portion of seats than their portion of the electorate. Technically this would guarantee that a party with a majority of votes would receive at least half of the seats - except no party in Israeli elections ever secures a majority of votes.

Each Knesset session is known by its election number. So the Knesset elected by Israel's first election in 1949 is known as the First Knesset, while the current Knesset, elected in 2015 is the 20th Knesset.

The Knesset sits at Givat Ram in Jerusalem.

POLITICAL PARTIES

Israel may be a small country - it has a population of just over eight million (similar to that of London) - but, by comparison with most other democracies, political parties in Israel are both numerous and fluid. Parties are constantly changing name, splitting, combining and forming alliances.

In the March 2015 election, 10 political parties secured representation in the Knesset. In order of size, they are:

Although the two main parties of the left (Labour and Meretz) went from 16 to 21 to 29 in the last nine years, many observers detect an overall, long-term shift to the Right, powered by a mix of demographic and political factors. The demographic trends are the larger families of ultra-orthodox communities and the influx of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. The political factors are the failure of the peace process and a growing siege mentality.

THE JUDICIARY

The highest court in Israel is the Supreme Court. The number of Supreme Court justices is determined by a resolution of the Knesset and is usually 12, but currently there are 14 Supreme Court Justices. Justices serve until the age of 70. Several leading figures in Likud and Jewish Home have called for legislation to limit the power of the Supreme Court to block legislation.

Supreme Court Justices, as well as all other judges, are appointed by the President on the nomination of the Judges' Nominations Committee. The Nominations Committee is composed of nine members: three Justices of the Supreme Court (including the President of the Court), two Ministers (one of them being the Minister of Justice), two Members of the Knesset, and two representatives of the Israel Bar Association. The Minister of Justice is the chairperson of the Committee.

The Supreme Court sits in Jerusalem.

CONCLUSION

Israeli democracy is a source - simultaneously and in almost equal measure - of both pride and frustration.

Israelis are rightly proud that their country is the only genuine and functioning democracy in the Middle East, a region dominated by repressive and dictatorial regimes. It is a democracy that has survived repeated wars and that, with a conscript army and formidable military apparatus, remains on a war-like footing. It is a democracy in which the rule of law is so strong that even a president (Moshe Katsav) or a prime minister (Ehud Olmert) can be indicted (for rape and bribery respectively).

On the other hand, Israeli's strange electoral system and fractious political parties virtually guarantee that the government will be a coalition of very different political parties with a strong likelihood that at least one will be a nationalist or ultra-religious one with disproportionate influence in the government. This makes ruling and legislating - even more negotiating with the Palestinians - very difficult, so that on average Israeli governments last only half their permitted term (two years instead of four).

In many ways, Israel is a somewhat idiosyncratic democracy. The state was born in war, it has repeatedly engaged in further wars, it has regularly been the subject of suicide bombers and rocket attacks, and it is in a permanent state of war-readiness. It has a large, conscript army (the Israeli Defence Force) and formidable security service (Mossad). Every family has some connection with the army and many of the leading political figures have had senior experience in the military or intelligence. To an extent unequalled in any other functioning democracy, it is security - and not ideology or economics - that is at the heart of political discourse and policymaking.

As in so many states, therefore, democracy here is essentially a work in progress. Some would argue that the nation is politically at a turning point. Avraham Burg, once speaker of the Knesset and deputy president, said in January 2015: "From 1948 to 1976, Israel was relatively secular, socialist, and statehood was its organizing principle. In 1977, with the rise to power of Menachem Begin, this came to an end. Since then, Israel has been in its religious-nationalistic-capitalist chapter, and territory is its organizing principle. Now the country has to choose where the third chapter will take it - to religious and nationalistic aggressiveness or normalcy. The dissatisfaction with Benjamin Netanyahu is a symbol of a far deeper dissatisfaction - not only with the man, but with the stagnation, with the economic and social degeneration."

Link: Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs guide to the country's poltical system click here

ROGER DARLINGTON

Last modified on 2 June 2016

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