ISRAELI POLITICAL SYSTEM
For anyone interested in political systems, that of the state of Israel is particularly fascinating for a number of reasons.
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. In July 2021, Isaac Herzog assumed the office and is expected to serve until 2028.
The version of proportional representation that operates in Israel virtually guarantees that the government will be a coalition and a period of six weeks is granted to the winner of an election to form a coalition which can command a majority of seats in the legislature. Therefore, after each general election, the President invites the leader of the winning political party to form a government and there is 42 days for this process to be completed, before another political leader is given the chance to form a government or - as happened for the first time in 2019 (twice) - another general election is held.
The Prime Minister is normally the leader of the political party with the largest representation in the legislature and of the political party with the largest representation in the governing coalition, but this has not always been the case..
When Benjamin Netanyahu (known as 'Bibi') - the leader of the Likud Party and the longest-serving premier in the history of the country - failed to secure a majority in the fourth successive general election in two years, in June 2021 a coalition of eight political parties managed to form a government, but it was agreed that the Prime Minister for the first two years (June 2021 - August 2023) would be Naftali Bennett, the leader of the Yamina Party which only had seven seats in the 60-seat coalition.
Under the terms of the coalition agreement, in September 2023 the Prime Minister should have been Yair Lapid, the leader of the Yesh Atid which held the largest number of seats in the coalition (17 out of 60), until November 2025.
In the event, that government fell and, following the general election of November 2022 and talks between the parties, a new coalition was put together with Benjamin Netanyah becoming Prime Minister for the sixth time. This is the 37th government in the history of the state of Israel.
Israel has an unusual system of deputy leaders of three kinds: Acting Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, and Vice Prime Minister.
The Alternate 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. Currently this position is held by Yair Lapid.
Deputy Prime Minister and Vice Prime Minister are honorary rather than official executive positions.
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 typically around 20.
The Cabinet meets weekly on a Sunday in Jerusalem.
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 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%, and now to 3.25%.
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 and even to cause some of the right-wing grouplets to unite into a larger party.
Many other democratic countries operate list systems but on a sub-national level - for instance, the 16 Länder 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.
As if all this was not complicated enough, the electoral system enables two political parties to sign a surplus vote agreement that allows them to compete for leftover seats as if they were running on the same list. This complicated electoral system permits - and perhaps encourages - some 'gaming' of the system.
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 November 2022 is the 25th Knesset.
The Knesset sits at Givat Ram in Jerusalem.
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 November 2022, there was the fifth general election in nearly four years, the first four of them proving indecisive in terms of producing a clear winner who could form a majority government. In this latest election, no less than 40 political parties registered to contest the election, but only 10 parties or groupings secured representation in the Knesset and only five of them won more than 10 seats each. By far the two largest blocs are:
A key constituency in Israeli politics - unique to the country - is the ultra-Orthodox (also called the Haradim), an umbrella term for different sects and communities who represent about 10% of the nation's population. A vital issue for this key constituency is the arrangement which has existed since the creation of the state of Israel which exempts them from military service which is mandatory for all Jewish Israeli school leavers. The various ultra-Orthodox sects see it as a religious commandment only to study Jewish texts and separate themselves from modern society.
Often it is not possible for a government to be formed without the support of this constituency. but increasingly there is resentment about this non-service in the military from other parts of Israeli society.
Recent elections have seen a dramatic rebalancing of politics in Israel. The two main parties of the left (Labour and Meretz) now have just four seats in the Knesset. This seems to reflect 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 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 15 Supreme Court Justices. Justices serve until the age of 70.
Supreme Court Justices, as well as all other judges, are appointed by the President on the nomination of the Judicial Appointments Panel. This 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.
In February 2017, Right-wing lawmakers secured three conservative and non-activist judges out of four new appointments to the Supreme Court, putting a large dent in what had been seen as a liberal-dominated bench. Three of the four were on the Justice Minister's list of preferred candidates, while the three judges on the nine-member Judicial Appointments Panel, who voted as a bloc, failed to advance any of their nominees.
The Supreme Court sits in Jerusalem.
In the first half of 2023, the role of the Supreme Court became a subject of fierce political controversy as the Likud-led coalition government proposed curbs to the power of the Court and huge public demonstrations were held in an attempt to head off these changes. In fact, the government was successful in passing a new law which prevents the Supreme Court from - as in the past - ruling that the government has acted in a manner which is deemed "extremely unreasonable".
This change represents a significant shift in the balance of power between the executive and the judiciary in Israel and it is especially important in a country with no constitution and no second chamber.
Israel is now facing an unprecedented constitutional crisis in which the Supreme Court could strike down the legislation designed to curb its powers and the government could choose not to comply.
Among a range of far-reaching proposals from the current government are plans to allow a simple majority of 61 in the 120-seat Knesset to override almost any Supreme Court rulings and to allow politicians to appoint most of the justices to the bench. Full annexation of the occupied West Bank, a rollback of pro-LGBTQ+ legislation, axing laws protecting women’s rights and minority rights, and a loosening of the rules of engagement for Israeli police and soldiers are all on the coalition’s agenda.
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 former president (Moshe Katsav) or a former prime minister (Ehud Olmert) can be indicted (for rape and bribery respectively) and indeed the current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing three criminal charges.
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).
The recent limitation in the power of the Supreme Court has been massively controversial and had led to enormous concern both at home and internationally about the current state of Israeli democracy.
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 organising 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 organising 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 political system click here
Last modified on 29 July 2023
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