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The State of Israel is a democracy, and its government represents the people and is responsible to them in periodic elections. There are a number of forms of democratic government, such as the American, or presidential system, and the European, or parliamentary system. The government of Israel is parliamentary.

Legislature. The Knesset, or Parliament of Israel, is the unicameral legislative branch of the government. The 120 representatives to the Knesset are elected to serve four-year terms in free, secret elections. If the government fails to hold the confidence of the Knesset (See Executive), an election may be held before the four-year term is over. All citizens, men and women, Christians, Muslims, and Jews, 18 years of age or older, have the right to vote. Both the Cabinet and the Knesset members may introduce new bills. A bill becomes a law after it has passed three readings and been published in the official Reshumot, similar to the American Congressional Record.

Proportional Representation. Israel has many political parties, and Knesset members are elected according to proportional representation. This means that each party presents to the country its own list of candidates, and the voters cast their ballots not for an individual candidate but for the whole party list. The number of members each party elects to the Knesset is proportional to the percentage of the popular vote it receives. As of 2007, no party in Israel has ever received an absolute majority. As a result, several parties combine to form a working majority in the Knesset. This coalition works out a program for which it assumes collective responsibility. Severe disagreements among the members of the coalition bring about resignations, and the coalition loses its legislative majority. The Knesset must then be dissolved and new elections called.

Executive. The Cabinet is the executive branch of the government, and its task is to carry out and administer the laws enacted by the Knesset. Under the Israeli system, the Cabinet is directly responsible to the Knesset. It has no veto power and can continue in office as long as it retains the confidence of the Knesset. If defeated in a vote of confidence the Cabinet must resign, and a new one must be formed. If the Knesset cannot form a new Cabinet which has its confidence, it must turn to the people and call for new elections.

Prime Minister’s Office. The cabinet is headed by the prime minister who is the chief executive. His office coordinates the work of all the ministries and administers the civil service. The smooth and efficient working of the whole machinery of government is the responsibility of the prime minister.

Presidency. The President of Israel, unlike the American President, has little actual power. Serving as a symbol of the people’s unity, he is not chosen in the competitive general elections, but is elected in a secret ballot by an absolute majority of the Knesset. The president’s term of office is five years, but there is no limit on the number of times he may be reelected. The duties of the president are largely honorary. These include the task of summoning a member of the Knesset, usually the leader of the majority party, to form a new government. Upon the recommendation of competent bodies, he appoints judges, diplomatic representatives, the governor of the Bank of Israel, and the comptroller. It is also in his power to grant amnesty to prisoners and to commute their sentences. Major documents, such as treaties with foreign states, are signed by the President together with the prime minister or another competent minister.

Judiciary. Israel’s judicial system is made up of two branches, civil and religious. There are Jewish, Christian, and Moslem religious courts, so that the followers of each religion come under the jurisdiction of a religious court of their own faith. Matters of marriage and divorce are under the sole jurisdiction of the religious courts.

Judicial authority is independent of the executive and legislative branches of government, as is essential in a democracy. Judges are appointed for life, and the appointments are made by the President on the recommendation of an eight-member committee. The President and two members of the Supreme Court, the minister of justice, and one other Cabinet member, two members of the Knesset selected by that entire body, and two lawyers chosen by the Bar Association serve on that committee.

The highest court of appeal is the ten-member Supreme Court. This court sits also as a high court of justice to which a citizen may bring his complaints against the authorities, and the court acts to protect the rights of the individual citizen. The Supreme Court of Israel, unlike that of the United States, does not have the power to review laws and declare them unconstitutional because Israel has no written constitution. Israel inherited its legal code when the state came into being in 1948.

This code is a mixture of British common law, remnants of Turkish Ottoman law, decrees of the British mandatory administration, and new laws enacted by the Knesset. By a resolution passed by the Knesset on June 13, 1950, a committee on constitution and law was authorized to prepare a draft constitution. As each article of this draft constitution is completed, it must be submitted to the Knesset for approval. When all the articles are approved, they will form the state constitution.

Political Parties. Israeli political parties date back to the beginning of the Zionist movement. From the early days of Zionism in Europe, Zionists ranged along a broad political spectrum, from the extreme left socialists to the extreme right nationalists. In the middle were religious and general Zionist parties. When Israel was founded in 1948, the socialist Mapai (See Labor Zionism and Ben-Gurion) got 46 seats, and formed a government coalition with the United Religious Front (16; See Mizrachi and Agudath Israel), the Progressive Party (5; See General Zionism), the Sephardic Party (4), and the Arab Party (2). The opposition consisted of the Mapam (19; See Hashomer Ha-tzair), Herut (14; See Revisionist Zionism), General Zionists (7; See General Zionism), the Israeli Communist Party (4; non-Zionist), and assorted small parties won one or two Knesset seats.

For the next 30 years, Mapai remained in power, while the political map kept changing, with splinter groups forming in nearly every party, and with parties reorganizing and renaming themselves. The General Zionists and the Progressives were absorbed by Herut, now called Likud. The Mizrachi became the NRP (National Religious Party), the Sephardic Party became Shas, Mapam became Meretz, the communists disappeared within the United Arab List, the newly arrived Russian Jews in the 90’s formed their own party (Yisrael Be’aliya). The ruling Mapai became the Israel Labor Party. In the 1990s, the two main players were Likud, which first came into power in 1977 (See Begin), and Labor. In 1996, Likud (32 seats) formed a government coalition with Shas (10), NRP (9), Yisrael Be’aliya
(7), and two smaller parties with 4 seats each. The opposition consisted of Labor (34), Meretz (9), United Arab List (4), and a few small parties.

In 2006, a new party named Kadima emerged under the leadership of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who left the Likud. It won handily, and formed a goverment together with Labor and other parties (See Olmert).

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