The Israeli Government: How Does It Work?
In the State of Israel,
as in other democratic states, rule is rooted
in the following liberal principles and institutions: basic
laws that lay down the order of government and the
rights of citizens; the holding of elections to the house of representatives based on the principle of the rule
of the majority, with the rights of the minority guaranteed by law;
the principle of the separation between the legislative branch, the
executive branch, and the judiciary, to which the institution of state
control has been added; freedom of the press.
- The Electoral System
- The Legislative Branch (Knesset)
- Basic Laws
- The Executive Branch
- The Presidency
- Local Government
- The Judiciary
- State Control
- Freedom of the Press
The Electoral System
The elections in Israel are general, equal and secret.
On the national level they are held at least once every four years,
and on the municipal level at least once every five years. Israel has
a system of proportional representation, and the whole state is considered
a single constituency. Every party running for election presents a list
of candidates, and the number of candidates entering the house of representatives
is proportional to the percentage of support the list receives.
citizen over the age of 18, whose name appears in the list of voters,
The Legislative Branch: The Knesset
The Knesset is the house of representatives of the State of Israel. The
Basic Law: The Knesset, states that the seat of the Knesset is Jerusalem,
and that upon election it will have 120 members. The law deals with
the elections to the Knesset and with the essence of the service, the
work and the immunity of the Knesset, its committees and its members.
The law does not define the authority of the Knesset and details regarding
the way its functions appear in its regulations.
A new Knesset starts to function after general elections
are held, which determine its makeup. The President of the State
opens the first session of a new Knesset and immediately passes its
running onto the eldest Knesset member. At this meeting the Knesset
members declare their allegiance, and the Speaker of the Knesset and
his deputies are elected.
The Knesset fulfills its functions by means of two
arms: the plenary in which all the Knesset members sit and the Knesset
The plenary holds debates within the framework of legislation,
government statements, motions for the agenda, motions of noconfidence
and questions, and the deliberations usually end with a vote.
Before a bill reaches the plenary for debate, it must
go through a fixed process of preparation. 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, a memorandum on
the proposed law is passed on first of all to the Ministry of Justice
so that its legal aspects may be examined, to the Ministry of Finance
for examination of its economic and budgetary aspects, and to the rest
of the Government Ministries for their comments. If the memorandum is
approved, the bill is passed on for formulation toward its being presented
to the Knesset, and which this draft is approved by the Government,
it is presented to the Knesset for first reading. Private members' bills,
which do not require Government approval, are presented to the Knesset
for preliminary reading, after which each law must pass three readings
in the plenary.
In first reading the bill is presented to the plenary
and a short debate takes place on its content. After that it is passed
on to the appropriate Knesset committee for detailed discussion and
redrafting, should this be necessary. After the committee has completed
its work, the bill is returned to the plenary, and committee members
who have reservations present them. At the end of the debate on the
bill in second reading, a vote takes place on each article in it, and
unless it is found necessary to return it again to the committee, the
third reading takes place and a vote is taken on the bill as a whole.
A bill which has passed third reading is signed by
the presiding Speaker, and is later published in the Official Gazette,
with the signature of the President of the State, the Prime Minister,
the Knesset Speaker and the Minister responsible for the law's implementation.
Finally the State seal is placed on it by the Minister of Justice.
Knesset members are entitled to present to the Knesset
Speaker motions for the agenda that deal with issues on the national
The content of a motion, which is approved by the
Knesset Presidium, is passed on to the Minister responsible for the
issue being raised, so that he can prepare a response. In the debate
the proposer of the motion explains his motion, and after it is debated
a decision is taken, on the basis of a vote in the plenary, whether
to hold a more extensive debate on the issue in the plenary, to pass
it on for debate in a committee which will then lay on the Knesset table
its proposals, or to reject the motion. A motion for the agenda may
also be raised as an urgent motion, which comes up for immediate debate,
should the Knesset Presidium be willing to accept the urgency of the
A motion of noconfidence in the Government is
also a sort of motion for the agenda. Such a motion can only be presented
by parties which are not represented in the Government, and their intention,
in addition to protesting against the Government policy, is to try and
bring it down by means of a vote. So far, a Government has been brought
down in Israel only once by a vote of noconfidence-on March 15,
Parliamentary questions are questions directed by
a Knesset Member to the appropriate Minister, regarding an action which
was taken, or should have been taken and was not. Questions are one
of the means at the disposal of the Knesset members to criticize and
supervise the activities of the Government. The Minister answers the
question in writing or orally.
The Knesset plenary decides on most issues on its
agenda by means of a vote, and resolutions are adopted by a majority.
A majority usually means the majority of those present at the meeting.
There are, however, resolutions which require an absolute majority,
and others which require a special majority.
The function of the committees, in addition to dealing
with bills, is to supervise the work of the Government Ministries and
to hold debates on issues within the realms for which they are responsible,
and which are of public interest. By means of the committees, the Knesset
maintains direct contact with the Government Ministries, and receives
information from Ministers or their representatives.
There are four types of Knesset committees that function on a regular basis:
- Permanent Committees (12): Committee for
Advancing the Status of Women; Constitution,
Law and Justice Committee; Economic Affairs Committee; Education,
Culture, & Sports Committee; Finance Committee; Foreign Affairs
& Defense Committee; House Committee; Immigration and
Absorption Committee; Internal Affairs & Environment
Committee; Labor and Welfare
Committee; Science & Technology Committee; and the State Control
- Special Committees (3): Committee on Drug Abuse; Committee on the Rights of the Child; Committee for Foreign Workers
- Parliamentary Inquiry: Appointed by the Knesset Plenum to deal with particular issues viewed as having special national importance.
- Ethics Committee: Responsible for jurisdiction over members who have violated rules of ethics of the Knesset or who have been involved in illegal activity outside of the Knesset.
In addition, there are two types of committees in the Knesset which convene only when needed:
- The Interpretations Committee: Deals with appeals against the interpretation given by the Speaker during a sitting of the plenum to the Knesset Rules of Procedure or precedents. The Committee is made up of the Speaker and eight Knesset members chosen by the House Committee.
- Public Committees: Established to deal with issues that are connected to the Knesset. The members of public committees may be experts in a particular field, public figures, or current or past Knesset members. An example of such a committee is the Public Committee for the Draft of Ethical Guidelines for Knesset Members.
The members of the committees are appointed during
the first meetings of every new Knesset with the help of an "arranging
committee," which is selected for this purpose.
Even though it was stated in the Proclamation of Independence that the Constituent Assembly, which turned into the First
Knesset, would draft a constitution for Israel, this was not done due
to differences of opinion with the religious parties.
In place of a
constitution, it was decided to legislate a series of basic laws, which
in the future would together form the constitution. Even now, more than 60 years after Israel's establishment, the task of drafting a constitution has yet to come to fruition. There are several articles in the existing basic
laws which can only be amended by an absolute majority (the support
of more than 60 MKs) or a special majority (which is large than an absolute
majority) of the Knesset members.
The existing basic laws are:
President of the State (1964) | The Knesset (1958) | The Government (2001) | The Judiciary (1984) | The Israel Defense Forces (1976)
The Capital Jerusalem (1980) | The People's Lands (1960) | The State Comptroller (1988) | The State Economy (1975)
Human Dignity and Liberty (1992) | Freedom of Occupation (1994)
The Executive Branch: The Government
Until after the elections to the 13th Knesset, it
was the President who assigned the task of forming a new Government
to the head of the list with the best chances of succeeding, who was
also usually the head of the largest party in the Knesset. The Government
required the approval of the Knesset, so that it needed to represent
a coalition supported by a majority of the Knesset members, even if
not all of its supporters were actual members in it.
According to the amendment to the Basic
Law: The Government, which was adopted toward the end of the 12th
Knesset, as of the elections to the 14th Knesset, simultaneous elections
will take place for the Knesset and a directly elected Prime Minister.
As in the past, the new Prime Minister will have to present the Ministers
in his Government to the Knesset, as well as the distribution of portfolios
amongst them, and obtain its confidence. At the time of presenting his
Government, the new Prime Minister will announce its basic guidelines,
which will constitute the new Government's work plan. After the Knesset
will express its confidence in the new Government, the Prime Minister
and his Ministers will declare their allegiance before the Knesset.
During its service, all the members of the Government will be collectively
responsible for the activities of all the Minsters, and for the Government
as a whole.
Most of the Ministers are responsible for one or more
Government Ministries, but can also serve as a Minister without Portfolio.
Ministers do not have to be Knesset members, while Deputy Ministers-and
there can be more than one Deputy Minister in each Ministry-must be
members. The addition of new Ministers to the Government in the course
of its term of office, or a change in the distribution of functions
among them, requires the Knesset's approval.
It is the Government which determines its own working
arrangements and the manner in which it adopts decisions. It usually
meets for one weekly meeting on Sundays, though in urgent cases additional
meetings may be called. The Government may also act by means of standing
or occasional Ministerial Committees, some of whose decisions require
the approval of the Government as a whole.
A Government which has resigned or has been brought
down by a vote of noconfidence, continues to serve until a new
Government is formed, and is then called a transitional Government.
The number of Ministries maintained by the Government
varies from time to time according to the needs and to coalition constraints.
The 32nd Government of the State of Israel, which was formed in March 2009, is made up of the following Ministries:
and Rural Development | Communications | Construction
and Housing | Culture and Sports | Defense
Diaspora Affairs | Education | Energy and Water Resources | Environment | Finance | Foreign
Affairs | Health
Absorption | Industry
and Trade | Justice | Prime Minister's
Office | Public
Security | Religious
Services | Science
Social Affairs and Social Services | Strategic Affairs | The
Interior | Tourism | Transport
The President of the State is elected by the Knesset in a secret vote, and primarily
fulfills ceremonial functions as head of State.
Candidates for the presidency are customarily proposed
by the large parties, and are usually wellknown public figures.
The President is appointed for a period of five years, which can be
extended by a further five years.
The functions of the President are defined in the Basic Law: The
President of the State. In addition, the President assumes public
functions and activities in accordance with the customs which have crystallized
on the issue, and with his personal inclinations. Amongst the President's
formal functions are signing laws (even though he has no control over
their content) opening the first meeting of the first session of a new
Knesset, receiving the credentials of new ambassadors of foreign states,
approving the appointment of civil and religious judges, the State Comptroller
and the Governor of the Bank of Israel, pardoning prisoners or commuting
their sentences, etc. In the past it was also the President who decided
who to approach after general elections with the task of trying to form
a new Government, but this function will cease to exist as of the elections
to the 14th Knesset, when the Prime Minister will be directly elected.
Structure of Local Government
The law defines three types of local authorities:
municipalities, local councils and regional councils. Municipalities
administer urban towns, generally with a population of more than 20,000.
In 1995, the number of such municipalities totaled 51. The three largest
cities are Jerusalem, the capital (population 579,000), Tel Aviv (population
355,000) and Haifa (population 247,000). There are nine mediumsized
municipalities of 110,000 to 160,000 residents, while most municipalities
have a population of about 20,000 to 80,000.
Smaller urban towns and large rural settlements are
governed by local councils, with powers similar to those of a municipality.
More than 70 out of 150 local councils serve a population of more than
The regional councils are in fact twotier local
authorities. The lower tier is the settlements, which are mostly agricultural;
they are authorized to elect a local committee for providing municipal
services. The upper tier is the regional council, which includes candidates
from each settlement in the council's jurisdiction. It possesses the
powers of a local council.
Municipal federations of adjacent local authorities
are a singlepurpose local authority, providing certain services
such as firefighting, working together mainly because of economies of
scale. The federation has a separate budgetary framework and may sign
contracts, legislate bylaws, levy taxes and so forth.
The local authority provides its residents, commercial
firms, and other institutions within its area of jurisdiction with a
wide range of services. It develops its physical infrastructure, road
system, water supply, refuse collection and disposal system, sewage
system, and parks. It is responsible for environmental protection (public
health, nuisances, cleanliness, etc.) and, with the Ministry of Education,
Culture and Sport, the education system. The local authority builds
schools and provides for their equipment and maintenance. Prekindergartens
and secondary education institutions are established and administered
by the local authority, but some of these facilities may be owned by
nonprofit organizations with aid given by the local authority. Local
authorities also promote and financially assist cultural and sports
activities (libraries, museums, youth clubs, etc.) and some maintain
orchestras, choirs, theaters and similar enterprises.
The local authority provides social welfare services,
with its social workers taking care of families in need, as well as
special groups such as the elderly, retarded children, drug addicts
and the like.
The local council has an important role in town planning.
The Planning and Building Law, 57251965, sets forth the principles
according to which town planning is undertaken, as well as planning
institutions that must act at the local, district, and countrywide geographic
and administrative levels. The law grants the local planning commission
considerable independence, while also expanding the regional and countrywide
dimensions in planning. The local planning commission consists of members
of the local council. The law gives the local planning commission responsibility
for daytoday management and onsite compliance with regulations.
The district planning commission is a joint statelocal
authority comprising representatives of those government ministries
whose field of action is relevant to the issues of planning, and of
representatives of the local authorities in the region. The district
commission approves detailed local plans and also acts as a forum for
handling appeals of decisions made by local commissions. The local council
is authorized to issue bylaws in every area in which it has jurisdiction.
It has the power to enforce those bylaws as well as the laws and regulations
applicable to its functions.
The local authorities are empowered to levy local
taxes and imposts and collect various payments for services and concessions.
In general, they have the powers and means to manage their finances.
They prepare their own budgets, which then must be approved by the Ministry
of the Interior. Each municipality must employ an auditor to check its
The Union of Local Authorities is a voluntary organization
of municipalities and local councils. The regional councils are organized
separately in the Organization of Regional Councils, since they have
special problems which differ from other local authorities. Both organizations
have a central goal, to further the mutual interests of the local authorities
in their relations with government ministries and the Knesset (parliament).
The Union represents the local authorities in negotiations for collective
wage agreements and it signs such agreements together with the Histadrut
(New General Federation of Labor) and the government. It also hosts
various associations of key local officials such as the Association
of Town Clerks and the Association of Local Treasurers.
The Municipal Corporations Ordinance dates from 1934
when Great Britain held the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine.
This law essentially established the legal basis for the present system
of local government in Israel. The State of Israel enacted the Municipal
Corporations Ordinance (new version) 57241964, which serves, along
with other legal frameworks, as the basis for local government structure
and its relations with government ministries.
The local authorities are legal entities and are able
to perform a wide range of services in the physical, educationalcultural
and social welfare arenas. Their competencies and areas of jurisdiction
are spelled out by ministerial orders (mainly from the Ministry of the
Interior), as authorized by law. As a legal entity, the local authority
can only do what the law permits it to do. Consequently, there are detailed
laws regulating the activities of the local authority.
The general powers of the local authorities are in
six basic areas: legislation; taxation; financial management; joint
activities with other bodies; and various general powers. While not
completely independent in any of these areas, a local authority is able
to act on behalf of local interests within each of them according to
the wishes of the elected representatives of the local constituency.
The income in the ordinary budget of local authorities
comes from three sources: locallygenerated income, government participation
and loans for balancing the ordinary budget. From the early 1970s to
the mid1980s, locallygenerated income was low and government
participation was high; from then on the proportions were reversed.
Government financial participation includes two categories:
the general grant and earmarked participation. The general grant is
provided to the local authorities without being tied to any specific
expenditure, since it is meant to be a supplement to local taxes for
those authorities with a low collection potential.
Most of the earmarked income originates in the Ministry
of Education, Culture and Sport and the Ministry of Labor and Social
Welfare. The former covers the salaries of some educational personnel,
as well as full or partial coverage of other projects operated by the
local authority. The Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare finances 75
percent or more of local authority welfare activities according to standards
set by the Ministry. As most local authorities exceed these standards,
actual government participation amounts to 6066 percent of local
Government ministries provide grants and loans to
finance development projects such as educational and cultural facilities,
roads, water and sewage systems, as well as general development grants
for projects selected by local preference. Occasionally loans have been
granted to balance the authorities' regular budgets and reduce deficits.
The State Commission on Local Government, which was
appointed by a decision of the central government, presented its final
report in 1981. Its main recommendations related to new financial relations
with the central government and to the minimizing of central supervision
over local authorities. Thus, in the 1980s and 1990s, some additional
functions and responsibilities were given to local government in physical,
social and educational arenas. Studies show that local authorities generally
succeed in fulfilling their duties and in completing projects which
they initiate, even though many approvals are involved in the process.
The influence of the local authority is relatively wide in many areas,
even when the central government controls the purse strings or other
Relations with Government Ministries
State services, principally in the areas of education
and welfare, comprise more than half the local budget and an even higher
proportion of the personnel employed by local authorities. They constitute
the major arena of interaction between local and state authorities.
For the most part, the Ministry of Education is responsible
for the curriculum and the professional qualifications of teachers,
while the local authority is responsible for the provision and maintenance
of school buildings and physical equipment. Employees in the elementary
and intermediate schools are employees of the Ministry of Education,
while maintenance personnel, school secretaries, assistant kindergarten
teachers and secondary school teachers are employed by the local authority.
Formally, the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare
is the authority which sets policy regarding welfare services and the
local authority acts as the agent to execute that policy. However, the
professional staff (the social workers) and services are managed by
the local welfare bureau. Over the years, the local authorities have
developed projects and services beyond the formal requirements set by
the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare.
The Ministry of the Interior supervises the activities
of the local authorities and is primarily responsible in the following
areas: the establishment of local authorities, approval of their budgets,
provision of a suitable legal framework to fit their needs, examination
of their bylaws, and assurance that physical planning and development
projects conform to national and regional outline schemes. The Ministry
distributes grants based upon specific criteria to local authorities
with low potential income, to enable them to meet minimal service standards.
The Ministry of the Interior also represents the local authorities in
negotiations with the government (namely, the Finance Ministry).
The local authorities are headed by councils whose
members are elected every five years on the basis of the proportional
representation of their political parties. The number of seats in the
councils is determined by the size of their population; between 9 and
31 seats for municipalities and between 5 and 21 for local councils.
Mayors (including the chairpersons of local and regional councils) are
elected directly by the voters. In many cases no single party controls
the majority of seats on the councils and the mayor has to form a coalition
to achieve a working majority. Agreements are made among the parties
for this purpose, involving the distribution of powers and functions
among the coalition partners.
When elections for the Knesset and the local authorities
have been held at the same time, voter turnout in the local elections
was between 73 and 83 percent, while in the case of separate election
dates, turnout has averaged around 60 percent. Voter turnout for local
elections in the Arab sector has traditionally been much higher than
that in the Jewish sector.
According to the local election financing law, each
party list in the local authority is entitled to receive financing based
on the number of council seats it wins. The State Comptroller's positive
report on the financial management of the election campaign for each
faction represented on the council entitles the faction to receive its
allocation as determined by the formula.
The courts deal with cases of persons charged with a breach of the law. Charges
are brought up by citizens against other citizens, by the state against
citizens, and even by citizens against the state.
The sessions of the courts of law are usually public,
unless it is decided to hold closed hearings under special circumstances.
When more than one judge is presiding, and the judges do not agree on
a verdict, the opinion of the majority is decisive. Israel does not
have trials by jury.
The cases brought to the courts are of two types:
criminal cases and civil cases. A criminal case is one involving a transgression
of the social order, and its intention is to punish the offender, if
his guilt has been proven. In a civil case the plaintiff is a private
person or association and the defendant is a private person or association.
The subject of the trial is the demand that a contract signed between
the parties be fulfilled, a debt is returned or compensation is paid
for damages caused. In a civil trial there is no punishment, but a duty
to pay financial or other compensation.
There are three instances in the regular courts: magistrate
courts, which have the authority to try light and intermediate offences,
or civil cases in which the sum claimed is no higher than a million
shekels (approximately U.S. $300,000); district courts, which try serious
offenses, and civil cases in which the sum claimed is more than a million
shekels (approximately U.S. $300,000); and the Supreme Court, which
sits in Jerusalem. The number of judges serving on the Supreme Court
is determined by the Knesset. The judges elect a permanent President
of the Supreme Court and a deputy from amongst themselves.
Court is involved in two realms: The first is to hear appeals for
verdicts given by district courts. In this capacity it is called the
Supreme Court of Appeals. The verdict of the Supreme Court of Appeals
is final. The second is to hear appeals by persons who feel that they
have been wronged by one of the State authorities or statutory bodies.
In this capacity the court is called the High Court of Justice. The
High Court of Justice functions by means of orders.
In addition to the ordinary courts there are special
courts, which are authorized to deal with specific matters only. The
most important amongst these are the military courts, the labor courts,
and the religious courts. There are religious courts of the four main
religious denominations: Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Druze.
Each religious court can only try cases applying to members of its own
religious community who are citizens of the State or permanent residents.
Since matters of personal status in Israel are usually decided on the
basis of religious laws, the religious courts deal with them.
The function of the State control is to supervise
the ministries and other government institutions, the security forces,
the local authorities, and any other body which is financed by the state
and is subject to control under the law, a decision by the Knesset or
agreement with the Government. The State Comptroller is appointed by
the President of the State, on the basis of the recommendation of the
Knesset House Committee. The Comptroller is elected by the Knesset for
a period of five years, and their status is not dependent on the executive
In the process of control, the Comptroller examines
the legality of activities performed by the supervised bodies on matters
of money or property, and on their frugality, efficiency and integrity.
The supervised bodies must provide the Comptroller with all the information
about their activities and with documents as demanded by him or her.
The faults found in the course of the inspection are
brought by the Comptroller to the attention of those supervised, and
they are required to put them right. Once a year the State Comptroller
prepares a report on his or her activities. The State Comptroller's
report is prepared for the Knesset, where it is discussed in the Knesset
State Control Committee, and is then brought to the Knesset plenary
for the approval of the Committee's conclusions and proposals. The report
is published and brought to the public's attention.
The State Comptroller also serves as a Public Ombudsman,
to whom private persons who have been personally hurt by one of the
State authorities, can complain in writing or orally. The treatment
of such complaints, as well as publication of the activities of the
Public Ombudsman, are similar to that of the State Comptroller's report.
Freedom of the Press
The institutions of government in Israel are subject
to public scrutiny by the written and electronic media. Public scrutiny
is one of the marks and foundations of a democracy, and in Israel it
is secured in the principle of freedom of expression which is mentioned
in the Declaration of Independence,
and is currently being secured in a basic law.
Since the establishment of the State, the written
press has not been government owned, but until recently the electronic
media was fully controlled by the Government. Today there are private
radio and television networks side by side with the national ones.