ELECTIONS IN ISRAEL – JANUARY 2003

ELECTIONS AND THE ISRAELI SYSTEM OF GOVERNMENT

Israel is a parliamentary democracy. Its government – a cabinet of ministers headed by the prime minister – is the executive authority of the state. This government is charged with administering internal and foreign affairs of the State of Israel.

Israel’s system of governing is deeply rooted in the principles and institutions essential to a free democratic society:

* Separation of powers between the three branches – the legislature (the Knesset); the executive (the government); and the judiciary (the court system) – with checks and balances built into the system;
* The independence of the judiciary, which is guaranteed by law;
* Basic laws that function as a constitution, setting out citizens’ rights and the structure of government;
* Freedom of the press and freedom of expression;
* Periodic elections based on the principle of majority rule, with the rights of the minority guaranteed by law.

Israel’s elections reflect the strong democratic tradition of the State of Israel. Election campaigns are a lively affair, accompanied by vigorous debate of the issues. Israelis take a great interest in political affairs, including internal policy and foreign relations, and actively participate in the electoral process.

National elections in Israel are held at least once every four years. Every party running for election presents a list of candidates for election to Israel’s parliament, the Knesset. Voters then choose the party they wish to represent them (and not individual candidates). The number of candidates entering the Knesset from each party list is proportional to the percentage of support the list receives nationally. Under Israel’s system of proportional representation, the whole state is considered a single constituency.

Following the elections, the President of Israel assigns the task of forming a new government to one Knesset member. The President must choose the head of a party list who has the best chances of putting together a government that will receive the approval of the Knesset. This duty is usually, but not necessarily, assigned to the head of the largest party in the Knesset. If the Knesset member succeeds in forming a government, he or she then becomes prime minister.

THE ELECTIONS

What is the Knesset?

The Knesset, a unicameral house, is Israel’s parliament, and consists of 120 members. It is located in Jerusalem, the capital of Israel. Its function is to legislate and oversee the working of the government. The Knesset operates in plenary session and through twelve permanent committees. Debates are conducted in Hebrew, but members may speak Arabic, as both are official languages.

How is the Knesset elected?

The Knesset is elected by general, national, direct, equal, secret and proportional elections. Under the proportional electoral system, the number of seats a party holds in the Knesset reflects the exact percentage of the total votes it receives in the popular vote. Nevertheless, a party must receive at least 1.5% of the vote in order to secure its first seat in the Knesset.

What is the electoral process?

Votes are cast for a group of individuals that constitutes a party (as opposed to voting directly for an individual). Every party that was elected in the previous elections to the outgoing Knesset can automatically run in the next elections.

Any group of people may form a new party and run in the elections. However, these party founders must meet the requirements of the law, for example, they cannot have a criminal record, nor may they hold an official state position. Moreover, the party itself must fulfill the following requirements:

* Obtain 1,500 signatures from supporters who are eligible to vote;
* Deposit a small amount of money with the election committee;
* Not incite to racism;
* Not promote the denial of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state;
* Not support the armed struggle of an enemy state or terrorist organization against the State of Israel.

How do the parties make up their list of candidates?

There are no regulations regarding the means by which a party assembles its list of candidates. Since the 1970s, the general trend has shifted away from selection of candidates by a small group of people in each party (i.e. central committees) to selection by a larger body (nationwide party primaries, etc.) in order to make the process more democratic.

Who has the right to vote?

Israeli citizens, eighteen years of age or over, are eligible to vote in the elections to the Knesset.

Israelis of all ethnic groups and religious beliefs, including Arab Israelis, actively participate in the process and for many years, voting percentages have reached close to 80 percent.

Who has the right to be elected?

All Israeli citizens who are at least 21 years of age are eligible to be elected to the Knesset, as long as:

* They do not have a criminal record;
* They do not hold an official position (President, Chief Rabbi, a high ranking army officer or state official, judge, etc.); or
* A court has not specifically restricted this right (for example, in the rare case of a person convicted of treason).

When are elections held?

National elections are held at least once every four years. However, there are circumstances that necessitate the calling of early elections, among them:

* The prime minister resigns, dies or is incapacitated for more than 100 days;
* The government as a whole resigns;
* The Knesset, by a majority vote of 61, expresses no-confidence in the prime minister or passes a law dissolving itself;
* The prime minister dissolves the Knesset (in cases where the government does not enjoy the support of a majority of the Knesset and therefore cannot effectively rule);
* The Knesset ends the prime minister’s term of office (this can only happen in extraordinary instances, for example if the prime minister has been convicted of a crime that the court has declared to involve moral turpitude).

Until a new Knesset is formally constituted following an election, full authority remains with the outgoing Knesset. The outgoing government also retains all the powers and responsibilities of a regular government; it too continues to function until a new government can be formed after elections.

When will the next elections be held?

The next general elections are scheduled to be held on 28 January 2003. These elections will select the 16th Knesset, including the Knesset member who will be chosen to form the next government and lead it as prime minister.

Because of the importance attributed to the democratic process, election day is a holiday and special arrangements are made to allow every Israeli voter to cast his or her ballot.

When does the new Knesset begin functioning?

Election results are published in the official gazette eight days after the elections. The first session of the new Knesset is held approximately 2 weeks later. The President of the State opens the first session and then yields the chair to the eldest Knesset member. The Speaker of the Knesset and the Speaker’s deputies are elected during this session.

FORMING A NEW GOVERNMENT

What is the role of the President?

The President of Israel is the head of the state and is elected to the position by the Knesset. The office symbolizes the unity of the state and carries high prestige and moral force, above and beyond party politics. Presidential duties, which are primarily ceremonial and formal, are defined by law. Following the election, the President’s primary duty is to choose the Knesset member who will form the government.

What is the government?

The government is the executive branch of the State and its seat is in the capital, Jerusalem. This cabinet of ministers administers Israel’s foreign and domestic affairs, including security matters. The government’s policy making powers are very wide and it is authorized to act on any issue as long as that act does not infringe upon the authority of another branch or breach a basic law (the constitutional foundations of Israel).

The Knesset member who forms the government heads it, as prime minister of the State of Israel. The other ministers are responsible to the prime minister for the fulfillment of their duties and accountable to the Knesset for their actions. The government holds office by virtue of the confidence of the Knesset.

Who are the members of government?

The government consists of the prime minister and other ministers. The prime minister and at least half of the other government ministers must be members of the Knesset. The remaining ministers need not be Knesset members. However, ministers who are not members of Knesset must be Israeli citizens residing in Israel and their nomination must be ratified by a Knesset vote.

How is a government formed?

When a new government is to be constituted, the President of the State, after consulting with representatives of the parties elected to the Knesset, assigns the task of forming the government to a Knesset member. This Knesset member is usually the leader of the party with the largest Knesset representation or the head of the party that leads a coalition with more than 60 members.

Since a government requires the Knesset?s confidence to function, it must have a supporting coalition of at least 61 of the 120 Knesset members. To date, no party has received enough Knesset seats to be able to form a government by itself; thus all Israeli governments have been based on coalitions of several parties, with those remaining outside the government making up the opposition.

What is the time framework for this process?

The Knesset member to whom the task is assigned has a period of 28 days to form a government. The President may extend the term by an additional period of time, not exceeding 14 days.

What happens if the task has not been accomplished?

If this period (up to 42 days) has passed and the designated Knesset member has not succeeded in forming a government, the President may then assign the task of forming a government to another Knesset member. This Knesset member has a period of 28 days for the fulfillment of the task.

If a government still has not been formed, an absolute majority of Knesset members (61) has the option of applying in writing to the President, asking him to assign the task to a particular Knesset member. Such a precedent has yet to occur.

How is a government installed?

If a government has been formed, the designated prime minister presents it to the Knesset within 45 days of publication of election results in the official gazette. At this time, he announces its composition, the basic guidelines of its policy, and the distribution of functions among its ministers. The prime minister then asks the Knesset for an expression of confidence. The government is installed when the Knesset has expressed confidence in it by a majority of 61 Knesset members, and the ministers thereupon assume office.

THE PREVIOUS SYSTEM OF DIRECT ELECTIONS

What was the previous system of elections?

The 2003 elections represent a return to the traditional system, whereby following Knesset elections, the President of the State assigns the task of forming the government to a Knesset member. If this Knesset member succeeds in forming a government, he or she then heads it, as prime minister.

However, in the 1996, 1999 and 2001 elections, the prime minister was elected in direct popular elections. The candidate who received more than half the valid votes was elected prime minister. If no candidate had received the required number of votes, a run off would have been held between the two candidates who received the largest number of valid votes.