views updated Jun 27 2018


KNESSET (Heb. כְּנֶסֶת; "Assembly"), the parliament and legislature of the State of Israel. The name of the assembly and the number of its members were both adopted from the Knesset ha-Gedolah – the Great Assembly of the fifth century b.c.e.

The Knesset is unicameral, and consists of 120 members. Its basic functions are to legislate, supervise the government, represent the various points of view prevalent in the society regarding the main issues on the national agenda, and elect the president of the State and the state comptroller. The government cannot operate without the confidence of the Knesset,

LawDate of enactmentKnessetCurrent status
* Went into force toward the elections to the Fourteenth Knesset in 1996.
** Went into force toward the elections to the Sixteenth Knesset in 2002.
Basic Law: The KnessetFebruary 12, 1958ThirdIn force
Basic Law: Lands of IsraelJuly 25, 1960FourthIn force
Basic Law: The President of the StateJune 16, 1964FifthIn force
Basic Law: The Government (first version)August 13, 1968SixthReplaced
Basic Law: The State EconomyJuly 21, 1971SeventhIn force
Basic Law: The MilitaryMarch 31, 1976EighthIn force
Basic Law: Jerusalem the Capital of IsraelDecember 13, 1980NinthIn force
Basic Law: The JudiciaryFebruary 28, 1984TenthIn force
Basic Law: The State ComptrollerFebruary 15, 1988EleventhIn force
Basic Law: Freedom of Occupation (first version)March 12, 1992TwelfthReplaced
Basic Law: Human Dignity and FreedomMarch 17, 1992TwelfthIn force
Basic Law: The Government (second version)March 18, 1992*TwelfthReplaced
Basic Law: Freedom of Occupation (second version)March 9, 1994ThirteenthIn force
Basic Law: The Government (third version)March 7, 2001**FifteenthIn force

which means that it requires the support of at least 61 members of the Knesset.

The Provisional State Council, which exercised legislative authority in the State of Israel after the Proclamation of Independence, adopted, on November 18, 1948, an ordinance providing for the election of a Constituent Assembly, to which general elections were held two months later. Soon after its election the Constituent Assembly changed its name to "Knesset" and adopted basic constitutional arrangements for the running of the country. However, it was unable to adopt a full constitution, due to political constraints, and in June 1950, decided that the preparation of a constitution would take the form of Basic Laws, each dealing with another element in the system of government. The idea was that after being enacted, all the Basic Laws together would constitute the State's Constitution. The first basic law, Basic Law: the Knesset, was passed on February 12, 1958. By the beginning of the 21st century, the task had not yet been completed.

The main laws governing the Knesset and its work are (in chronological order): The Knesset Members Immunity Law, 1951; Basic Law: the Knesset (passed in 1958); The Knesset Building and Compound Law, 1968; The Knesset Law, 1994 (which deals with certain issues not dealt with in Basic Law: the Knesset). All these laws have been amended since being passed.


The rules by which Israel's electoral system operates are stipulated in the Election Law, 1969. The Central Elections Committee is responsible for its implementation.

Elections to the Knesset are general, national, direct, equal, secret, and proportional. Every citizen from the age of 18 who is in Israel at the time of election, unless he is on a diplomatic mission abroad or a seaman at sea, is eligible to vote, regardless of sex, race, or religion. Candidates for election must be at least 21 years of age. Civil servants, judges, army officers in active service, rabbis paid from state funds, and holders of certain other state offices are not eligible as candidates. As a rule, elections are held every four years, but early elections may be called at the request of the prime minister, or upon a resolution of the Knesset to dissolve itself. The Knesset may serve for over four years if elected in early elections, or should the Knesset resolve to delay the date of elections (as occurred on the occasion of the *Yom Kippur War in 1973).

The contestants in the elections are lists, where each list must consist of at least one party, registered with the Party Registrar on the basis of the Parties Law, 1992. A list may consist of more than one registered party, and in practice can include bodies that are not registered parties, though this was more prevalent in the past than it is today.

Each list that gets elected receives a number of seats proportional to the valid votes it received. Originally there was a 1% qualifying threshold, which was raised to 1.5% towards the elections to the Thirteenth Knesset. In May 2004 the qualifying threshold was raised to 2%. The reason for raising

KnessetDate of electionDate of first sittingLength of term
FirstJanuary 25, 1949February 14, 19492 years and 6 months
SecondJuly 30, 1951September 20, 19514 years
ThirdJuly 6, 1955August 15, 19554 years and 4 months
FourthNovember 3, 1959November 30, 19591 year and 9 months
FifthAugust 15, 1961September 9, 19614 years and 2 months
SixthNovember 2, 1965November 22, 19654 years
SeventhOctober 28, 1969November 17, 19694 years and 2 months
EighthDecember 31, 1973January 21, 19743 years and 5 months
NinthMay 17, 1977June 13, 19774 years and 1 month
TenthJune 30, 1981July 20, 19813 years and 1 month
EleventhJuly 23, 1984August 13, 19844 years and 3 months
TwelfthNovember 1, 1988November 21, 19883 years and 8 months
ThirteenthJune 23, 1992July 13, 19923 years and 11 months
FourteenthMay 29, 1996June 17, 19963 years
FifteenthMay 17, 1999June 7, 19993 years and 8 months
SixteenthJanuary 28, 2003February 17, 20033 years and 2 months
SeventeenthMarch 28, 2006April 17, 2006

the qualifying threshold has been to prevent one- and even two-person lists from being elected. Nevertheless, the basic concept is that all parts of Israel's heterogeneous population should have the opportunity to be represented to the Knesset. The relatively extreme application of the proportional representation system has resulted in ten to fifteen lists being elected to each Knesset.

All efforts over the years to reform the electoral system to a mixed system, whereby half the members would be elected in multi-member constituencies, and the other half on the basis of proportional representation, failed. The only major change in the electoral system that was adopted introduced the direct election of the prime minister side by side with the election of the Knesset. This change was adopted through the amendment of Basic Law: the Government, and accompanying laws, in March 1992. It was canceled nine years later because it had led to greater political fragmentation, did not strengthen the status of the prime minister, and weakened the two major political parties.

Members of the Knesset and Parliamentary Groups

As noted above, members of the Knesset are not elected directly, but as members of lists. Each party has its own method of putting together its list. In the past "arrangement committees" were customary, where the leaders of the party were those who decided who should run on the party's list. Some, like the *Israel Labor Party since the elections to the Thirteenth Knesset, hold closed primaries among the registered party members, in which representatives from national lists and district lists are elected. In others, like the *Likud in recent elections, it is the party Central Committee that elects the representatives to the list. In the haredi (ultra-Orthodox religious) parties it is the spiritual leaders who decide who will be on the list.

The candidates on the lists who pass the qualifying threshold enter the Knesset according to the order in which their names appear on the list. Should a party receive 12 seats, it is the first 12 persons whose names appear on the list who enter the Knesset. After entering the Knesset, the lists are referred to as "parliamentary groups," and in the course of each Knesset parliamentary groups are able to split or merge, or the number of their seats might change due to individual Knesset members, or groups of members, moving from one parliamentary group to another. Except for the Third Knesset, the number of parliamentary groups at the end of the term of each Knesset has been larger than at its start. No list has ever won a majority of the Knesset seats. The most any list ever received was the 56 seats received by the Alignment (Labor-*Mapam coalition) in the elections to the Seventh Knesset. All of Israel's governments have been coalitions, made up of at least three parliamentary groups, but usually more.

Though the members of the outgoing Knesset continue to serve until the first sitting of the new Knesset, the newly elected members enjoy parliamentary immunity, and start receiving a salary as members, from the moment the results of the elections are announced. In the past it was customary to consider someone a member of the Knesset only from the moment that he or she declared his or her allegiance to the Knesset. However, today the rule is that newly elected members are considered full members from the first sitting of the new Knesset, while in the event of a member's passing away or resigning from the Knesset in mid-term, the next person on the list becomes a member immediately upon the death or resignation.

Though there is a law that describes the legal obligations and immunities of members of the Knesset, and the Rules of Procedure inter alia deal with issues of discipline and the Rules of Ethics with ethical questions, there is no document that describes the official duties of a member. However, as representatives of the constituencies that elected them, members are expected to attend the House regularly, fulfill any specific post to which they have been elected within the Knesset, participate in the sittings of the plenum, attend the meetings of the committees of which they are members, propose bills, table motions, ask questions, and take part in debates. In important votes the coalition and the parliamentary groups impose discipline, though voting discipline has greatly weakened since the early 1990s. Members of the Knesset are expected to conduct themselves with dignity and represent it with honor.

It should be noted that Israel has a parliamentary system; since the establishment of the state, between 12 to 29 members of the Knesset have simultaneously also served as ministers in the Government, and additional members as deputy ministers.

The Knesset is entitled to lift the immunity of a member of the Knesset against whom there are criminal charges. It is the state attorney who requests that the immunity be lifted, and should the House Committee decide to comply with the request, the plenum must approve the decision as well.

For many years the number of women elected to the Knesset was relatively small, running from seven in the Twelfth Knesset to 12 in the Third. However, since the Fifteenth Knesset the numbers have risen, and in the Sixteenth Knesset 17 were elected. Since the First Knesset the number of members born in Israel has risen from a mere 17 in the First Knesset (of whom three were members of minorities) to an overwhelming majority in the Sixteenth Knesset. The number of Arabs and Druze in the Knesset has also risen significantly since the First Knesset.

Work of the Knesset

The work of the Knesset is divided into parliamentary work, performed by the members of the Knesset with the help of the Knesset staff, and administrative and maintenance work, performed by the Knesset employees and contract workers. The speaker, usually elected at the first sitting of each new Knesset, or soon thereafter, is the head of the parliamentary hierarchy, while the secretary general of the Knesset – appointed by the speaker – is head of the administration. The speaker, assisted by his deputies, runs the sittings of the plenum.

The Knesset's annual session is divided into a winter session and a summer session. When the Knesset is in session, it usually sits in plenum on Monday and Tuesday afternoons and evenings, and on Wednesday morning. The rest of the time on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays, and frequently Sundays and Thursdays, is devoted to committee meetings.

The Knesset's agenda is determined by the speaker and his deputies. Mondays and Tuesdays are usually devoted to government business, while Wednesdays are devoted to members' motions for the agenda and private members' bills.

The work of the Knesset is divided between the plenum and the committees. The most important activities in the plenum are the debating and passing of bills, the debating and approval or rejection of motions for the agenda and motions of no-confidence in the government, questions to ministers, general debates, one-minute speeches, and the election of the president of the State and the state comptroller. On occasion, visiting foreign heads of state or of international organizations are invited to speak before the Knesset plenum.

Since 1989 the plenum has had an electronic voting system. Before the electronic voting most votes were taken by show of hands. On important issues votes are taken by roll call, and on some issues, such as the election of the president of the State and the state comptroller, the vote is by secret ballot.

Name and party affiliation of speakerDate of electionEnd of term
1.Yosef Sprinzak (Mapai)February 14, 1949January 28, 1959
2.Naḥum Nir (Aḥdut ha-Avodah)March 2, 1959November 30, 1959
3.Kaddish Luz (Mapai, Alignment)November 30, 1959November 17, 1969
4.Reuven Barkatt (Alignment)November 17, 1969April 5, 1972
5.Israel Yeshayahu (Alignment)May 9, 1972June 13, 1977
6.Yitzḥak Shamir (Likud)June 13, 1977March 10, 1980
7.Yitzḥak Berman (Likud)March 12, 1980July 20, 1981
8.Menaḥem Savidor (Likud)July 20, 1981August 13, 1984
9.Shelomo Hillel (Alignment)September 11, 1984November 20, 1988
10.Dov Shilansky (Likud)November 21, 1988July 13, 1992
11.Shevaḥ Weiss (Labor Party)July 13, 1992June 24, 1996
12.Dan Tikhon (Likud)June 24, 1996June 7, 1999
13.Avraham Burg (Labor Party)July 6, 1999February 17, 2003
14.Reuven Rivlin (Likud)February 19, 2003May 4, 2006
15.Dalia Itzik (Kadimah)May 4, 2006

Most of the work of preparing bills, before they turn into law, is performed in the committees, each of which has its own staff, a legal advisor, help from research assistants provided by the Knesset's Research and Information Center (established in 2000), and the occasional assistance of external experts.

However, it is the plenum that approves the bills. Government bills and committee bills go through first, second, and third readings. Private members' bills must also go through preliminary reading. Since the Twelfth Knesset many thousands of bills have been proposed by private members, but most of them never pass preliminary reading. Nevertheless, the majority of bills passed into law by the Knesset are private members' bills, a phenomenon unique in Western democracies.

There are 12 permanent (statutory) committees with specific terms of reference, and the Knesset is entitled to appoint additional temporary committees on specific issues. The 12 permanent committees are:

The Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee
The Economics Committee
The Education and Culture Committee
The Finance Committee
The Foreign Affairs and Security Committee
The House Committee
The Immigration, Absorption, and Dispersions Committee
The Internal Affairs and Environment Committee
The Labor, Welfare, and Health Committee
The Science and Technology Committee
The State Control Committee
The Committee on the Status of Women

Many of the Committees have subcommittees, and there are several joint committees.

The permanent committees and the committees on specific issues do not only deal with bills. They also deliberate motions for the agenda passed on to them by the plenum, and raise issues for deliberation. Occasionally they venture out of the House for tours, in connection with the issues they are dealing with. Committees are entitled to call upon ministers, civil servants, and members of the armed forces to appear before them and provide information, and usually invite specialists, experts, and representatives of interest groups to participate in their meetings. There are numerous lobbies and lobbyists operating in the Knesset corridors, in an attempt to influence legislation and Knesset resolutions. The Knesset may also appoint parliamentary committees of inquiry, to investigate specific issues or events.

Each Knesset selects an Ethics Committee and an Interpretations Committee (in the event of differences of opinion regarding the Rules of Procedure).

There is a special Knesset tv channel that is funded by the Knesset. The tv channel broadcasts all the meetings of the plenum, important committee meetings, interviews and talk shows with current and past members of the Knesset, programs about parliaments in other countries, etc. In addition all the various branches of the media in Israel have reporters in the Knesset, and on occasion the foreign media are also present.

The agendas and the minutes of the plenum are published in print and on the Knesset's website. The minutes of committee meetings that are not secret are also published on the website. The website, which includes a good deal of information on the history of the Knesset, its work, the laws it passes, background papers and studies prepared for the committees and individual members by the Research and Information Center, etc., includes sections in English and Arabic.

On the basis of the Freedom of Information Law, the Knesset provides the public with information about the Knesset and its work.

The Knesset's Relations with the Government and the Judiciary

The relations between the Knesset and the government is complex, and a strict separation of powers does not exist. Most of the ministers and all the deputy ministers are members of the Knesset, and have the right to vote in the plenum. Ministers and deputy ministers cannot be members of committees, though they appear before them as representatives of the Executive.

No government can start to function unless it is approved by the Knesset, and if new ministers are added to the government, their appointment must be approved by the Knesset as well. A government can be brought down by a vote of no-confidence. In the past an ordinary majority of the members could bring a government down, but today a government can only be brought down if at least 61 members of the Knesset vote for a motion of no-confidence, and propose the name of an alternative prime minister.

One of the tasks of the Knesset is to supervise the government. It does this by having the last word on all government bills, by means of motions for the agenda and questions. The ministers are also called upon to report to the Knesset on the activities of their ministries. Another means of supervision is by means of deliberations in the State Control Committee on the annual and occasional reports of the state comptroller, who reviews the functioning of the ministries and other government bodies that are under his supervision.

Most of the important laws passed by the Knesset are initiated by the government, and the government is obliged to act in accordance with the laws that the Knesset passes. However, due to the inflation of private legislation, it was necessary to place limitations on the passing of private members' bills involving expenditure. The inflation of private legislation has also resulted in many laws not being implemented, either partially or in full, frequently due to the technical inability of the government to implement them.

The government has found a way of amending laws without close Knesset supervision, by means of the Arrangements Law (ḥok ha-hesderim), which is attached to the annual Budget Law.

The relationship between the Knesset and the judiciary is also complicated. The judiciary judges on the basis of the laws passed by the Knesset, and the deliberations of the Knesset on bills – whether in the plenum or in the Committee – constitute part of the evidence concerning "the intention of the legislator." Members of the Knesset are appointed to the various committees that elect judges, both for the secular and the various religious courts. In the absence of a constitution, the Supreme Court, sitting as the High Court of Justice, is frequently called upon to decide on constitutional matters, and has on occasion declared a certain law, or part of a law, to be unconstitutional because it is in conflict with a Basic Law. This phenomenon has caused great tension between the Knesset and the Court. Some Knesset members who are dissatisfied with the activism of the Supreme Court, especially after Chief Justice Aharon Barak became its president in 1995, have called for the establishment of an independent Constitutional Court. It should be noted that among those petitioning the High Court of Justice there have been many members of the Knesset.

The Knesset Building and Compound

After its first sitting in the Jewish Agency building in Jerusalem on February 14, 1949 (Tu bi-Shevat of the Jewish year 5719), for 10 months the Knesset held its sittings in various locations in Tel Aviv before moving back to Jerusalem. Until its new building was inaugurated on August 30, 1966, the Knesset met in the Arazi-Frumin building on King George Street, which had originally been planned as a bank. In 1956 a competition was held for the construction of the permanent building. The winner of the competition was the architect Joseph Klarwein, but several other senior and junior architects – including Shimon Powsner, Ze'ev Rabina, Yohanan *Ratner, Dov *Karmi and his son Ram *Karmi, the British William Gillitt, and the Swiss Hans Ruegg – were involved in the deliberations about the building, its planning and construction.

The building that finally emerged – in Late International Style, with much use of bare concrete and some reddish stone from Galilee to comply with the municipal laws of Jerusalem – hardly resembles the one originally planned by Klarwein. The exterior of the building, which is a square structure, with ten rectangular pillars on each side, and an overhanging roof, resembles the U.S. Embassy in Athens, planned by Walter Gropius and completed in 1961.

The interior of the Knesset building was done by the interior decorator Dora *Gad, who made much use of wooden panels and soft pastel colors. Some elements in the internal architecture resemble the work of Finnish architect Alvar Alto. The building is adorned by numerous works of art made especially for the Knesset. Among these are the iron gates to the Knesset compound, created by the sculptor David *Palombo, the stone front wall of the plenary hall, created by sculptor Danny *Karavan, three tapestries, 12 floor mosaics and one wall mosaic created by the artist Marc*Chagall for the State Hall (commonly known as the Chagall Hall), two paintings by artist Reuven *Rubin, which hang in the Government meeting room and the Speaker's bureau, and a bronze relief created by sculptor Buki *Shwartz. Outside the gates of the Knesset is a large seven-branched *menorah depicting scenes from Jewish history. The menorah was created by the German-born British sculptor Benno *Elkan, and presented to the Knesset by the British Parliament in 1956.

Most of the cost of the original building was covered by money bequeathed by James de *Rothschild in his will.

A new wing, including 48 rooms for members of the Knesset, an auditorium, several committee rooms, a gym, and storage rooms, was constructed in 1991. Due to the growing number of staff and visitors regularly present in the building, the construction of a major addition to the building was begun in 2002.

The foreground to the Knesset building is occasionally used for official ceremonies, with the participation of the Knesset Guard, which was established in 1959. At the front of the Knesset building there is an eternal flame to commemorate all those who fell in defense of the country.

The immunity of the Knesset building and its compound is protected by a special law, which lays down that the writ of the ordinary police does not apply. Within this area, no demonstration or assembly may take place without the speaker's permission, no person can be arrested without his leave, and no person may bear arms unless licensed by him. The Knesset Guard, headed by the serjeant-at-arms who is directly responsible to the speaker, is in charge of maintaining peace and order in and around the building.

See also *Israel, State of: Governance; Political Life and Parties.


[Susan Hattis Rolef (2nd ed.)]


views updated May 11 2018


The parliament of Israel.

The Knesset is unicameral, with 120 members who are elected for a term of four years. A majority may call for early elections. The Knesset's power of judicial review is limited, but it can, with special majorities (that is, fixed numerical requirements that may be more than a majority of those present and voting on a given occasion), change the Basic Lawsthe constitution. (Only simple majoritiesmore than half of those present in the Knesset at any given time, which could be less than half of the 120 Members of Knessetare necessary to make ordinary legislation.) The Knesset chooses the prime minister, the cabinet, and the symbolically important president of the state, and it can dismiss the government through a no-confidence vote. In addition to legislative duties, it has broad investigative powers. It must be in session for at least eight months of each year. Members enjoy wide legislative immunity.

Most of the Knesset's work is done by standing committees. The legislative process is similar to those of most other countries. After a first reading, a bill is sent to committee where it may be studied and amended, after which it returns to the full Knesset for second and third readings. Israel has a classical parliamentary system; the Knesset has relatively little political independence. Committee membership corresponds to party strength in the Knesset, and deputies are restrained by their parties under tight discipline. Knesset members may introduce private bills, question members of the government, and present motions for debate of subjects not on the government's agenda. However, these rarely have a significant impact.

Knesset members are subordinate to political parties because of the electoral system, a single national constituency in a proportional representation system. Voting is by party lists. Until 1992 parties needed only 1 percent of the votes to win a seat, and the result of this system was the presence of numerous small parties. There has never been a time when a single party had a majority in the Knesset; coalitions have always been necessary. When the threshold was raised to 1.5 percent in 1992, the number of parties dropped markedly.

Structural characteristics strengthen the role of the executive at the expense of parliamentary independence. It has been estimated that 95 percent of the bills are introduced into the Knesset by the government. Knesset debate on them, both in committees and on the floor, seldom leads to any outcome other than that desired by the coalition members.

see also israel: political parties in.


Arian, Asher. "Politics in Israel. The Second Generation." In Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol. 10. Chatham, NJ: 1985.

Hazan, Reuven. Reforming Parliamentary Committees: Israel in Comparative Perspective. Columbus: Ohio State University, 2001.

Mahler, Gregory. The Knesset: Parliament in the Israeli Political System. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1981.

walter f. weiker
updated by gregory s. mahler


views updated May 17 2018


Hebrew word meaning "assembly." A unicameral parliament, the Knesset is the legislative assembly of the State of Israel. Its name recalls the great legislative assembly of the epoch of the Second Temple, destroyed in 70 C.E. Created in January 1949, the Knesset met for the first time in Tel Aviv, then it was moved to Jerusalem. At the beginning it was supposed to be a constitutional assembly, but the religious parties opposed this, arguing that the Jewish people could have only one supreme law, that of the Torah. The powers of the Knesset were then established by the Basic Law of 1958, amended in 1986, and completed in 1992. Renewed every four years, the Knesset consists of 120 deputies, members chosen wholly on the basis of proportional representation, through a ballot list of candidates, which allows any minority to have at least one representative. To be represented, a party needs only 1.5 percent of the votes cast. The Basic Law, amended in 1992, established a new electoral system, effective for the elections of 29 May 1996. For the first time, Israelis chose, by separate ballots, both the future government leader (prime minister) and the MKs (Knesset members) who would represent them in the Knesset.

In June 1996, when the Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister, having narrowly defeated the Labor Party's Shimon Peres, the composition of the Knesset was as follows: Labor Party: 34 seats; Likud-Tsomet-Gesher Bloc: 32 (Likud: 22, Gesher: 5, and Tsomet: 5); SHAS: 10; Meretz: 9; NRP: 9; Israel be Aliyah: 7; Hadash: 5; United Torah Judaism: 4; United Arab List: 4; Third Way: 4; Moledet: 2. The new electoral reform had produced an anomalous situation in which the left, which had won 53 seats, found itself in the opposition, while the right, which had only 43, but whose candidate for prime minister had been elected, was in power. In the 1999 elections, Netanyahu was soundly defeated by Labor's Ehud Barak (as head of the One Israel coalition), with Barak receiving 56 percent of the vote to Netanyahu's 44 percent. In the Knesset, 26 seats went to One Israel and 19 to Likud. Following Barak's defeat by Ariel Sharon in the prime ministerial election of 2001, Likud regained its prominence. In the 2003 Knesset elections (which abandoned the separate ballot for prime minister instituted in 1996), Likud received 29 percent of the vote (37 seats); the Labor-Meimad coalition received 14.5 percent (19 seats). The remaining seats were distributed as follows: Shinui: 15; SHAS: 11; National Unity: 7; Meretz: 6; National Religious Party: 6; Torah and Shabbat Judaism: 5; Hadash: 3; Am Ehad: 3; National Democratic Assembly: 3; Israel be Aliyah: 2; United Arab List: 2.

SEE ALSO Netanyahu, Benjamin;Torah.