State of Israel

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State of Israel

Type of Government

The small Mediterranean nation of Israel is a parliamentary democracy with several distinctive features. A unicameral legislature, the Knesset, elects the president, who in turn oversees the formation of a coalition cabinet under a prime minister. Though more than 20 percent of the population of roughly six and a half million are Arab Muslims, Israel considers itself a Jewish state, and religious differences—both between Jews and Muslims and between secular and religious Jews—continue to play a key role in the formation and dissolution of the ruling coalitions.


There has been a Jewish community in and around the city of Jerusalem, Israel’s capital, for at least three thousand years. For most of that period, the region’s residents, both Jews and non-Jews, were dominated by a succession of foreign powers. Some, like the Romans, were harsh masters; others, like the Ottoman Turks who ruled from 1517 to 1917, allowed significant local autonomy. With the growth of nationalism in the nineteenth century, however, came the Zionist movement of Theodore Herzl (1860—1904). Herzl and his followers believed that the fierce and unrelenting persecution of Jews throughout Russia and Eastern Europe meant that Jewish people would never be safe without a nation of their own.

There was much discussion about the site for such a state, with the British in 1903 offering part of their colony of Uganda. For the Zionists, however, the ancient Jewish homeland on the shores of the eastern Mediterranean was the only acceptable choice, and a small stream of Jewish immigrants began arriving in the area even before the region passed from Ottoman to British control toward the end of World War I. During the thirty years of British rule, however, Jewish immigration increased enormously for several reasons. One was the so-called Balfour Declaration in 1917, in which British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour (1848–1930), expressed his support for a Jewish “national home” in the region then commonly known as Palestine. Many Jews who had seen Herzl’s project as unrealistic became eager immigrants when Great Britain, rulers of Palestine and one of the most powerful nations in the world, endorsed it publicly.

The second major factor fuelling immigration to Palestine was the rise to power of anti-Semite Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) in Germany in 1933. Hitler and his followers deliberately created such a hostile atmosphere that German Jews had little choice but to abandon their homes and businesses and emigrate. Many chose Palestine. When World War II began in 1939, Hitler turned from a policy of forced emigration to deportation and murder, and Herzl’s belief that Jews would never be safe in Europe gained a new and horrifying kind of credibility. The British, meanwhile, severely restricted Jewish immigration in an effort to avoid dangerous wartime conflicts with Palestine’s Muslim population.

At the end of the war in 1945, thousands of Jews who had survived Hitler’s death camps braved a British naval blockade to reach Palestine. Many of those who succeeded joined an armed independence movement. Given the rising tensions between the Arab and Jewish populations, however, the exhausted British needed little encouragement to withdraw. In 1948 the United Nations (UN) endorsed a plan to create two independent nations—one Jewish and one Arab—out of the territory Britain had controlled since 1917 (from 1917 until 1920 under a military administration, and thereafter under an international mandate approved by the UN’s predecessor, the League of Nations). Under the UN plan, Jerusalem, a city holy to Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike, was to be under international administration, and the Jewish state was to have 55 percent of the land east of the Jordan River. A coalition of Arab states rejected the plan and invaded Jewish areas immediately after the British withdrawal in May 1948. The forces of the new nation of Israel, however, succeeded in driving the Arab armies out and stabilizing the frontiers.

Government Structure

Israel does not have a constitution in the conventional sense. Instead, a series of so-called Basic Laws define the structure and function of government. As of 2007, eleven Basic Laws were in force, with three more (Legislation, Rights in Trial, and Freedom of Expression and Association) in the drafting stage. Some provisions of the Basic Laws can be amended with the approval of an absolute Knesset majority (61 of the 120 members), others only with a special majority, which requires more votes.

The president, elected by the Knesset for a term of seven years, is head of state. The most important of a president’s mostly ceremonial duties is the endorsement of a candidate for prime minister. For both practical and traditional reasons, the president usually chooses the leader of the largest party in the Knesset. A prime minister’s first task is the construction of a coalition cabinet that will enjoy, at least for a time, majority support in the Knesset, and the leader of the largest party has the best chance to obtain that support. If the prime minister cannot construct a coalition, new elections are held, and the process begins again. Exceptions occurred in 1996, 1999, and 2001, when a short-lived change to the electoral laws mandated a direct, popular vote for prime minister. Widespread dissatisfaction with this arrangement soon caused the Knesset to revert to the previous system.

The prime minister and his cabinet form the core of the executive branch. Cabinet seats are allotted to political parties according to their importance to the coalition, so even a small party can win control of major ministries. The most powerful ministries are probably the Defense Ministry and the Interior Ministry. The size of the cabinet can vary, with some members serving “without portfolio”—that is, without attachment to a particular ministry. Opposition members can challenge a prime minister and his cabinet by demanding a vote of no confidence. If a majority in the Knesset sides with the prime minister, he or she remains in power. If the no-confidence vote is sustained, however, the government falls and new elections are scheduled. The old coalition remains in office until the election results are tabulated and a new coalition is formed.

Legislative powers are limited to the 120 members of the unicameral Knesset. Voters do not choose individual members, but they select the one party that best represents their interests. Seats are allocated to the parties in accordance with their share of the popular vote. The parties then choose individuals to fill their seats, usually on the basis of seniority. Bills may be introduced by individual members, blocs of members, the prime minister and his cabinet, or by individual cabinet ministers. Debate takes place in plenary sessions (attended by all members) and in committee meetings. Every bill must go through at least one reading in committee and three plenary readings; votes are taken on an item-by-item basis after the second plenary reading and on the bill as a whole after the third. Bills that fail in the second plenary reading may be returned to committee for redrafting. Bills that pass the third plenary reading are sent to the president, the prime minister, and the appropriate cabinet minister for signing into law.

Israeli law is based on English common law, a holdover from when Britain ruled the region. The influence of the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian traditions is frequently discernible in Israeli law, particularly in personal and family law, cases for which are often referred to special religious courts. At the head of the judicial branch is the Supreme Court, which is made up of twelve justices appointed by the Judicial Selection Committee. Cases are generally heard by panels of three or more justices. In addition to hearing appeals from lower courts, the Supreme Court acts as a High Court of Justice, with wide-ranging powers to investigate allegations of government misconduct, hear prisoners’ petitions, and issue directives to ministries. Its power to review Knesset legislation, however, is limited.

Local affairs are handled by municipalities, local councils, or regional councils, depending on the size of the community. Municipalities exist in large towns and cities, local councils in small towns, and regional councils in rural areas. Local councils often join together in federations to save money or improve efficiency.

National elections are held at least every four years, and all citizens aged eighteen and over may vote.

Political Parties and Factions

No less than twelve different parties currently hold seats in the Knesset. The largest of these, with twenty-nine seats, is Kadima, a new center-right offshoot of Likud, traditionally the strongest of the conservative parties but much weakened in recent years. The founder of Kadima is Ariel Sharon (1928–), who was serving as prime minister when serious illness incapacitated him in January 2006. In his place, Ehud Olmert (1945–) was named acting prime minister; subsequent elections confirmed Olmert as prime minister in his own right.

Other major parties include Labor, the core of the moderate left wing, with nineteen seats; Shas, a conservative movement dominated by orthodox Jews, with twelve seats; Likud, with twelve seats; the conservative, religiously oriented National Union/National Religious Party, with nine seats; the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu, with eleven seats; and Gil, a single-issue party focused on the needs of pensioners and retirees, with seven seats. Arab citizens won four seats. As of October 2006, Olmert’s coalition consisted of Kadima, Labor, Shas, Gil, and Yisrael Beiteinu.

Israeli pressure groups tend to focus on the conflict with the Palestinians. On one side are groups like Peace Now, which argues for a complete withdrawal from the Israeli occupied Palestinian territories. Opposing them are a variety of organizations opposed to withdrawal on religious or nationalistic grounds. Many of these are dominated by Israelis who have built houses and settlements in the West Bank. Often, but not always, differences of opinion on the Palestinian question coincide with religious and cultural differences. Secular Jews tend to favor withdrawal, while the orthodox and ultra-orthodox communities generally oppose territorial concessions.

Major Events

Wars and uprisings have punctuated the history of modern Israel. The first major incident following the war in 1948 to gain independence was the Suez Crisis of 1956. When Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918–1970) announced his decision to nationalize the Suez Canal, a vital trade route between the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea, the Israelis took advantage of the turmoil and, with the tacit approval of the canal’s French and British administrators, invaded Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and advanced easily toward the canal itself. International pressure eventually defused the situation, a UN peacekeeping force was established in the Sinai, and the Israelis withdrew. Tensions remained high, however. Though Nasser himself gained widespread respect throughout the Arab world for his defiance of Israel and its Western allies, the Egyptian army was clearly ill equipped to face Israeli forces.

In May 1967 Nasser successfully demanded the withdrawal of the UN force in the Sinai, closed the Gulf of Aqaba (south of the canal) to Israeli shipping, and sent Egyptian troops to join Iraqi forces gathering in Jordan. The Israelis, interpreting these actions as signs of an imminent attack, launched preemptive strikes by air and land. At the end of six days of fighting, the Arab armies had been routed, and Israel controlled five new territories, all with substantial Arab populations: east Jerusalem; the Golan Heights, along the northern border with Syria; the Gaza Strip, a narrow coastal region to the south; the West Bank of the Jordan River; and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. The Camp David peace accords of 1979 returned the Sinai to Egypt, and a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza took place in 2005. The other territories remain under Israeli control and have seen substantial Israeli settlement. Nevertheless they are not part of Israel under international law.

The 1970s and 1980s in Israel were dominated by cycles of guerilla warfare, as the Israeli military reacted to bombings and shootings by Palestinian guerillas. The murder of eleven Israeli athletes during the 1972 Olympic games in Munich, Germany, was an early example of the guerilla violence. A year later, in the last Arab attempt to overwhelm Israeli forces in pitched battle, was the so-called Yom Kippur War of 1973, when Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack during the holiest period of the Jewish calendar. After several early setbacks, the Israelis, led by General (and future Prime Minister) Ariel Sharon, were victorious. Egyptian President Anwar as-Sadat (1918–1981) saw the defeat as a sign that his nation would never regain the Sinai without a comprehensive peace treaty. Negotiations soon began, and in 1979 Egypt officially recognized the state of Israel in exchange for the return of the Sinai. This deal, brokered by U.S. President Jimmy Carter (1924–) at Camp David, Maryland, is one of the rare diplomatic successes in the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict.

In 1987 a popular uprising known as the intifada , Arabic for “shaking off,” broke out throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Riots, marches, and strikes paralyzed Palestinian neighborhoods, and photographs of angry young men throwing rocks and homemade bombs at Israeli soldiers were soon a familiar feature of newspapers around the world. Hundreds died. The first intifada came to an end in 1993 with the Oslo Accords, a series of agreements granting the Palestinians increasing autonomy in return for renouncing violence and recognizing Israel’s right to exist. With widespread opposition among hard-liners on both sides, however, most of the incremental steps outlined in the Accords were never implemented, and a second intifada broke out in September 2000.

Another problematic issue facing Israel is its relationship with its northern neighbor, Lebanon. In the 1970s Palestinian guerillas, many of them born in Lebanese refugee camps, used Lebanon, then in the grip of a brutal and chaotic civil war, as a base for operations against Israel. Israel responded in 1982 with an invasion and occupation of Lebanon. Most analysts agree that the operation was a disaster in terms of both casualties and public relations. International protests were especially vehement after a group of Lebanese Christians allied with Israel killed hundreds of Palestinian refugees in two camps near the capital of Beirut. By 1985 Israeli forces had withdrawn to a security zone just north of the border, where they remained until 2000. The next few years were marked by the growing influence of Hezbollah, a militant group of Shiite Muslims that combine hostility toward Israel with an extensive array of social services. In July 2006 Hezbollah guerillas kidnapped two Israeli soldiers and killed three others. Israel responded with a massive but short-lived attack by air, sea, and land. A UN-brokered ceasefire was reached a month later, and Israeli troops eventually withdrew. The attack, which damaged but did not destroy Hezbollah, provoked widespread soul-searching among Israelis. The ramifications from the incident, which continued to unfold as of 2007, are likely to be significant, both inside Israel and beyond.

Twenty-First Century

Israel faces a number of serious social and political challenges. The largest of these is, of course, the conflict with the Palestinians, which colors every aspect of daily life and continues to prevent better relations with the nation’s Muslim neighbors. Lasting peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan show that friendly relations are possible, but there is little evidence of new diplomatic initiatives on either side. Most worrisome to many Israelis is Iran. The UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency estimated in 2007 that Iran is only three to eight years away from producing its own nuclear weapons, and Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (1956–), has called several times for Israel’s destruction. Israel, for its part, is known to have had nuclear capabilities for several years. Intense diplomatic negotiations by Russia, the UN, and the European Union have so far failed to defuse the situation. Many diplomats feel regional peace and security are impossible without a comprehensive resolution of the Palestinian issue.

Israel also faces an impending identity crisis as the growth of the Jewish population, even when augmented by immigration, continues to be outstripped by the high birthrate of its Arab citizens. At current rates, Israel’s Arabs will outnumber its Jews within a few decades. If and when that happens, Israelis may have to make a choice: continued democracy and the abandonment of the state’s long-cherished Jewish identity, on the one hand; or a weakening of democracy and the maintenance of Jewish identity, on the other. Neither option is an appealing one for Israel.

Cohen-Almagor, Raphael. Israeli Democracy at the Crossroads . London: Routledge, 2005.

State of Israel, Knesset. “Rules of Procedure.” (accessed May 26, 2007).

State of Israel, Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “Israeli Democracy: How Does It Work?” (accessed May 26, 2007).