Land of Israel: Governance

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Ottoman and Mandatory Periods (1880–1948)

central government

Ottoman Rule

At the beginning of the period the Land of Israel was not a political or administrative unit; officially, there was no such entity as Palestine. The Ottoman Empire (see History, Ottoman Period) was divided into vilayets (provinces), each governed by a Turkish vali sent from Constantinople, which were subdivided into sanjaks (districts), each under a mutessarif. Northern Ereẓ Israel formed part of the vilayet of Damascus and, from 1888, of Beirut, while Transjordan belonged to the former. The north of the country comprised the sanjaks of Acre and Nablus, while the south was designated as the independent sanjak of Jerusalem, dependent directly on Constantinople. Sanjaks were further subdivided into aqdiya (equivalent to Israel's nafot, or sub-districts), each under a qaimaqam (equivalent to keẓin ha-nafah, or district officer). The smallest Turkish subdivision was the nāhiya, containing a number of villages, which was equivalent to the area of the mo'ezah ezorit ("rural district") of the State of Israel and was under the jurisdiction of a mudīr.

The first Turkish parliament, convened in 1912 in Constantinople, included five delegates from Ereẓ Israel – two each from Jerusalem and Nablus and one from Jaffa. All were Muslims from well-established families. In each vilayet and in the independent sanjak of Jerusalem a majlis umumī (popular council) was elected, with one delegate representing every 12,000 male Ottoman taxpayers. Elections were held in Jerusalem only once, in 1910: no Jew was elected, one member was a Christian Arab, and the rest were all Muslim. The councils, which met for 40 days a year under the chairmanship of the vali (or, in Jerusalem, of the mutessarif), had limited advisory powers only. They were, however, suspended altogether at the outbreak of World War i.

In each qaḍā ʾ of Ereẓ Israel (namely Jerusalem, Jaffa, Hebron, Gaza, Nablus, and Acre) a majlis idara (administrative council) also functioned, consisting of the local qadi (Muslim judge); the mufti (Muslim jurisconsult); the heads of the local Jewish, Greek-Orthodox, and Armenian communities; Turkish officials from the local departments of finance and public works and from the qaimaqam's secretariat; and some elected members. In Jerusalem Rabbi Ḥayyim *Elya shar was elected.

The country was garrisoned by Turkish troops (one unit was stationed in the Citadel in Jerusalem). Outside the cities a gendarmerie operated, but public security was poor, and blood feuds, sometimes lasting for centuries, were prevalent in the Muslim villages.

British Mandate

From its occupation by British troops in 1917–18 until July 1920. Palestine was under military administration by the so-called Occupied Enemy Territory Administration (OETA "South" – OETA "North" being Lebanon, and oeta "East" Syria and Transjordan). *Mandates were given by the Allied and Associated Powers to Great Britain and France to administer these countries (and Iraq) until self-government became practicable. The operation of all these mandates was under supervision by the League of Nations' Permanent Mandates Commission, to which the two powers reported annually on each territory. The *Balfour Declaration was embodied in the preamble to the Palestine Mandate.

The administration of Palestine did not differ much from that of a Crown Colony. The governor and (titular) commander in chief was called the *high commissioner, who also served as high commissioner for Transjordan with a separate staff in Amman. He was appointed by the Colonial Office and responsible, through it, to the cabinet and Parliament in Britain. During the 28 years of Mandatory government, the following were the incumbents:

1920–25Sir Herbert (later Viscount) *Samuel
1925–28Field Marshal Lord Plumer
1928–31Sir John Chancellor
1931–38General Sir Arthur Wauchope
1938–44Sir Harold Mac-Michael
1944–45Field Marshal Lord Gort
1945–48General Sir Alan Cunningham

The high commissioner was advised by an Executive Council, consisting of his principal deputy, the chief secretary (from 1920 to 1922 Sir Wyndham *Deedes); the attorney general (from 1920 to 1923 styled legal secretary; until 1931 Norman *Bentwich); the treasurer (afterward styled financial secretary); and, from time to time, one or two other members.

In 1920 Herbert Samuel set up a nominated Advisory Council of ten British heads of department ex officiis, four Muslim and three Christian Arabs, and three Jews. After the signature of the peace treaty between Britain and Turkey at Lausanne in June 1922, the Mandate was formally approved by the League of Nations. The Palestine Order in Council (in effect a constitution) came into force on Sept. 1, 1922, and an attempt was made to replace the Palestine nominees on the Advisory Council by elected members – eight Muslim and two Christian Arabs and two Jews. The elections, however, were boycotted by the Arabs on the principal ground that the preamble to the Order in Council incorporated the Balfour Declaration, which they rejected. An Advisory Council consisting exclusively of nominated British officials was therefore set up.

In 1935–6, Arthur Wauchope tried to establish a Legislative Council of twelve elected (eight Muslim Arabs, three Jews, and one Christian Arab) and fifteen nominated members (five British officials, four Jews, three Muslim and two Christian Arabs, and two representatives of commercial interests). The Jews opposed this attempt, since in their opinion it would have endangered the growth of the Jewish National Home. The plan also aroused strong differences among the Arab leaders.

All civil servants were responsible to the chief secretary, save the chief justice (who dealt directly with the high commissioner), and the government auditor (directly responsible to the colonial auditor in London). The officer actually commanding British troops was responsible to the War Office (from 1924 to 1930, to the Air Ministry). The chief secretary's office, known as the Secretariat, dealt with all correspondence between the high commissioner and the Colonial Office and between the chief secretary and heads of departments and district commissioners.

Administrative districts varied in number between seven in 1920 to two in 1925 and to six in 1939; but there were always 18 subdistricts (based on the Ottoman qaḍā ʾ). Each district was in the charge of a district commissioner (in place of the former Ottoman mutessarif) with a district officer for each subdistrict (in place of the Ottoman qaimaqam). The smallest Ottoman unit, the nāhiya, was abolished. All district commissioners were British; at the beginning, so were all district officers, but by the end of the Mandate they were all Palestinians. A new post of assistant district commissioner in charge of one or more subdistricts was created later: at first, all were British; by 1948, several were Palestinian.

In their areas, district commissioners, assistant district commissioners, and district officers represented the Crown. They were primarily responsible for maintaining law and order and coordinating the work of all departmental officers. One of the best-known district commissioners was Ronald *Storrs, in Jerusalem. Legislation under the military administration took the form of proclamations, orders, and notices. From 1920 onward, it was by ordinance, approved by the high commissioner in Executive Council, authorized by the Colonial Office, and formally passed without discussion by the wholly British Advisory Council. There also were subordinate regulations, orders and bylaws. All military and civil legislation up to 1934 was codified by R.H. Drayton, a former solicitor general.

The Palestine Zionist Executive and, later, the *Jewish Agency were recognized under the Mandate as the competent authority in several matters affecting Jewish development and made frequent representations on questions of major policy. After the enactment of the Religious Communities (Organization) Ordinance in 1926 and of the Jewish Community Regulations the following year, the *Va'ad Le'ummi shared with the Agency the responsibility for providing certain services for the yishuv, in particular education, health, and social welfare (Va'ad Le'ummi), land development, immigration, settlement, agricultural research, and afforestation (Jewish Agency). Parallel departments – government and Jewish – grew up, facilitating the transfer of authority when Israel became independent.

The Palestine Civil Service in 1948 numbered 10,000, only 250 of whom were British (apart from the British members of the Palestine Police Force, which was not considered part of the civil service). Of the Palestinian civil servants, two-thirds were Arab and one-third Jewish, roughly the demographic ratio. In certain departments (for example, public works), the Jewish proportion was higher; in others (for example, health, curiously enough), it was lower. The proportion of Christian Arabs was much higher than their population ratio and, for lack of suitable education, especially in English, that of Muslim Arabs was much lower.

The budget of the Mandatory Administration rose from under lp2,000,000 (lp1 = £1 sterling) at the beginning to over lp20,000,000 by the end. Even allowing for inflation in World War ii, this meant at least a fivefold rise.

The departments at the end of the Mandate fell into the following groups: Secretariat (including Central Translation Bureau, Government Printer, Press Censorship, and Public Information Office); Legal Department (including the offices of the attorney general and solicitor general); Treasury, including the office of the treasurer (later divided into the office of the financial secretary and that of the accountant general), controller of banks, stamp duty commissioners and currency officer (on behalf of the Palestine Currency Board in London); Revenue Departments (Customs and Excise and, later, Income Tax); Security Services (apart from the British forces; including the Transjordan Frontier Force, which protected both Palestine and Transjordan – Palestine paying 6/7 and Transjordan 1/7 of its cost), the Palestine Police Force (including the British Police and Department of Prisons); Land Services (Departments of Surveys, Land Settlement, and Land Registration); Production Services (Department of Agriculture, Department of Forests, Veterinary Department, Cooperatives Department, Development Department, and Department of Commerce); Social Services (Departments of Health, Education, Labor, and Social Welfare); Public Utilities (Departments of Public Works, of Posts, Telegraphs and Telephones, Palestine Broadcasting Service, Palestine Railways, Ports, and Civil Aviation – the Palestine Electric Corporation was a public (concessionary) company, while water supplies were municipal); Wartime Departments, some of which had closed down by the end of the Mandate (War Supply Board, Food Control, Price Control, Heavy Industries Control, Light Industries Control, Salvage, Foreign Exchange Control, Custody of Enemy Property, Road Transport Control, and Imperial Censorship); Judiciary (Magistrates' Courts, District Courts, Land Courts, the Supreme Court, and Municipal Courts; Muslim shariʿa (religious) courts, Jewish religious courts, and the several Christian religious courts came under the control of their respective ecclesiastical authorities – see below: Judiciary and Religious Life and Communities); other departments (Antiquities, Immigration, Statistics, Administrator General (public trustee, official receiver, registration of companies, partnerships, trademarks, patents and designs) and Town Planning).

[Edwin Samuel,

Second Viscount Samuel]

local government

Ottoman Rule

The modernization of local government began under the vilayet law of 1864, according to which nāḥiyas, or rural districts, were gradually introduced throughout the country. By the end of Ottoman rule many of the mudirs, in charge of nāḥiyas and controlling the villages comprising them, were local Arabs. Each nāhiye was supposed to have a council, but few were established. The sheikhs who had exercised authority over the ḥamūlas (village clans) were replaced by mukhtars (village headmen), two of whom were to have been elected in each village together with a council of village elders – the ikhtiyāriyya. But most mukhtars were appointed rather than elected, although consideration was given to the wishes of the local notables. The mukhtar assessed and levied taxes among the villagers, settled disputes, and acted as intermediary in the relations between the provincial administration and the village.

The Jewish villages or moshavot, of which there were 28 by the end of the Ottoman rule, were initially outside this system. They originated their own pattern of self-government, based on Jewish communal self-rule in Eastern Europe, relying on the self-discipline and loyalty of the settlers rather than on any legal powers, and resisting attempts by the Ottoman provincial administration to control them. The ultimate authority in the moshavah was the general assembly, which met several times a year. A village executive committee was elected annually or biannually, and some of the larger moshavot elected village councils, to which the executive committee was responsible. The chairman and other officeholders were elected from among the committee members. In some villages, equal rights were granted, from the start, to all adult members of the community. In others, there were prolonged struggles over political rights between those who owned property in the village and those who did not, mainly the workers. By the end of Ottoman rule, democracy had usually triumphed. Until 1904 the Ottoman provincial authorities paid little attention to the moshavot and their methods of self-government. Then, the four largest were recognized as villages, and those elected by the village council were accepted as mukhtars. By 1914, all moshavot had acquired a similar status.

Municipal government was an innovation of the Ottoman tanẓīmāt ("reforms"). In 1863 Jerusalem was made a municipality by special imperial firman ("decree"). Under the 1877 Provincial Municipalities Law, 22 towns and larger villages were given municipal status in the 1880s and 1890s. They were provided with an impressive list of duties and legal powers but, in effect, they were under strict surveillance by the provincial district and subdistrict governors. Municipal staffs were pitifully small and incompetent and their budgets minimal. Only Jerusalem had one or two resourceful mayors, who constructed roads and municipal buildings (including a hospital) and introduced street lighting. Tel Aviv was still a suburb of Jaffa. Under the law, municipal councils (majlis umumī) of six to twelve members were to be elected by local taxpayers who were Ottoman subjects; in fact, genuine elections rarely took place. In Jerusalem, Jewish and Christian members sat on the council together with Muslim members. Mayors were appointed by the government, usually for short terms of office.


M. Burstein, Self-Government of the Jews in Palestine Since 1900 (1934); A. Heidborn, Manuel de droit public et administrative de l'Empire Ottoman, 2 vols. (1908–12); Palestine, Municipal Tax Commission for Jerusalem Report (1920); Palestine, Committee on Village Administration and Responsibility Report (1941).

[Edwin Emanuel Gutmann]

British Mandate.

Municipalities. At the beginning of the Mandatory period there were 22 municipalities in western Palestine: 16 Arab and six (Jerusalem, Jaffa, Haifa, Tiberias, Safed, and Hebron) mixed. Tel Aviv, though administered by an autonomous Jewish council, was regarded as a suburb of Jaffa. In 1926 a Municipal Franchise Ordinance was issued, giving the municipal vote to tenants (males only), even if they held no property, as long as they paid at least one Palestine pound in municipal rates.

A comprehensive Municipal Corporations Ordinance was issued in 1934, authorizing the high commissioner to set up new municipalities or change the boundaries of existing ones on the recommendation of a public committee of inquiry. It prescribed in detail the method of elections, the duties and powers of the councilors and the municipality, sources of revenue (taxes, rates, fees and fines), the procedure for approving the budget, methods of financial control, and the rules for filling major posts, such as those of town clerk, treasurer, town engineer, and medical officer. The procedure for council and committee meetings and the rules for setting up committees were also laid down in detail. The high commissioner retained the right, inherited from the Ottoman rulers, to nominate the mayor and the deputy mayor; bylaws could be passed only on specific subjects listed in the ordinance and subject to the high commissioner's approval. Through the district commissioners, the central government kept the municipalities under strict control.

The ordinance confirmed the unique status of Tel Aviv, which became the world's first all-Jewish city, with the franchise for all residents, men and women – including foreign nationals – who paid as little as lp 0.50 a year in rates. These more democratic provisions were the model for other Jewish councils established later. In Jerusalem, where the Jewish majority had been represented on the municipal council by four members out of 12, there were now six Jewish councilors, four Muslims and two Christians. A Muslim was always appointed by the high commissioner as mayor, however, with a Jew and a Christian as deputies. In 1937 the Jewish deputy was acting mayor for a time, but in the following year another Muslim mayor was appointed.

The first Town Planning Ordinance, issued in 1921, did not repeal any Ottoman law, but stopped the custom of granting immunity from demolition to an unlawfully built house if the builders had succeeded in covering it with a roof. In 1936 it was replaced by a more modern ordinance, which created local town planning committees identical with the town councils and with the mayor as chairman. These were supervised by the District Town Planning Commissions, headed by the district commissioner, on which government departments were represented, and which received general directives from the central Government Planning Division.

Local and Regional Councils. The Local Council Ordinance of 1921 created a new category of elected local authority. While the Jewish rural communities thought the local council had too little power and authority, the Arab villagers regarded its establishment as interference in their ancient way of life and a threat to the social structure of their communities. During the next five years 21 Arab councils, four Jewish, and one German-Christian (Sarona, near Tel Aviv) were set up. The first Jewish local council established under the ordinance was Petah Tikvah, followed during the next two decades by Rishon le-Zion and Rehovot (1922), Tel Aviv (1923), Ramat Gan and Afulah (1926), Haderah (1935), Bat Yam, Ra'anannah and Kefar Sava (1936), Bene-Berak and Herzliyyah (1937), and others.

In 1941 the 1921 ordinance was replaced by a new, streamlined one, granting the local councils even more powers than the municipalities and authorizing them to act for the public benefit on any matter so long as they did not come into conflict with other legislation. The high commissioner was empowered, by subsidiary legislation, to declare any village a local council or any group of villages a regional council. Two Jewish rural councils, near Haderah and Petah Tikvah, were set up in 1936–37 to protect the agricultural character of these areas.

By the end of the Mandate, in 1948, 11 small Arab towns and large villages, 26 Jewish villages, and Sarona were local councils, and four groups of Jewish villages were combined to form the Emek Hefer, Kishon, Nahalal, and Tel Hai regional councils. A new source of income was provided for the local authorities in 1945 by the Local Authorities (Business Tax) Ordinance, which allowed them, after passing a bylaw, to tax businesses operating within their boundaries, subject to approval by the high commissioner.

Villages. In 1944, a Village Administration Ordinance was issued, under which small Arab villages were to elect village councils, with tax powers but under closer supervision by the district commissioner and the central government than the local councils. Up to 1948, 24 were gazetted, in an effort to replace the rule of the elders and mukhtars by democratically elected bodies, but most of them existed only on paper, as the villagers were reluctant to depart from their old ways of life.

Local Government and the Development of the Jewish National Home. The tight control of the Jewish local authorities by the central government often led to tension and was criticized by the Peel Commission in 1937 as hampering advance toward self-rule. The Jewish councils cooperated closely with the national authorities of the yishuv and were represented at important meetings of the Asefat ha-Nivḥarim (Elected Assembly) and the Va'ad Le'ummi (National Council), which made continual efforts to enlarge their powers and coordinate their activities. The development of Jewish local government was an important factor in justifying the proposal to set up a Jewish state in part of Palestine and in enabling the yishuv to establish independence after the British withdrawal.


M. Gurion (Wager), Mavo le-Toledot ha-Shilton ha-Mekomi be-Yisrael (1956/57).

[Yehuda Levanon]

jewish communal organization (1880–1948)

General Characteristics

The Jews in the Land of Israel not only had to organize themselves for the purpose of satisfying their religious and cultural needs, but because of the vast difference in culture and standards of living between themselves and the Arab majority, they also had to engage in municipal, political, and economic activities for which the government was nominally responsible. The Ottoman authorities and, from 1918, the British administration performed most of their functions in accordance with the requirements of the Arab majority, while the Turks granted considerable internal freedom to minorities and were usually lax in enforcing law and order. Even before 1918, therefore, the Jewish population assumed some governmental tasks and duties, such as the protection of life and property, the paving of roads and streets, and the administration of justice among its members, while under the British they had, inter alia, to maintain their own educational, social welfare, and health services, apart from those maintained by the government. In addition, the Balfour Declaration and the Mandate conferred upon the Jews certain special rights, not very clearly defined, by virtue of the fact that, although a minority, they were entitled to regard the country as their National Home. This gave an additional impetus to organized Jewish communal life in the land of Israel and endowed the yishuv with an importance far transcending its numerical size. The Jewish population also participated, though to a small extent, in some of the general administrative organs (see sections on Central and Local Government, below).

Jewish World Bodies

The communal activities of the yishuv were supplemented by the work of world Jewish philanthropic and Zionist organizations, which did not confine themselves to charity, but engaged in agricultural settlement, the maintenance of schools, the provision of health services, and the like. Under the Mandate, in fact, the Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency undertook a variety of quasi-governmental functions. At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, such bodies as the Alliance Israélite Universelle and the Hilfsverein der deutschen Juden were mainly engaged in educational activity, while Baron Edmond de Rothschild and later the Jewish Colonization Association (ica) also established agricultural settlements and maintained their communal services. In 1924 the activities of Baron de Rothschild and ica were taken over by the Palestine Colonization Association (pica).

The major Zionist bodies active in the country were, during the last two decades of the 19th century, the Russian Ḥibbat Zion movement and, in the first half of the 20th, the World Zionist Organization. Through the Zionist Executive – later the Executive of the enlarged Jewish Agency – it carried out extensive activities in the absorption of immigrants, settlement on the land, and the economic, social, and educational progress of the Jewish population, all of which contributed to the rapid development of Jewish communal life.

The Central Jewish Community

Whatever organized communal life existed in Ereẓ Israel prior to 1900 was confined to local communities. Between 1900 and 1917 three ineffective attempts were made to organize a large part or the whole of the yishuv. In 1900 representatives of the Jewish villages in Judea met to further their mutual interests; a year later this organization disintegrated. In 1903 a mission sent from Russia by the Ḥibbat Zion movement, headed by Menaḥem *Ussishkin, convened a Kenesiyyah (Congress) of 79 representatives, elected by over 2,000 Jewish dues-paying voters, in Zikhron Ya'akov, with a view to founding a national organization of the yishuv. The organization did not outlive the year. In 1913 another attempt to establish a general organization also failed.

More fruitful attempts in the same direction were inaugurated at the end of 1917, with the conquest of the country by the British forces, which coincided with the Balfour Declaration. The heterogeneity of the Jewish population and its constantly changing composition were serious difficulties: the formation of a united Jewry proved to be neither easy nor peaceful. There was much opposition and dissension and many obstacles, internal and external, which had to be overcome. The exceedingly diverse social and religious outlooks in the yishuv gave rise to a large number of political parties, which also complicated the formation of communal organization.

Between 1917 and 1919 three preparatory assemblies, consisting of delegates from various parties and organizations in the yishuv, met to arrange for a Constituent Assembly elected by direct, equal, secret ballot and universal suffrage, including women. The provisional council elected by these assemblies encountered many difficulties. The old yishuv, including the ultra-Orthodox and *Agudat Israel, were strongly opposed to uniting with nonreligious Jews. The *Mizrachi and some sections of the *Sephardim objected to giving women the right to vote. Elections to the Constituent Assembly, renamed Asefat ha-Nivḥarim (the Elected Assembly), finally took place in April 1920.

The Asefat ha-Nivharim and the Va'ad Le'ummi

Between 1920 and 1948 the Asefat ha-Nivḥarim was the supreme organ of the yishuv in conducting its communal affairs. The elections to this body, originally planned to be held every three years or so, were repeatedly postponed because of the exhausting endeavors to reconcile the dissenting views of the numerous parties, the frequent Arab-Jewish disturbances and consequent unrest, and the protracted negotiations with the Mandatory authorities for the legal recognition of the organized Jewish community.

The first two elections to the Asefat ha-Nivḥarim were held prior to the legal recognition of the status of the Jewish community. Though recognition was given in 1928, it took a considerable time to work out the regulations for the election and the various compromises among the parties. The third election was held on a curia basis; every voter could vote only in his own curia, Ashkenazi, Sephardi, or Yemenite. The number of members for each curia was predetermined: 53 Ashkenazi, 15 Sephardi, and three Yemenite. In the fourth election, election by curiae was not strictly adhered to.


The Asefat ha-Nivḥarim was convened infrequently, for sessions lasting from one to four days, to deal with internal and political issues, organizational matters, and the approval of budgets. The first met three times and the second twice; the third held 18 sessions and the fourth seven. It met for its last working session in October 1947, and the concluding session took place after the establishment of the State of Israel, shortly before the first meeting of the Knesset in February 1949. The Asefat ha-Nivḥarim elected the *Va'ad Le'ummi (National Council or, as referred to by the Mandatory authorities, the General Council), which met several times a year and represented the yishuv between sessions of the Asefat ha-Nivḥarim. The membership of the Va'ad Le'ummi during 1920–48 varied from 23 to 42, representing almost all parties in the larger body. It elected an Executive of 6 to 14 members, who headed departments of political affairs, local communities, rabbinate, education, health, social welfare, physical culture, and information. The Va'ad Le'ummi was headed by David *Yellin (1920–29), Pinhas *Rutenberg (1929–31), Izhak *Ben-Zvi (1931–44), and David *Remez (1944–48), with Ben-Zvi as president.

The Regulations of the Jewish Community (*Kene set Yisrael)

In 1920 the first Asefat ha-Nivḥarim decided to prepare a draft constitution for the self-government of the Jewish community and to obtain its formal recognition by the British authorities. It took five years to prepare the document and another three for its legal ratification. The long period of preparation was due to internal differences over the rights of women to vote and the nature of the community: whether it should be based on the personal principle (i.e., as in the Diaspora, for the sole purpose of satisfying religious and cultural needs) or on the territorial principle, according to which the communities should also be vested with all municipal rights and duties. In addition, Agudat Israel did its utmost to prevent the establishment of a united Jewish community not based on strictly Orthodox religious lines, even appealing to the Mandates Commission of the League of Nations.

Negotiations with the British authorities were no easier. The Va'ad Le'ummi, following the conceptions recognized under the Turkish regime, advocated obligatory membership: every person born a Jew was to be considered a member of the community unless he declared himself outside the Jewish ranks. It also wanted the organized Jewish community to have the right to levy compulsory taxes to meet the communal requirements of the yishuv. The British were accustomed to the idea of national self-government on a territorial, rather than communal, basis, and wanted the yishuv to be a voluntary religious community. Finally, compromises were worked out. In 1926 the Religious Communities Organization Ordinance was promulgated, empowering the authorities to approve for each community regulations which went beyond the satisfaction of its religious needs. Almost two years later, on Jan. 1, 1928, the Official Gazette published the Regulations of the Jewish Community, which recognized a Community of the Jews in Palestine, as apart from the local communities. Its central organs were granted judicial powers and the right to levy taxes. Membership was automatic for all Jews after a residence of three months, but once a year any person who wished to have his name struck from the register of the community might do so. The territorial principle was partly recognized in the provision that in any Jewish township, village, or quarter where a local council was established, it could also serve as the local community under the regulations.

The regulations provided for lay authorities – the Asefat ha-Nivḥarim, the Va'ad Le'ummi and the local community – as well as religious ones – the Rabbinical Council and the local rabbinical offices. It took two more years for the parties to agree on election regulations, approved and promulgated early in 1930, under which the elections to the Third Asefat ha-Nivḥarim were held in January 1931. The Regulations of the Jewish Community redefined and confirmed the Rabbinical Council as the supreme religious authority of the yishuv. The Council consisted of two chief rabbis, one Ashkenazi and one Sephardi, and six additional rabbis, three Ashkenazi and three Sephardi, all elected by an assembly consisting of 71 members, two-thirds rabbis and one-third lay representatives.

The Local Community

The Jewish local community is older than its countrywide counterpart. The newcomers joined existing Jewish communities in the towns and villages or established new ones in order to satisfy their communal religious, social and cultural needs.

In the towns the local communities were not spared the trials that were the lot of the national organization of the yishuv. The same conflicting interests of Sephardi and Ashkenazi congregations, ultra-Orthodox and secularists, property owners and workers, and the numerous parties contributed in varying degrees to the friction that plagued the organized local communities in Jerusalem, Jaffa, Haifa, Tiberias, and Safed. Tel Aviv, established in 1909, gained the status of a local council in 1921 and that of a township in 1922 and, being an all-Jewish community, exercised both communal and municipal functions.

Under Turkish rule and, to a lesser extent, under British administration, the rural Jewish communities, first the moshavot and later the kibbutzim and moshavim, had not only to meet the religious and cultural needs of their members, but also to fulfill municipal functions, such as water supply, sewerage, pavement of roads, protection of life and property, and maintenance of educational, social welfare, and health services. These functions, even when not legally recognized, strengthened the corporate life of the rural community, which was regulated by self-imposed rules and financed by self-imposed taxes.

The Regulations of the Jewish Community provided that only one recognized community might be formed in any one place, but the special religious needs of minorities were considered. The community was granted the right to levy taxes and deal with the communal needs of its members. A system of elections was provided for, and the relations between the community and its local rabbinical office were defined. The supervision of the Va'ad Le'ummi over the local councils was officially exerted, even if not always exercised. Both municipal and communal functions were merged in one authority in the Jewish municipalities and local councils in the country. By 1948 there were two such municipal councils (Tel Aviv and Petaḥ Tikvah) and 26 local councils. (See also section on Local Government, below)

Two generations of intensive communal life, both on the local and the national level, contributed a great deal to the maturity of Jewish public life. On the whole, communal activity became gradually more democratic, and the wide experience in self-government thus gained by the yishuv served the State of Israel well in setting up its constitutional organs and administrative machinery.

See also *Political Life and Parties.


M. Burstein, Self Government of the Jews in Palestine since 1900 (1934); M. Attias (ed.), Sefer ha-Te'udot shel ha-Va'ad ha-Le'ummi…19181948 (19632); idem, Keneset Yisrael be-Ereẓ Yisrael: Yissudah ve-Irgunah (1944).

[Moshé Avidor]

State of Israel


The *Declaration of Independence on May 14, 1948, which declared Israel to be a Jewish state based on universal democratic principles, was accompanied by the establishment of the Provisional State Council as a temporary legislature and the Provisional Government of the newly established State of Israel, which were to be replaced by democratically elected bodies as soon as general elections could be held. Five days later the Law and Administration Ordinance was enacted, which specified the powers and procedures of the two bodies, transformed the system of governance from a colonial system in which all power was vested in the high commissioner, to that of a parliamentary democracy. These provisional institutions consisted mainly of members of the executive bodies of the Zionist Organization and the elected assembly of the Yishuv, as well as the heads of several political groups that had not been represented in them. One of the first acts of the Constituent Assembly, which soon changed its name to "the First Knesset," was to pass the Transition Law. In the absence of a constitution, this law provided the basis for the state's governmental system, which was subsequently elaborated and then replaced by additional legislation and amendments, as well as the development of practice and court decisions.

The system that evolved was that of a multiparty parliamentary democracy. At first it was characterized by the predominance of one party, *Mapai, strong governments, administrative centralization, and a large state-run economic sector. However, after 1977 Mapai's successor, the *Israel Labor Party, was no longer predominant, Israel's governments were no longer as strong, and as the years went by the central administration weakened, while large sections of the public sector were privatized. It is only vis-à-vis the local government that the central government in Israel is still omnipotent.

Like the systems of other democratic states, the system of governance in Israel is based on a separation of powers among the Legislature, Executive, and Judiciary, though this separation is not absolute, and there is occasional tension among them (see below). Israel has a president, who is a figurehead without any real power. Its judiciary (see Legal and Judicial System) is independent, and held in high esteem. Though its civil service has undergone a certain measure of politicization, it too is relatively independent.

An overwhelming majority in Israel accepts and respects the system that has evolved. Nevertheless, there are certain groups in the country that question the system's justice and/or legitimacy. On the one hand, there are certain religious circles that refuse to accept the supremacy of the secular state and its institutions, especially when their acts and policies appear to clash with the proscriptions of Jewish law – the halakhah. This tendency manifests itself in particular with regard to certain decisions of the High Court of Justice, and issues connected with the future of the territories occupied by Israel in the course of the Six-Day War. On the other hand there are circles among the Arab citizens of the state who would like to change the definition of Israel from a Jewish state to the state of all its citizens, or a bi-national state (see, *Binationalism), a change that if ever introduced would require major changes in its system of governance.

constitution and basic laws

Israel does not have a comprehensive, formal, written constitution, despite the fact that in the Declaration of Independence it was stated that a constitution was to be prepared by a Constituent Assembly by October 1948. The fact that a constitution has not been written is due primarily to opposition within religious circles to the inclusion of certain human rights issues and to the legal supremacy inherent in such a document over all other laws, both secular and religious.

In pursuance of the Knesset's decision of May 13, 1950, to introduce a constitution by stages in the form of Basic Laws, 11 such laws were introduced by 2004, laying down most of the basic principles of Israel's system of governance (see *Knesset). Though the Basic Laws have not been formally declared as superior to other laws, the High Court of Justice has on a few occasions ruled that provisions in certain ordinary laws are in contradiction to certain Basic Laws, and must therefore be amended. In addition, a few Basic Laws include the provision that certain articles in them can only be amended by an absolute majority (i.e., with the support of at least 61 of the 120 Knesset members), which sets them apart from ordinary laws that can be amended by an ordinary majority.

Though two Basic Laws dealing with human rights were passed in the early 1990s (Basic Law: Human Dignity and Freedom and Basic Law: Freedom of Occupation), in the absence of a complete human and civil rights law it is the judiciary, but particularly the High Court of Justice, that is the main instrument to prevent governmental infringements of these rights.

In the course of the Sixteenth Knesset, efforts were made by the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, headed by Knesset Member Mikhael Eitan, with the support of the Israel Democracy Institute, to work out "a constitution by agreement."

the electoral system

Since Israel is a parliamentary democracy, both the make-up of its parliament and its government are determined by the results of general elections.

Basic Law: The Knesset of 1958 prescribes that elections must be "universal, nationwide, direct, equal, secret and proportional." The Knesset is elected by an extreme form of proportional representation, in which the entire country is regarded as a single 120-member constituency. Seats are distributed according to the percentage of votes polled by each list, limited only by a qualifying threshold that was at first 1%, raised to 1.5% in 1992, and to 2% in 2004. Since the number of seats has remained fixed since the first elections in 1949, but the number of votes cast has risen from 434,684 in 1949 to 3,148,364 in 2003, the number of votes per seat has constantly risen.

Though, as stated above, elections are direct, it is not individual candidates that are elected but lists, each of which is made up of one or more parties (see below). Nevertheless, because many of the parties underwent a process of democratization from the early 1990s, the members of some parties participate in the election of the candidates for their party's list. The members entering the Knesset after elections are determined according to their order in the list on which they ran, on the basis of the number of seats won by it. Should a seat fall vacant due to the resignation or death of a Knesset member, his place is taken by the next candidate on the list.

All resident Israeli citizens are enfranchised at the age of 18. Candidates for election must be at least 21 years old.

Lists represented in parliamentary groups in the outgoing Knesset have a slight advantage over newly formed ones, due to more generous financing arrangements for parliamentary groups already in the Knesset under the amended 1969 Elections Financing Law. This is the main reason why several months before new elections are held one witnesses numerous new parliamentary groups forming in the Knesset by Knesset members breaking off from their previous parliamentary group, for election financing purposes. Most election financing comes from the state budget, but lists may collect contributions from private and corporate bodies for election purposes, within strict limits prescribed by the Law. The state comptroller (see below) is responsible for checking whether the various lists have remained within these limits, and if they have not, they are fined.

To guarantee the utmost fairness, the organization and management of elections are entrusted to a Central Election Committee made up of the representatives of most of the parties, which is presided over by a Supreme Court justice as an impartial chairperson.

Since the current electoral system results in more than 10 lists passing the qualifying threshold in each election, and no list has ever won an absolute majority of the seats in any Knesset (though towards the end of the Sixth Knesset in 1969 the Alignment parliamentary group, made up of the newly founded *Israel Labor Party and *Mapam, briefly had a majority), many proposals have been made to change the electoral system, either to a single-member or multi-member constituency system, or a mixed constituency/proportional representation system, in the hope that such a change would reduce the number of parliamentary groups in the Knesset and increase the stability of Israel's system of government. However, no electoral reform bill has gone beyond first reading in the Knesset.

Though it is argued that strict adherence to parliamentary democracy is incompatible with the use of referenda to decide highly controversial issues, such as electoral reform or withdrawal from territories in Ereẓ Yisrael occupied in the course of the Six-Day War, several attempts were made to introduce a Referenda Law. In 2004 Prime Minister Ariel *Sharon resisted pressure to introduce such a law over the issue of his plan for disengagement from the Gaza Strip and the dismantlement of settlements, since he viewed it as a tactic to delay the implementation of his policy.

political parties

The Parties Law of 1992 defines a party as "a group of people who became associated in order to further, in a legal manner, political or social goals, and bring about their representation in the Knesset by means of representatives." Since the Parties Law was passed, all parties must register with the Party Registrar, they must have rules of procedure in accordance with which they operate, and certain institutions that ensure their proper operation. According to the law, a party cannot register if "there is among its goals or in its acts, explicitly or implicitly, one of the following: (1) the rejection of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state; (2) incitement to racism; (3) reasonable basis (to believe) that the party will act as 'camouflage for illegal acts.'" On the basis of Amendment 19 to the Basic Law: the Knesset of 1996, only a party can run in elections to the Knesset.

The parties in Israel are an extremely heterogeneous group of political bodies, whose large number is primarily the result of the electoral system, but also the historical background of the state, and its complex social structure.

Parts of the parties and political blocs in Israel have roots in the pre-state Yishuv or World Zionist Organization. These include the Israel Labor Party, the *Likud, the *National Religious Party, and *Agudat Israel. There were parties – such as the *Democratic Movement for Change in 1977, Tami in 1981, and the Third Way in 1999 – that made a brief appearance on the scene against the background of some issue of protest and then disappeared. Among the protest parties *Shas – an ultra-Orthodox Sephardi Party formed in 1984 – was unique, since it survived, and became one of the pillars of the current Israeli party system.

There have been parties with comprehensive ideologies and philosophies, such as *Mapam or the *Liberal Party, or with party platforms that dealt with every political, security, social, and economic aspect of Israel's existence, such as the Israel Labor Party and the Likud, while others have been single-issue parties, such as Teḥiyyah back in the 1980s, whose almost exclusive concern was Jewish settlement in Ereẓ Yisrael, or the Third Way, formed in 1996, which objected to Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Some parties, such as the Labor Party and the Likud, try to appeal to a wide variety of populations, while others appeal to a specific homogeneous community or sector: Yahadut ha-Torah to the *ḥaredi population, Yisrael be-Aliyah to new immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and the United Arab List to Israel's Arab citizens.

Frequently the splitting of a parliamentary group in the Knesset (see below) has led to the establishment of a new party – though the "new" parties are occasionally old parties that have reemerged (as in the case of *Aḥdut ha-Avodah-Po'alei Zion, which broke away from Mapam before the 1955 elections, the *Independent Liberal Party – formerly the *Progressive Party – which broke away from the Liberal Party when the latter formed the *Gaḥal bloc with the *Herut Movement in 1965, and Mapam, which broke away from the Alignment in 1984).

While strong charismatic figures have stood at the head of most of the major parties – David *Ben-Gurion at the head of Mapai, Menaḥem *Begin at the head of the Ḥerut Movement (and then Gaḥal and the Likud), Meir *Ya'ari and Ya'akov *Ḥazan at the head of Mapam – these parties survived their departure. However, whenever such charismatic figures have left their base party and tried to form new parties around themselves – as in the case of Ben-Gurion and Rafi in 1965, Ariel Sharon and Shlomzion in 1977, Moshe *Dayan and Telem in 1981, and Ezer *Weizman and Yaḥad in 1984 – they invariably failed, and only Ariel Sharon revived his political career by returning to the Likud.

In the secular parties that emphasize liberalization and pluralism, women have always been present, and their percentage has risen. Two parties have been established and were led by women: Shulamit *Aloni founded the Civil Rights Movement in 1973 and Geula *Cohen founded the Teḥiyyah in 1979. The Israel Labor Party was led by Golda *Meir in the years 1969–74. The haredi and Arab parties have never elected women.

Today the parties are much less ideological than they were in the past, and frequently resemble pragmatic pressure groups out to gain as much as they can for their activists and their voters. The problem as seen from the vantage point of the first decade of the 21st century is that unlike the situation in the early days of the state, and perhaps even until the mid-1990s, there is not a single political force – whether in the form of a party or bloc of parties – that commands a stable majority, able to confront the horrendous problems that Israel faces in terms of its economy, its society, its relations with the Palestinians, the Arab states and the Muslim world, and its own identity. Some expect a major implosion (ha-mapaẓ hagadol – a term coined by Haim *Ramon) that will change the whole party make-up and political structure, but that is all in the realm of speculation.

See also *Political Life and Parties.

The Knesset

The Knesset is a 120-member single-chamber legislature, whose main functions include representation of the citizens of the state, legislation, and supervision of the government. Its members run in elections on lists that are made up of a single party, or several parties, and occasionally also individuals who are not party members. A list that passes the qualifying threshold and enters the new Knesset turns into a parliamentary group. In the course of the terms of all the Knessets except for the Third, parliamentary groups have broken up or united, and the make-up of each Knesset was different at the end of its term from what it had been at its beginning.

It is frequently argued that the Knesset is weaker than the government (see below), but as is true in all democracies, the question is not whether the legislature is stronger or weaker than the executive, but whether the interaction between the two leads to an effective running of the country.

The prime minister, most of his ministers, and all the deputy ministers are members of the Knesset, and a government can be effective only if it is supported by a majority in the Knesset. For the system to run smoothly it is also desirable that the speaker should not only come from the prime minister's party, but that he should sympathize with the government's policies and work in harmony with it. Both in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Knessets such harmony did not always exist. Another prerequisite for the system to work smoothly is that the chairmen of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, the Finance Committee, the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, and the House Committee should come from the coalition benches. The chairman of the State Control Committee must come from the opposition benches. These unwritten rules have, to the present day, been observed.

If the government's majority in the Knesset is extremely large (as in the period 1984–88, when the National Unity Governments led by Shimon *Peres and then Yitzhak *Shamir were supported by over 95 out of the 120 Knesset members) and the opposition is extremely small, the Knesset acts more or less as a rubber stamp. However, when the ratio between coalition and opposition is more balanced, the Knesset is more effective in scrutinizing the work of the government, by amending the bills it proposes, ensuring that ministers report to it and answer questions posed to them, and approving (or rejecting) its policies. If the government does not command a majority in the Knesset, it cannot survive for long, as it must depend on temporary conjunctural coalitions, as occurred in the vote on the removal of all the Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip and of several settlements in Samaria on October 26, 2004.

Most of the parliamentary work of the Knesset is divided between the plenum, in which all 120 members of the Knesset can participate, and committees, in which a limited number of members participate. This division is especially important in the passage of legislation, where the more detailed work is done at the committee stage, while minor amendments and final approval is in the hands of the plenum. In the past, while the work of the plenum was open and fully reported, the work of the committees usually convened in camera, though minutes of Committee meetings were taken and eventually made available to the public. Today committee meetings are much more transparent, and their minutes (except for those of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee) are published within a short time after the meetings are held. Both the minutes of the plenum and the committees are published on the Knesset website. All plenum debates and some committee deliberations are broadcast on the Knesset television channel.

One of the difficulties in the smooth functioning of the various types of Knesset committees – permanent committees, special issue committees, and parliamentary inquiry committees – is that since one-quarter to one-third of the Knesset members are ministers or deputy ministers, there are not enough Knesset members left to fully man the committees, and many committees hold meetings with very few members present. Occasionally the chairman is the only member present at a committee meeting. Some have proposed that Israel introduce the so called "Norwegian Law" (called so because of article 62 in the Norwegian Constitution that stipulates that members of the government should resign their parliamentary seats), which would oblige ministers to resign their Knesset seats. Others suggest that quorums be introduced both in the plenum and the committees.

In the past the number of government bills passed was much larger than of private members' bills; today the number of private bills proposed is much larger than that of government bills, and most of the legislation passed is private. In the case of the annual Budget Bill the Knesset has only marginal influence, though there is the habitual last-minute ritual of the Ministry of Finance giving in to the financial demands of minor coalition partners in order to ensure their support. If the Knesset does not pass the Budget Law by March 31 of the financial year for which the new budget applies, new elections must be held. However, the most problematic piece of legislation is what is known as the "Arrangements Law," accompanying every Budget Law since 1985, which enables the government to pass amendments to existing laws, supposedly to facilitate the implementation of the budget, without the Knesset having a real opportunity to properly scrutinize them.

The Knesset dissolves before its four-year term is up under the following conditions: (a) If the Knesset itself decides to dissolve itself before its term is up. In this case a special law is passed, and the third reading requires the support of at least 61 Knesset members; (b) If 61 Knesset members vote for a motion of no-confidence in the government, and the Knesset member proposed by them to form an alternative government fails; (c) If the prime minister decides to dissolve the Knesset, and a candidate proposed by at least 61 Knesset members does not manage to form an alternative government; (d) If the Knesset fails to pass the state budget by March 31 of the year to which the budget applies.

It is the Knesset that elects the president of the state and the state comptroller.

the president of the state

The president is the titular head of state, who has primarily ceremonial duties and few powers.

Originally, Basic Law: the State President, which was passed in 1964, stipulated that the president is elected by the 120 members of the Knesset, by secret ballot for a five-year term, which can be prolonged by an additional term (this was after the second president, Izhak *Ben-Zvi, was elected to a third term in 1962). In 1998 the law was amended, so that now the president is elected to a single seven-year term.

The tasks of the president include participation in official ceremonies, including the opening of each Knesset session; official visits in Israel and abroad as the representative of the state; addresses to the public on festive occasions; the granting of credentials to Israeli ambassadors to other countries, and the receiving of the credentials of foreign ambassadors to Israel; receiving the reports from government meetings, and recommending parole, or the reduction of sentences for prisoners.

Except for the period 1996–2001 when the prime minister was directly elected, the president is responsible for consulting all the parliamentary groups elected to a new Knesset with regard to the appointment of a new prime minister, and it is he who calls upon the candidate with the best chances of mustering a stable coalition to form a new government. Should a government resign in the middle of a Knesset term, he has a similar task.

Though the first president, Chaim *Weiẓmann (1948–52), was affiliated on the whole with the General Zionists, his choice as president reflected appreciation for his role in representing the Zionist cause between the two world wars. Izhak Ben-Zvi (1952–63), Shneor Zalman *Shazar (1963–73), Ephraim *Katzir (1973–78), Yitzhak *Navon (1978–83), Chaim *Herzog (1983–93), and Ezer *Weizman (1993–2003) were all Mapai or Labor Party candidates. Israel's eighth president, Moshe *Katsav (2003– ), was the first Likud candidate to be elected.

During his tenure of office the president is not expected to take controversial political positions. The only president who blatantly broke this unwritten rule was Ezer Weizman. Navon was the only president who returned to active politics after ending his term.

Should the president of the state be abroad or be temporarily indisposed, it is the speaker of the Knesset who fulfils his functions.

the state comptroller

The task of the state comptroller is to audit and examine the proper functioning of ministries, the government, local government, the armed forces, all persons and bodies operating on behalf of the State, enterprises, institutions, funds, and other bodies in whose management the government participates, or any body which is financed by the State and is subject to control by law, on the basis of a Knesset decision or government agreement. The control concerns the legality, integrity, proper management, efficiency, and frugality of the audited body's activities and is much broader than what is customary in most other countries. While the comptroller enjoys many of the powers of committees of inquiry, he does not have the administrative power to enforce laws or impose sanctions on the controlled bodies. In his annual and special reports, which deal with a variety of bodies or specific spheres of activity, the comptroller publishes his findings, and may recommend to the state attorney that a criminal investigation be opened, should there be suspicion of criminal wrongdoing. His reports also comment on whether the controlled bodies have paid heed to his findings in previous reports.

Basic Law: the State Comptroller, which was passed in 1988 and amended in 1998, stipulates that the state comptroller be elected for a single seven-year term by the Knesset. He presents his reports to the speaker of the Knesset and the president of the state, and in accordance with the State Comptroller Law of 1958 the Knesset State Control Committee deliberates his reports. Before Basic Law: the State Comptroller was passed the comptroller was appointed by the president of the State, and used to present his reports to the minister of finance.

Since 1971 the state comptroller also serves as ombudsman.

Israel's state comptrollers to date were Siegfried *Moses (1949–61), Yiẓḥak Nebenzahl (1961–82), Yizhak Tunik (1982– 86), Ya'akov Meltz (1986–88), Miriam Ben-Porat (1988–98), and Eliezer Goldberg (1998–2005), and Micha Lindenstrauss (2005– ). Meltz, Ben-Porat, and Goldberg all served on the Supreme Court before being elected to the job.

the central government

The government (memshalah) is the main policy-making body in Israel. Its makeup and functions were first laid down in the Law and Administration Ordinance (1949). This was replaced by Basic Law: the Government of 1968, which was replaced by a second version of this law in 1992, and a third version in 2001.

Following general elections the president of the state consults with all the parliamentary groups that were elected to the new Knesset, and on the basis of these consultations decides who among their leaders has the best chance of forming a stable government. Should a government resign or be brought down by a vote of no-confidence in the Knesset, it is again the president who calls on the head of one of the groups to form a new government. The designated prime minister has a period of 28 days, which may be further prolonged, in which to form his government. Should he fail, a majority of the Knesset members may ask the president to approach another candidate. So far there have been three occasions on which the person designated by the president failed to form a government. On the first two occasions – in 1951 and 1961 – Ben-Gurion (Mapai) failed to form new governments, and the result was early elections. On the third occasion, after the Twenty-Third Government was brought down by a vote of no-confidence on March 15, 1990, the president called on Peres (Labor) to form a government, and when he failed, turned to Yitzhak Shamir (Likud).

The only period when it was not the president of the state who determined who should form the new government was in the years 1996–2001 when the second Basic Law: the Government was in force, and the prime minister was elected directly by the electorate. Three prime ministers were directly elected: Binyamin *Netanyahu (Likud) in 1996, Ehud *Barak (One Israel) in 1999, and Ariel Sharon (Likud) in 2001.

Since no list in Israel has ever received a majority of the Knesset seats, and since the government requires the confidence of the Knesset in order to survive, all of Israel's governments to the present have been based on coalitions of varying political composition. All the coalitions that have served since the establishment of the State were led either by Mapai or by the Likud. The make-up of Israel's coalition governments has not always been based on ideological cohesion, but on political expediency, with the main goal being maximum political stability. In the years 1967–70, 1984–90, and 2001–2, Israel had National Unity Governments in which both major political parties served together. In the Twenty-First and Twenty-Second Governments, which served in the years 1984–88, the governments were based on parity between the two. The fact that all of Israel's governments have been coalition governments, based on compromise, has meant that the prime minister has never been able to implement his party's platform in full.

The prime minister (rosh ha-memshalah, head of the government) is the person who runs the government, and even though he does not always get his way, only he among the government members can decide to break up a government, or recommend that new elections be held. In the years before the lists of the two major parties for the Knesset were elected by their central committees or registered members, the leaders of these parties had much more leverage over their Knesset members and ministers, since the future of the latter's political careers was largely in their hands. However, since the early 1990s, the party leaders, even when they are in the position of prime minister, have much less control over their Knesset members and ministers, since the latter owe their position and power to members of their party's central committee or registered members, and members of the Knesset and even ministers are less afraid to defy the leader of their party than in the past. This was clearly manifested in the Likud in 2004, when the issue of the disengagement from the Gaza Strip and dismantlement of settlements came up both in the government and the Knesset. The direct election of the prime minister was to have strengthened the position of the prime minister visà-vis the Knesset, but this system survived for less than five years, for other reasons.

Except for a brief period in the Fifteenth Knesset, there has been no legal limitation on the number of ministers that could serve in the government. In the early governments formed by David Ben-Gurion the number of ministers was 12, and for a certain period the Twenty-Ninth Government formed by Sharon in 2001 had 29. Not all ministers need be members of the Knesset, though most are. The prime minister and deputy ministers must be members. The prime minister may choose a deputy prime minister or deputies. In the event that the prime minister is absent or temporarily indisposed, the deputy prime minister (if such has been chosen) or another designated minister runs the meetings of the government. In the government formed by Ariel Sharon in January 2005 a new position of vice prime minister was created, side by side with the deputy prime minister, in order to resolve a coalition problem. Since Ehud *Olmert already held the position of deputy prime minister, Shimon Peres was given the title of vice premier.

Ministers may hold more than one portfolio, while there may be ministers without portfolio. The number and definition of ministries has changed over the years. At times the creation of a new ministry has reflected changing objective requirements, at times coalition constraints, and at yet others the need to provide a certain prospective minister with a "respectable" portfolio. Thus, for example, in 1990 the Ministry of the Environment was established by removing various functions from other ministries for Roni Milo (Likud), and the same was done in 1996 when the Ministry for National Infrastructures was established in the same manner for Sharon.

The work of the government is governed by several documents. First of all, there are the coalition agreements, signed between the parliamentary group of the prospective prime minister and the other parliamentary groups joining the coalition. Next there are the government guidelines, which indicate the policies that the government intends to pursue in various areas, and are outlined by the prime minister to the Knesset when he presents his government to it and seeks its confidence; a document called "The Procedures for the Work of the Coalition" that outlines how members of the parliamentary groups that are in the coalition are expected to relate to government bills and private members' bills, and other matters connected with coalition discipline; and finally the Rules of Procedure for the Work of the Government, which might vary slightly from government to government. The first three documents are political rather than legal documents, and there are no legal sanctions for their breach. It should be noted that some of the most dramatic steps taken by Israeli governments have run counter to their original guidelines. This was especially notable in the case of the peace treaty signed by Begin in 1979 with Egypt, which involved full Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula, and the Declaration of Principles signed by Yitzhak *Rabin in 1993 with Yasser *Arafat, followed by the Cairo and Taba Agreements, which involved Israeli recognition of the PLO and Israeli withdrawal from much of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank in favor of a Palestinian Authority. However, in both cases the documents were brought to the Knesset for approval before they went into force.

The government meets as a rule once a week, on Sundays, to discuss major policy issues and other government business and to approve legislation for submission to the Knesset. Decisions may be taken by majority vote and are then covered by collective government responsibility. All government deliberations are officially secret, but in other than security matters "leaks" to the media are common. At the end of government meetings the government secretary (a political appointee) issues a statement. Government decisions on matters that are not secret have been published, since September 2004, on the website of the Government Office. Before that they could be obtained on request from the Government Secretariat – a professional body that is in charge of providing clerical services to the government and the committees, preparing their agendas, taking minutes at meetings, and circulating decisions.

Much government business is done by permanent or ad hoc ministerial committees made up of the ministers directly concerned. Decisions of ministerial committees are usually automatically adopted by the government. In the past two decades it has also become the practice to appoint an inner cabinet to deal with security issues and other sensitive matters. During the office of the two National Unity Governments of 1984–88, the cabinet was made up of 10 members – five from the Alignment and five from the Likud, and no decision could be adopted, unless supported by at least six members. Thus, the decision to leave Lebanon in 1985 was adopted, and approval of the London Agreement, reached between Foreign Minister Shimon Peres (Alignment) and Jordanian King Hussein, was rejected.

Governments in all parliamentary democracies are based on the collective responsibility of all its members, and the prime minister has the right to fire ministers who have voted in the Knesset against government bills or other votes concerning the government's status and policy, or if members of their parliamentary groups did so in the Knesset. It was on this basis that in 1976 Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin dismissed the ministers from the *National Religious Party, when members of their parliamentary group voted in favor of a motion of no-confidence in the government. In 2004 Prime Minister Ariel Sharon dismissed the ministers from the National Unity Party, not only because they intended to vote in the government against his policy of separation from the Gaza Strip and the removal of the Jewish settlements there, but because he believed they were guilty of incitement against him personally and his policies.

A government continues to serve until a new government is formed, occasionally as a transition government, to which different rules apply than for an ordinary government. The service of a government ends if the prime minister passes away or resigns.

From the First to Eighth Knesset (1949–77, 28 years), 17 governments served. From the Ninth to Sixteenth Knesset (1977–2004, 27 years) 13 served. Nevertheless, the first period, in which Mapai and the Labor Party were predominant, was more stable, and the fact that four different governments served in the course of the Second Knesset merely reflected Ben-Gurion's inclination to try to get his way with problematic coalition partners by resigning and forming a new coalition, frequently with the same make-up as the previous coalition. Since 1977 the make-up of the governments – both in terms of parliamentary groups and personalities – has been much less stable. Whereas in the first period there were several ministers who held particular portfolios in numerous successive governments (for example, Beḥor Shalom Shitrit, who was minister of police from the First to the Thirteenth Governments), in the second period there have been ministries run by several different ministers in the course of a single government (for example, both in the Eighteenth Government led by Menahem Begin and in the Twenty-Seventh Government led by Netanyahu, there were three different ministers of finance).

There is never a situation in which there is no government. A government serves until a new one is formed, though after the prime minister has resigned or has passed away, or after new elections have been held, it becomes an interim government until the new government is formed. Only in four Knessets did a single government serve (the Fourth, Seventh, Ninth, and Fourteenth), and of these only two – the Fifteenth

Government headed by Golda Meir in 1969–73 and the Eighteenth Government headed by Menaḥem Begin (1977–81) – served full four-year terms. There were two governments that came to an end due to the death of the prime minister – the Thirteenth Government, after Prime Minister Levi *Eshkol passed away in February 1969, and the Twenty-Fifth Government, after Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in November 1995.

See also Political Life and Parties.

the civil service

The civil service, in particular its top echelons in key ministries such as the Finance Ministry, has played, over the years, a prominent role in the policy-making system. In the early days of the State much of the civil service was mobilized from the pre-state Va'ad Le'ummi, Jewish Agency, employees in the British Mandatory Government and its armed forces, and the Histadrut. Many of the low-level jobs in the civil service were filled by young persons born in

the country and new immigrants. In the early years party appointments for top civil service positions were common, and it was highly unlikely that members of the former dissident groups, the Herut Movement or the Communist Party, would be appointed to any but the lowest positions.

Over the years the Civil Service Commission, which was first situated in the Ministry of Finance and later moved to the Prime Minister's Office, made great efforts to ensure that the civil service enlist new workers on the basis of tenders and that it be run according to a merit system. The main goal of the Civil Service (Appointments) Law of 1959 was to ensure neutrality in the selection of employees at all levels. However, to the present day, many of the tenders are still tailored for specific candidates.

Both the law and the Rules of Procedure in the State Service (Takshir), which deals with the status, rights, and duties of state employees, recognize that ministers and director generals should be able to employ their own people in certain positions – especially in their bureaus – considered "trust positions." However, the moment the minister or the director general leaves his position, those installed in the trust positions must leave their positions as well. There are also certain senior posts that are free from tenders, or for which the selection is by means other than tenders, and it is the government's prerogative to decide who should be appointed to them, or to approve them. There are 53 categories of such positions. In addition there are 11 senior diplomatic posts that are political appointments, even though the candidates must be approved by the government after being reviewed by an appointments committee. Since the scandal of the appointment of attorney Roni Bar-On as state attorney in January 1997, a public-professional committee selects suitable candidates for the position from which the government chooses.

Under various laws and the Rules of Procedure in the State Service civil servants are not allowed to engage in any political activities in their place of employment; they cannot be actively involved in party activities or fund raising for political purposes. In addition, civil servants may not engage in private employment unless they have received express permission to do so, and must beware of any conflict of interests. Nepotism is forbidden, as is the receipt of gifts and other benefits, unless expressly permitted. In June 1987 the civil service commissioner published rules of ethics for all state employees, and this in addition to the various laws and the Rules of Procedure in the State Service.

Despite the attempts to run the civil service on the basis of the highest ethical standards, in practice the picture is not always satisfactory. The greatest problem is that of unsuitable political appointments at all levels. The problem intensified after Tami, a Sephardi party headed by Aharon Abuhatzeira, first entered the government in 1981, and later when Shas, a haredi Sephardi party, first entered the government in 1984. Both these parties felt that they had a duty to their constituents to redress years of what they viewed as discrimination on ethnic grounds. The problem further intensified after the major parties started to democratize the procedures by which they chose their own candidates for the Knesset in the early 1990s, and politicians became more dependent on members of their parties' central committees or registered party members. The state comptroller (see above) has frequently warned against political appointments that result in unqualified persons being given key jobs, but his special report on political appointments published on August 25, 2004, was the most severe. The state comptroller was especially critical of massive political appointments – to the point of fictitious jobs actually being created for cronies – in the Ministry for the Environment, when Tzaḥi Hanegbi (Likud) headed it in the Twenty-Ninth Government formed by Sharon in 2004. The state comptroller's allegations led the state attorney to recommend that Hanegbi be investigated on possible criminal charges, and Hanegbi – then minister of internal security – voluntarily left his new post to enable the charges against him to be investigated. The Supreme Court has also ruled against political appointments.

It should be noted that the ratio of regular civil servants in the general population fell from around 1.7% in 1952 to around 0.8% 50 years later (these figures include employees in government hospitals but do not include teachers, policemen, military personnel, and many others). This drop resulted from the privatization of certain services previous provided by the government, from the shift of certain services to local government, and since the 1990s from greater use of manpower workers and outsourcing. In general there appears to be a striving for "smaller government," and for certain ministers of finance, like Binyamin Netanyahu, who assumed the post in February 2003, the motivation was not only budgetary but also ideological.

local government

The local government system of Israel is still based on the British Mandatory Municipalities Ordinance of 1934, and the Local Councils Ordinance of 1941, as amended by the Law and Administration Ordinance of 1948, with all the powers that had been vested in the high commissioner in this sphere now handed over to the minister of the interior. The minister supervises the activities of the local authorities through six district commissioners and district officers, who operate in 14 subdistricts. If a council's work breaks down through gross inefficiency or chronic dissension among the councilors, the minister may appoint a committee of officials (va'adah keru'ah) to administer its affairs until the next elections.

Though in the early years of the State, Knesset members seemed united in the idea of giving local government a suitable position in the Israeli democracy, and passing appropriate legislation to fulfill this vision, in fact no major changes were introduced in the local government system.

Until 1978 municipal elections, first held in 1950, were held for municipal or local councils, and the councilors elected a mayor or head of the local council. From 1955 to 1973 local elections were held simultaneously with elections to the Knesset. Since 1978 mayors and heads of local councils have been directly elected in elections held every four or five years. While the direct election of mayors and local council heads was considered progress in the democratic sense, it has weakened the position of the major parties, increased the number of independent candidates and local lists, and increased the chances of mayors or heads of local councils being elected without enjoying a majority in the council, which has increased the bargaining power of splinter groups and individuals. Until 1989 the Israel Labor Party managed to maintain its hegemony in local government – a hegemony it has since lost.

Until 1996 mayors and local council heads could run for election in the Knesset within the framework of the lists participating in the elections. Already in the elections to the Constituent Assembly several mayors and heads of local councils were elected to the Knesset. Towards the end of the Tenth Knesset the Israel Labor Party forbade its Knesset members to serve simultaneously as mayors, as a result of which two Labor Knesset members resigned as mayors – Jacques Amir in Dimona and Aharon Nahmias in Safad. However, in the elections to the Eleventh Knesset several Labor mayors and heads of local councils were elected to the Knesset and refused to resign. In October 1996 an amendment was introduced to the Law on the Immunity, Rights and Duties of Members of the Knesset, prohibiting Knesset members to serve simultaneously as mayors or heads of local councils. This was part of a decision to prohibit Knesset members to serve in any other position – with the exception of chairmen of one of the trade union associations – while serving in the Knesset, to ensure that they would carry out their duties as Knesset members on a full-time basis. It should be noted that when given the choice between serving in the Knesset or serving as mayors or heads of local councils the choice has almost always been in favor of the former. There are those who feel that this prohibition has weakened local government in Israel, since its heads have been removed from one of the main foci of influence in the country.

There are three types of local authority in Israel: municipalities representing cities and larger towns; local councils representing small towns; and regional councils representing several small settlements of various sizes and types. In May 2004 there were 70 municipalities (compared to eight in 1948), of which 57 were Jewish within the Green Line, three Jewish outside the Green Line, and 10 non-Jewish (Arab, Druze, and Circassian) within the Green Line. There were 142 local councils (compared to 24 in 1948), of which 57 were Jewish within the Green Line, 14 Jewish outside the Green Line, and 71 non-Jewish within the Green Line. Finally there were 54 regional councils (compared to six rural and regional councils in 1948) representing several small settlements of various sizes and types, of which 45 were Jewish within the Green Line, seven Jewish outside the Green Line, and two non-Jewish within the Green Line. In the course of 2003, as part of a plan to increase the efficiency of the local government system, it was decided to reduce the number of small local councils by uniting some of them with each other or with existing municipalities. The plan succeeded only partially, primarily due to pressure from stronger local councils refusing to unite with weaker ones, and pressure from politicians concerned about the loss of jobs at the local authority level.

The local authority provides two types of services: state services, especially in the sphere of education, welfare, and health, and local services, primarily in the spheres of sewage and sanitation, city planning, recreation, sports and cultural activities, and fire-fighting services. The budget of the authorities is divided into the "regular budget," earmarked for current activities, and "extraordinary budgets" for development purposes. The main sources of income are locally collected municipal taxes, various charges for services provided and fees for licenses; income from government allocations for state services (in the case of education and welfare the government covers 75% of costs), and grants, to cover certain budgetary deficits. Towards the end of 2004, of the 266 local authorities, only 15 did not require grants in order to provide their inhabitants with a basic level of services. Since the establishment of the state the scope of services provided by the local authorities has progressively grown, as has their financial dependence on the central government.

Not all the local authorities have demonstrated responsible management, with some actually involved in corrupt practices. Early cases of corruption that reached the courts involved Shmuel Rechtman in Rehovot in the late 1970s and Aharon Abuhazeira in Ramleh in the early 1980s. In the 1990s and the beginning of the new millennium, such cases were no longer rare. Irresponsible management and corruption were among the reasons why the government has became increasingly wary of covering the deficits of many local authorities, and despite the appointment of several commissions of inquiry (see below), the problem has not been resolved. Already in 1999 only half the local authorities managed to balance their budgets, while the rest had to borrow from the banks. In 2003 only 55 authorities out of 266 were balanced. In 2004 numerous local authorities were unable to pay salaries to their employees for months on end.

Put another way, one might argue that the local government system in Israel is subject to a structural problem, due to the fact that the source of power of the authorities is the local populace but the main source of money to finance their activities, and the main source of decisions affecting them, is the central government. The centralization of the decision-making process is an inseparable part of the Israeli political culture, and it is therefore difficult for the local government to engage in independent activity, while the central government avoids delegating its powers downwards.

Since 1964 six commissions have investigated the situation in the local authorities with the intention of improving the situation. These were the Vitkon Committee of 1964, which investigated the tax system in local authorities; the Kubersky Committee of 1976, which dealt with improving the system of financing local authorities; the Zanbar Committee, which sat from 1976 to 1981 and dealt with the whole system of local government and the relations between the central and local governments; the Harmelech Committee, which sat from 1991 to 1992 and investigated the level of services and budgetary allocations for health and welfare in the local authorities; the Suari Committee, which sat from 1992 to 1993 and dealt with the deficit-covering grants to local authorities; and finally the Shahar Committee, which sat from 1995 to 1998 and dealt with merging some of the smaller authorities and thus reducing their number.

the separation of powers

Among parliamentary democracies, such as Israel, the separation of powers among the legislature, executive, and judiciary, even though extensive, is not absolute. Thus, it is not always possible to determine whether the checks and balances that have been installed in the system to ensure that none of the three administrative branches diverges from its legitimate sphere of activity have not themselves created a divergence.

In the case of the Knesset and the government the separation cannot be complete since the prime minister, most of the ministers, and all of the deputy ministers are Knesset members, and though they do not function as ordinary members they do vote in the plenum. Some of those who propose that Israel should adopt the so called "Norwegian Law" do so because they wish to do away with the anomaly created by the existing situation. In addition, the government is responsible for setting much of the Knesset's agenda. Another sphere in which a blurring of the separation of powers occurs between the legislature and the executive is in the case of subsidiary legislation, where the ministries concerned lay down regulations based on the primary legislation, i.e., the laws passed by the Knesset.

As is true in all parliamentary democracies (as opposed to presidential democracies) the Knesset is able to bring down the government by means of a vote of a motion of no-confidence, which since 1996 has required that at least 61 of the 120 Knesset members vote for it. Until 1996 a simple majority of those voting could bring down the government.

As to the separation of powers between the Knesset and the judiciary, in the absence of a constitution, and as a result of the activist inclination of the Supreme Court since the mid-1990s, the courts have on several occasions declared a certain piece of legislation, or certain articles in a law, to be in contradiction to a basic law and consequently unconstitutional. The courts cannot abrogate a law, but they can call upon the Knesset to amend it. One of the proposals made in recent years to deal with this situation was the establishment of a constitutional court which will be separated from the regular judicial system and stop the ordinary courts from meddling in the work of the Knesset.

In the case of the executive and the judiciary, part of the blurring in powers is created by the fact that the attorney general is not only a legal adviser to the government but is also the head of the state's public prosecution. Furthermore, the relationship between the attorney general and the state attorney with the Ministry of Justice is also liable to create a certain blurring of the separation of powers, even though the method by which the attorney general and state attorney are chosen is supposed to ensure their independence within the system. It should be noted that while the activities of the executive are subject to judicial review, this is only true in so far as the upholding of the law is concerned, and the courts refrain from deciding on purely political or military issues.

Though the judges are completely free of the meddling of the legislature in their decisions, two Knesset members and two ministers (the minister of justice and another minister) are members of the committee that selects and promotes judges. The minister of justice chairs the committee.

religion and state

Israel's Declaration of Independence proclaims Israel to be a Jewish State. This was not meant to say that Israel would be Jewish in the sense that Jewish religious law would be supreme in the land as it is in various theocratic regimes, but merely that it would be the State of the Jews, in which all Jews (with few exceptions) would be allowed to settle, in which the official day of rest would be the Sabbath, the official holidays would be the Jewish holidays, and state emblems and symbols would be Jewish.

Though the law in the State of Israel, in all spheres except marriage, divorce, and burial, is the secular law passed by the Knesset, there is no strict separation between religion and the State. Thus, the chief rabbis, municipal rabbis, employees of the religious councils, and their counterparts in other religions are financed by the State. Religious services, in the form of synagogues, mikva'ot, and the provision of wedding and burial services, are also the responsibility of the State. In the sphere of weddings and burial services the religious authorities have an almost absolute monopoly that is only very slowly being broken as a result of growing numbers of citizens who are either denied such services (in the case of mixed marriages and persons not considered Jewish by the religious establishment, which is exclusively Orthodox) or demand alternative, non-religious or non-Orthodox services.

But even in the so-called secular law book, there is quite a bit of "religious legislation" – laws that curtail certain activities that touch upon religious beliefs and observance such as the sale of pork, working on the Sabbath, archaeological digs in locations, where there are burial grounds, the performance of postmortems, etc.

It should be noted, however, that there are religious circles in Israel – both in the ḥaredi and National Religious camps – that do not accept the supremacy of the laws passed by the Knesset over the halakhah, or at least do not accept its supremacy in certain spheres. This is the basis for the opposition of certain circles to the introduction of a secular constitution in Israel and for the rejection by some of government decisions which are felt to be in violation of the halakhah, such as the decision to remove Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

[Edwin Emanuel Gutmann /

Susan Hattis Rolef (2nd ed.)]


A. Rubinstein and B. Medina, Ha-Mishpat Ha-Konstituẓi'oni shel Medinat Yisrael, 2 vols. (19962); A. Rubinstein, Ha-Rashuyot ha-Mekomiyot: Be'ayot Merkaziot va-Ḥalufot le-Piteron, Knesset Research and Information Center (2004).

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Land of Israel: Governance

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