Israel has no formal constitution. However, most chapters of the prospective constitution have already been written, and enacted as Basic Laws. The Basic Laws are adopted by the Knesset in the same manner as other legislation. Their constitutional import is derived from their nature and, in some of them, from the inclusion of "entrenched clauses" which require a special majority to amend.
Israel is a parliamentary democracy, consisting of legislative, executive and judicial branches. Its institutions are the Presidency, the Knesset (parliament), the Government (cabinet), the Judiciary and the State Comptroller. The system is based on the principle of separation of powers, with checks and balances, in which the executive branch (the government) is subject to the confidence of the legislative branch (the Knesset) and the independence of the judiciary is guaranteed by law.
The President, nasi in Hebrew, bears the ancient title of the head of the sanhedrin, the supreme legislative and judicial body of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel in ancient times. He is the head of state and his office symbolizes the unity of the state, above and beyond party politics. Presidential duties, which are mostly ceremonial and formal, are defined by law. Amongst his formal functions are the opening of the first session of a new Knesset; accepting the credentials of foreign envoys; signing treaties and laws adopted by the Knesset; appointing judges, the governor of the Bank of Israel and heads of Israel's diplomatic missions abroad, on the recommendation of the appropriate bodies; and pardoning prisoners and commuting sentences, on the advice of the minister of justice. In addition, the president performs public functions and informal tasks which include citizens' appeals, lending prestige to communal and social associations, and strengthening public actions such as the fight against road accidents. The president is elected by a simple majority of the Knesset from among candidates nominated on the basis of their personal stature and contribution to the state. The president is elected for one term of seven years.
The Knesset is the parliament of the State of Israel; its main function is to legislate. It took its name and fixed its membership at 120 from the knesset hagedolah (great assembly), the representative Jewish body convened in Jerusalem by Ezra and Nehemiah in the 5th century BCE. The Knesset is elected for a tenure of four years, but may dissolve itself or be dissolved by the prime minister before the end of its term. Until a new Knesset is formally constituted following elections, full authority remains with the outgoing one.
In 2006 a new law requiring that political parties obtain two percent of the overall vote to obtain Knesset representation, rather than the 1.5 percent required in the past, presented a challenge to the three major Israeli-Arab parties -- United Arab List (UAL, Islamist), Balad (Arab Nationalist), and Hadash (Jewish-Arab) -- all of which were represented in the current Knesset. The electoral threshold, or minimum percentage of votes needed to get a seat in the Knesset, was raised again in March, 2014 from 2 to 3.25 percent.
A new Knesset begins to function after general elections, which determine its composition. In the first session, which is opened by the president, the Knesset members declare their allegiance, and the speaker of the Knesset and his deputies are elected. The Knesset operates in plenary sessions and through its committees. In plenary sessions, general debates are conducted on government policy and activity, as well as on legislation. Debates are conducted in Hebrew, but members may speak Arabic, as both are official languages; simultaneous translation is available.
A bill may be presented by an individual Knesset member, a group of Knesset members, the Government as a whole or a single Minister. When a Ministry initiates a bill, a memorandum on the proposed law is passed to the Ministry of Justice for comment on its legal aspects, to the Ministry of Finance for economic and budgetary review, and to the rest of the Government Ministries for their remarks. If the memorandum is approved, the bill is passed on for formulation towards its being presented to the Knesset, and approval by the Government. Private members' bills do not require Government approval. The bill is presented to the plenary for a first reading, and a short debate on its contents. It is then referred to the appropriate Knesset Committee for detailed discussion and redrafting, if necessary. The bill is returned to the plenary for a second reading, presentation of reservations by committee members, and a general review. If, thereafter, it is not found necessary to return the bill to the committee, a third reading takes place, at which a vote on the bill is taken.
The Government (cabinet of ministers) is the executive authority of the state, charged with administering internal and foreign affairs, including security matters. Its policy-making powers are very wide and it is authorized to take action on any issue which is not delegated by law to another authority. Like the Knesset, the government usually serves for four years, but its tenure may be shortened if the prime minister is unable to continue in office due to death, resignation or impeachment, when the government appoints one of its members (who is a Knesset member) as acting prime minister. In the case of a vote of no-confidence, the government and the prime minister emain in their positions until a new government is formed.
Following consultations, the president presents one Knesset member with the responsibility of forming a government. To do so, the Knesset member has to present, within 28 days of being given the responsibility for forming a government, a list of ministers for Knesset approval, together with an outline of proposed government guidelines. Once approved, the ministers are responsible to the prime minister for the fulfillment of their duties and accountable for their actions to the Knesset. Most ministers are assigned a portfolio and head a ministry; others serve without a portfolio but may be called upon to take responsibility for special projects. The prime minister may also serve as a minister with a specific portfolio.
All the ministers must be Israeli citizens and residents of Israel; they need not be Knesset members, but a majority usually are. Ministers, with the approval of the prime minister and the governmment, may appoint a deputy minister in their ministry; all deputy ministers must be Knesset members. The government determines its own working and decision making procedures. It usually meets once a week but additional meetings may be called as the need arises. The government may also act by means of ministerial committees.
To date, all governments have been based on coalitions of several parties, since no party has received enough Knesset seats to be able to form a government by itself.
The absolute independence of the judiciary is guaranteed by law. Judges are appointed by the president, upon recommendation of a special nominations committee, comprised of supreme court judges, members of the bar and public figures. Judges' appointments are for life, with a mandatory retirement age at 70.
Magistrates' and district courts exercise jurisdiction in civil and criminal cases, while juvenile, traffic, military, labor and municipal appeal courts each deal with matters coming under their competence. There is no trial by jury in Israel.
In matters of personal status such as marriage, divorce, and maintenance, guardianship and the adoption of minors, jurisdiction is vested in the judicial institutions of the respective religious communities: the rabbinical court, the Moslem religious courts (sharia courts), the religious courts of the Druze and the juridical institutions of the nine recognized Christian communities in Israel.
The supreme court, located in Jerusalem, has nationwide jurisdiction. It is the highest court of appeal on rulings of lower tribunals. In its function as a high court of justice, the supreme court hears petitions against any government body or agent, and is the court of first and last instance.
Although legislation is wholly within the competence of the Knesset, the supreme court can and does call attention to the desirability of legislative changes; sitting as the high court of justice, it has the authority to determine whether a law properly conforms with the Basic Laws of the state.
The State Comptroller carries out external audit and reports on the legality, regularity, economy, efficiency, effectiveness and moral integrity of the public administration in order to assure public accountability. Israel recognized the importance of state audit in a democratic society and in 1949 enacted a law establishing the state comptroller's office. Since 1971, the state comptroller also fulfills the function of ombudsman, and serves as an address for any person to submit complaints against state and public bodies which are subject to the audit of the comptroller.
The state comptroller is elected by the Knesset in a secret ballot for a seven-year term of office. The comptroller is responsible only to the Knesset, is not dependent upon the government, and enjoys unrestricted access to the accounts, files and staff of all bodies subject to audit. The comptroller carries out his/her activities in contact with the Knesset state audit affairs committee.
The scope of state audit in Israel is among the most extensive in the world. It includes the activities of all government ministries, state institutions, branches of the defense establishment, local authorities, government corporations, state enterprises, and other bodies or institutions declared subject to audit.
In addition, the state comptroller has been empowered by law to inspect the financial affairs of the political parties represented in the Knesset: political parties election campaign accounts, as well as current accounts are audited. When irregularities are found, monetary sanctions are imposed.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert resigned after declining to run in a Kadima Party primary election in September 2008. When Kadima Party head Tzipi Livni was unable to form a government, Olmert remained as caretaker prime minister until a new government was formed after free and fair February 10 elections. On 31 March, following protracted negotiations, Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister of a Likud-led coalition government.
The Basic Law prohibits the candidacy of any party or individual denying the existence of the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people or the democratic character of the state, or that incites racism. Otherwise, political parties operated without restriction or outside interference.
At the end of 2009, the 120-member Knesset had 22 female members. The Knesset included 10 Arabs, including one woman, and three Druze. The 22-member cabinet included two women, but no Arabs; four women were deputy ministers, including one Druze. Five members of the 15-member Supreme Court, including its president, were women. An Arab Christian was on the Supreme Court, but no Muslim or Druze citizens have served.
On January 21, the Supreme Court overturned a January 12 Central Elections Committee (CEC) decision to ban the Knesset's two Israeli Arab political parties, the United Arab List-Ta'al and Balad, from participating in the February elections on the grounds that they do not recognize the state and call for armed conflict against it. The CEC is comprised of 30 members of all party factions, chaired by a Supreme Court judge. Israeli Arab and other human rights NGOs argued before the Supreme Court that the ban was part of a trend to undermine the political legitimacy of Arab citizens of Israel.
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