Israel is a parliamentary democracy. Its governmental system is based on several basic laws enacted by its unicameral parliament, the Knesset. The president (chief of state) is elected by the Knesset for a 5-year term.
The prime minister (head of government) exercises executive power and has in the past been selected by the president as the party leader most able to form a government. In the May 1996 elections, Israelis for the first time voted for the prime minister directly, in accordance with recent legislation. The members of the cabinet must be collectively approved by the Knesset.
The Knesset's 120 members are elected by secret ballot to 4-year terms, although the prime minister may decide to call for new elections before the end of the 4-year term. Voting is for party lists rather than for individual candidates, and the total number of seats assigned each party reflects that party's percentage of the vote (see Party-list proportional representation). Successful Knesset candidates are drawn from the lists in order of party-assigned rank. Under the present electoral system, all members of the Knesset are elected at large.
The independent judicial system includes secular and religious courts. The courts' right of judicial review of the Knesset's legislation is limited. Judicial interpretation is restricted to problems of execution of laws and validity of subsidiary legislation. The highest court in Israel is the Supreme Court, whose judges are approved by the president.
Israel is divided into six districts, administration of which is coordinated by the Ministry of Interior. The Ministry of Defense is responsible for the administration of the occupied territories.
From the founding of Israel in 1948 until the election of May 1977, Israel was ruled by successive coalition governments led by the Labor alignment or its constituent parties. From 1967-70, the coalition government included all of Israel's parties except the communist party. After the 1977 election, the Likud bloc, then composed of Herut, the Liberals, and the smaller La'am Party, came to power forming a coalition with the National Religious Party, Agudat Israel, and others.
As head of Likud, Menachem Begin became Prime Minister. The Likud retained power in the succeeding election in June 1981, and Begin remained Prime Minister. In the summer of 1983, Begin resigned and was succeeded by his Foreign Minister, Yitzhak Shamir. After losing a Knesset vote of confidence early in 1984, Shamir was forced to call for new elections, held in July of that year.
The vote was split among numerous parties and provided no clear winner leaving both Labor and Likud considerably short of a Knesset majority. Neither Labor nor Likud was able to gain enough support from the small parties to form even a narrow coalition. After several weeks of difficult negotiations, they agreed on a broadly based government of national unity. The agreement provided for the rotation of the office of prime minister and the combined office of vice prime minister and foreign minister midway through the government's 50-month term.
During the first 25 months of unity government rule, Labor's Shimon Peres served as prime minister, while Likud's Yitzhak Shamir held the posts of vice prime minister and foreign minister. Peres and Shamir switched positions in October 1986. The November 1988 elections resulted in a similar coalition government. Likud edged Labor out by one seat but was unable to form a coalition with the religious and right-wing parties. Likud and Labor formed another national unity government in January 1989 without providing for rotation. Yitzhak Shamir became Prime Minister, and Shimon Peres became Vice Prime Minister and Finance Minister.
The national unity government fell in March 1990, in a vote of no-confidence precipitated by disagreement over the government's response to U.S. Secretary of State Baker's initiative in the peace process.
Labor Party leader Peres was unable to attract sufficient support among the religious parties to form a government. Yitzhak Shamir then formed a Likud-led coalition government including members from religious and right-wing parties.
Shamir's government took office in June 1990, and held power for 2 years. In the June 1992 national elections, the Labor Party reversed its electoral fortunes, taking 44 seats. Labor Party leader Yitzhak Rabin formed a coalition with Meretz (a group of three leftist parties) and Shas (an ultra-Orthodox religious party). The coalition included the support of two Arab-majority parties. Rabin became Prime Minister in July 1992. Shas subsequently left the coalition, leaving Rabin with a minority government dependent on the votes of Arab parties in the Knesset.
Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing Jewish radical on November 4, 1995. Peres, then Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, once again became Prime Minister and immediately proceeded to carry forward the peace policies of the Rabin government and to implement Israel's Oslo commitments (including military redeployment in the West Bank and the holding of historic Palestinian elections on January 20, 1996).
Enjoying broad public support and anxious to secure his own mandate, Peres called for early elections after just 3 months in office. (They would have otherwise been held by the end of October 1996.) In late February and early March, a series of suicide bombing attacks by Palestinian terrorists took some 60 Israeli lives, seriously eroding public support for Peres and raising concerns about the peace process. Increased fighting in southern Lebanon, which also brought Katyusha rocket attacks against northern Israel, also raised tensions and weakened the government politically just a month before the May 29 elections.
In those elections - the first direct election of a prime minister in Israeli history - Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu won by a narrow margin, having sharply criticized the government's peace policies for failing to protect Israeli security. Netanyahu subsequently formed a predominantly right-wing coalition government publicly committed to pursuing the peace process, but with an emphasis on security first and reciprocity. His coalition included the Likud party, allied with the Tsomet and Gesher parties in a single list; three religious parties (Shas, the National Religious Party, and the United Torah Judaism bloc); and two centrist parties, The Third Way and Yisrael b'Aliyah. The latter is the first significant party formed expressly to represent the interests of Israel's new immigrants. The Gesher party withdrew from the coalition in January 1998 upon the resignation of its leader, David Levy, from the position of Foreign Minister.
conventional long form: State of Israel
conventional short form: Israel
local long form: Medinat Yisra'el
local short form: Yisra'el
Data code: IS
Government type: parliamentary democracy
Administrative divisions: 6 districts (mehozot, singular - mehoz); Central, Haifa, Jerusalem, Northern, Southern, Tel Aviv
National holiday: Independence Day, 14 May 1948; note - Israel declared independence on 14 May 1948, but the Jewish calendar is lunar and the holiday may occur in April or May
Constitution: no formal constitution; some of the functions of a constitution are filled by the Declaration of Establishment (1948), the Basic Laws of the parliament (Knesset), and the Israeli citizenship law
Legal system: mixture of English common law, British Mandate regulations, and, in personal matters, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim legal systems; in December 1985, Israel informed the UN Secretariat that it would no longer accept compulsory ICJ jurisdiction
Suffrage: 18 years of age; universal
chief of state: President Ezer Weizman (since 13 May 1993)
head of government: Prime Minister Ehud Barak(since 6 July 1999)
cabinet: Cabinet selected by prime minister and approved by the Knesset
elections: president elected by the Knesset for a five-year term; election last held 4 March 1998 (next to be held NA March 2003); prime minister elected by popular vote for a four-year term; election last held 17 May 1999 (next to be held NA May 2003); note - in March 1992, the Knesset approved legislation, effective in 1996, which allowed for the direct election of the prime minister; under the new law, each voter casts two ballots - one for the direct election of the prime minister and one for a party in the Knesset; the candidate that receives the largest percentage of the popular vote then works to form a coalition with other parties to achieve a parliamentary majority of 61 seats; finally, the candidate must submit his or her cabinet to the Knesset for approval and this must be done within 45 days of the election; in contrast to the old system, under the new law, the prime minister's party need not be the single-largest party in the Knesset
election results: Ezer Weizman reelected president by the 120-member Knesset with a total of 63 votes, other candidate, Shaul Amor, received 49 votes (there were seven abstentions and one absence); Ehud Barak elected prime minister; percent of vote - Ehud Barak 56.08%, Binyamin Netanyahu 43.92%
note: government coalition - One Israel, Shas, MERETZ, Yisra'el Ba'Aliya, Center Party, National Religious Party
unicameral Knesset or parliament (120 seats; members elected by popular vote to serve four-year terms)
elections: last held 17 May 1999 (next to be held NA May 2003)
election results: percent of vote by party - One Israel 20.2%, Likud Party 14.1%, Shas 13%, MERETZ 7.6%, Yisra'el Ba'Aliya 5.1%, Shinui 5%, Center Party 5%, National Religious Party 4.2%, United Torah Judaism 3.7%, United Arab List 3.4%, National Union 3%, Hadash 2.6%, Yisra'el Beiteinu 2.6%, Balad 1.9%, One Nation 1.9%, Democratic Movement NA (party formed after election, members elected under Yisra'el Ba'Aliya list); seats by party - One Israel 26, Likud Party 19, Shas 17, MERETZ 10, Yisra'el Ba'Aliya 4, Shinui 6, Center Party 6, National Religious Party 5, United Torah Judaism 5, United Arab List 5, National Union 4, Hadash 3, Yisra'el Beiteinu 4, Democratic Movement 2 (party formed after election, members elected under Yisra'el Ba'Aliya list), Balad 2, One Nation 2
Judicial branch: Supreme Court, appointed for life by the president
Political parties and leaders: Balad [Azmi BISHARA]; Center Party [Yitzhak MORDECHAI]; Democratic Movement [Roman BRONFMAN]; Gesher [David LEVI]; Hadash [Muhammad BARAKA]; Labor Party [Ehud BARAK]; Likud Party [Ariel SHARON]; MERETZ [Yossi SARID]; Moledet [Rehavam ZEEVI]; National Democratic Alliance (Balad) [leader NA]; National Religious Party [Yitzhak LEVY]; National Union [Rehavam ZEEVI] (includes Herut, Tekuma, Yisre'el Beiteinu and Moledet); One Israel [Ehud BARAK] (includes Labor, Gesher, and Meimad); One Nation [Amir PERETZ]; Shas [Eliyahu YISHAI]; Shinui [Tommy LAPID]; Third Way [Avigdor KAHALANI]; Tzomet [Rafael EITAN]; United Arab List [Abd al-Malik DAHAMSHAH]; United Torah Judaism [Meir PORUSH]; Yisra'el Ba'Aliya [Natan SHARANSKY]; Yisra'el Beiteinu [Avigdor LIEBERMAN]
Political pressure groups and leaders: Gush Emunim, Israeli nationalists advocating Jewish settlement on the West Bank and Gaza Strip; Peace Now supports territorial concessions in the West Bank and is critical of government's Lebanon policy
International organization participation: BSEC (observer), CCC, CE (observer), CERN (observer), EBRD, ECE, FAO, IADB, IAEA, IBRD, ICAO, ICC, ICFTU, IDA, IFAD, IFC, ILO, IMF, IMO, Inmarsat, Intelsat, Interpol, IOC, IOM, ISO, ITU, OAS (observer), OPCW, OSCE (partner), PCA, UN, UNCTAD, UNESCO, UNHCR, UNIDO, UPU, WHO, WIPO, WMO, WToO, WTrO
Diplomatic representation in the US:
chief of mission: Ambassador David IVRY
chancery: 3514 International Drive NW, Washington, DC 20008
telephone:  (202) 364-5500
FAX:  (202) 364-5610
consulate(s) general: Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco
Diplomatic representation from the US:
chief of mission: Ambassador Martin S. INDYK
embassy: 71 Hayarkon Street, Tel Aviv
mailing address: PSC 98, Unit 7228, APO AE 09830
telephone:  (3) 519-7575
FAX:  (3) 517-3227
consulate(s) general: Jerusalem; note - an independent US mission, established in 1928, whose members are not accredited to a foreign government
Flag description: white with a blue hexagram (six-pointed linear star) known as the Magen David (Shield of David) centered between two equal horizontal blue bands near the top and bottom edges of the flag