Jacob Resnick

The Only Democracy in the Middle East

As a born-and-raised freedom-loving American, I entered the world of Israeli politics, assuming a two-party winner-take-all system as the basis for the Israeli governmental system. Although this is far from the truth, before we figure out the truth, it is essential to outline the purpose of any governmental system. All democracies want to do what is best for their people. They want social programs that educate children and rehabilitate the ill. Democratic governments want to represent the people. With that out of the way, let’s understand how the Israeli government represents the people of Israel (and all Jews worldwide).

The Basic Fundamentals

Unlike the United States of America, the state of Israel has no constitution but rather a set of Basic Laws that define the country’s inner workings. These laws require a simple majority of the Knesset to pass but are passed by the Knesset while it is “acting as the Constituent Assembly” (Knesset), so some deem them as the documents in place of a constitution inIsrael. To be exact, the Supreme Court of Israel in 1997 decided for the first time that this was the case. The supreme court struck down an ordinary law with the explanation that it contradicted a basic law. This is special for two reasons: the distinction between basic law and ordinary law, and the creation of Judicial review in the state of Israel. Read here for more info on the Supreme Court and the Judicial System.

Israeli Parliament

People in Israel vote for party platforms they agree with. The party platforms then place as many people into parliament as they receive in votes. There is a minimum threshold of 3.25% of votes to obtain seats in Parliament – this obtains 4 seats in a parliament of 120 people. The Knesset is defined by Basic Law: The Knesset, the first Basic Law that Knesset passed, the law creating the Knesset. Together, the parties form coalitions. The coalitions must form a majority of at least 61 votes to elect a Prime minister. In addition to electing the Prime Minister, the majority coalition can pass virtually any law they want if they get at least 61 votes to act together. 

Coalition governments are not that simple. Because many different parties make up a coalition, they rarely agree on much outside the prime minister. However, they still have much in common compared to the opposition coalition. The largest party in Knesset has a duty to create a coalition that runs the government, and if they cannot, then the second largest party has the chance. 

The Knesset is the legislative branch, but they form the executive branch through the majority coalition’s prime minister, as well as the appointment of all ministers in the cabinet. This legislative branch is responsible for all executive duties, such as budgeting and international communications. In this way, there is no real distinction between executive and legislative; the legislative branch makes up the executive branch at every election cycle. 

Current Reforms in the Works:

Today, the Knesset is led by a right-wing coalition attempting to pass legislation that dismantles the supreme court – taking away Judicial Review, giving the majority party the complete ability to appoint supreme court members – and downgrading the Basic Law of Human Dignity. The only barrier to passing these laws is the support of the people. Although the Knesset has the power to pass the laws unencumbered because wide protests broke out when the reforms were suggested, the leading coalition is working with the largest opposing coalition, and all Knesset members agree. The President of Israel also moderates the discussions toward compromise with judicial reforms – other than this, the President is merely a figurehead while the Prime Minister has the responsibilities. These discussions, sparked by the protests, prove that the government wants to do the people’s will at least a little.

The State of Israel’s Democracy:

Unlike the United States, Israel is very young. When America was 75, it was on the brink of a civil war. There is still so much more time for Israeli democracy to grow. But even if it does not change, it is clearly more equipped to handle a smaller state with more active voters. The American system has so many different bureaucratic holes that the system constantly misses the mark on what people want in the present day. Progress must be slow in America because there are a million different checks on every idea. In this case, all ideas are super fine-tuned, but people have moved on to bigger issues when they pass. The Israeli system has fewer checks but has the ability to move faster actually to get things done. For a country constantly thrown under fire from enemy nations, Israel needs the ability to move fast. 

Furthermore, American elections can create a legislative and executive branch from different political parties. When this happens, which it does often, little gets done in efforts to pass legislation. In Israel, because the same coalition runs the executive and legislative, the government is more able to pass legislation and respond to threats when necessary. 

All democracies will make some people unhappy. If everyone is happy, then there is something wrong. The Israeli Knesset does a good job of listening to its people, specifically allowing them to partake through protest. For more information on the functioning of the Israeli government and the policies the government passes, check out Israel Policy Forum, and read more here on the Times of Israel.


Jake Resnick,

About the Author
Student at Columbia University and The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, dedicated to understanding the ins and outs of the Israeli situation.
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