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What is the Israeli Knesset and how does it work?

Just how does the Israeli Parliament work? Nathan Jeffay explains....

    (James Emery via Wikimedia Commons)

    For a parliament of just 120 members in one of the world’s smallest countries, the Knesset generates lots of headlines internationally. But the specifics of how the chamber works are hazy even to many Israel mavens.

    The voting system is a far cry from Britain’s, with a system of proportional representation meaning that the whole country is treated as one polling district. Each party puts forward a list of candidates, and Knesset seats are divvied up according to how they fare in the vote. 

    Nobody has a local MP — or MK as they are known in Israel — and the system leads to lots of parties and to coalition governments. There are currently (February 2018) ten parties in Knesset, six of them in the coalition. 

    Each of the coalition players has its own agenda, and disagreements can quickly lead to crises and elections. So while an election is only required every four years, Israel seems to forever be going to the polls, and the last three elections took place in the space of just six years. 

    The other effect of Israel’s coalition politics is that with so many parties in the government, all of them want jobs for their members. After all, this is Israel, and most of the MKs have a Jewish mother who wants to know her son or daughter is a minister, not just a run-of-the-mill MK.

    So, almost one in four parliamentarians is a minister or deputy minister, and if you are asked how many Israeli ministers it takes to change a light bulb the jokey answer is one - the Minister for the Changing of Light Bulbs. 

    The government can propose legislation, and so can individual politicians. Government bills need to pass three stages — readings — if they are to become law, while private member’s bills must complete a preliminary reading as well as the three main readings. Some bills are completely new legislation, while others are amendments. 

    But once a bill becomes law, it does not mean it is there to stay. The Supreme Court has the power to strike down laws as unconstitutional, and there is lots of anger from right-wing MKs towards the court, as they feel that it overuses this power to block nationalist legislation. For example, it vetoed a hard-line policy against asylum seekers and softened a controversial law that allows legal action against people who call for anti-Israel boycotts. 

    The government is led by Likud, the party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Likud is on the right, and its members range ideologically from soft right to zealously pro-settler. Mr Netanyahu has hesitantly accepted the idea of peace with the Palestinians based on a two-state solution, but many in his party reject this idea. 

    To Likud’s right there is Jewish Home, a strongly pro-settler party that is mostly religious, and Yisrael Beytenu, the party of the hawkish Defence Minister Avigdor Liberman. These prop up the coalition along with the Haredi parties United Torah Judaism and Shas, and the centre-right Kulanu. 

    The two opposition parties with a chance of replacing Likud in government are the left-wing Zionist Union, which is mostly comprised of the long-established Labour Party, and the newby Yesh Atid, a centrist party led by the former TV personality Yair Lapid. Meretz is the left flank of Israel’s Jewish politics, passionate about peace and fighting Orthodox power, while the Joint List is an alliance of small Arab parties. 

    Sometimes Knesset is the nerve centre of a political system set on big challenges, like keeping eight million citizens safe in the face of an unstable Middle East, and on occasion it is a venue for poignant events marking history, such as the centenary of the Balfour Declaration and the tragedy of the Holocaust. Other times it is the theatre of the absurd, where members are on record bickering about whether it is okay to call a fellow politician a pimp, tearing up legislation they do not like, and even in one case drenching a political opponent with water. 

    Drama occasionally gets MKs into trouble, but more often than not it does them good by getting them noticed. And everyone in Knesset needs to get noticed - after all the next election is never far away. 

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