Government and Politics

Israel Table of Contents

ISRAELI GOVERNMENTAL AND POLITICAL structures stem from certain premises and institutional arrangements generally associated with West European parliamentary democracies, East European and Central European institutions and traditions, and even some Middle Eastern sociopolitical patterns. These influences were transmitted though the unique history, political culture, and political institutions of Israel's formative prestate period and the Middle Eastern environment in which it is situated. The legitimacy of Israeli society and the identification by the majority Jewish population with the state and its institutions rest on several foundations: Zionist Jewish nationalism, the existence of an outside threat to Israeli security, Judaism, collectivism, and democracy. These bases are affected by the Arab/Palestinian-Israeli conflict (hereafter the Arab-Israeli conflict) and by the pluralist nature of Israeli society, in which a substantial Arab minority participates in the country's political system, but has an ambivalent role within the majority Jewish society.

The Israeli political system is characterized by certain West European democratic arrangements: elected government, multiparty competition, a high level of voter participation in local and national elections, an independent judiciary that is the country's foremost guardian of civil liberties, a vigorous and free press, and the supremacy of civilian rule. Other features, such as collectivism and a lack of expension of the liberal component in Israeli politics, are distinctly East European and Central European in origin. These features are expressed by the absence of a written constitution limiting the powers of government and imposing restraints on the majority to safeguard the rights of individuals, particularly in matters of civil rights and relations between state and religious interests. In the late 1980s, increasing disagreement over some fundamental questions, for instance, the state's territorial boundaries and the role of religion in the state, led to a breakdown in the pre-1967 national consensus over such issues. Such disagreement has resulted in intense ideological polarization as reflected in electoral and parliamentary stalemates between the two major political parties--Likud (Union) and the Israel Labor Party (generally referred to as the Labor Party or simply Labor)-- and their allies.

In July 1984, the political system faced a challenge of unprecedented magnitude. For the first time in the country's thirty-six-year postindependence history, neither major party was able to form a coalition government without the other's equal participation. The result, the National Unity Government formed in September 1984, represented a milestone in the country's political development. That development had already undergone an unprecedented shock in May 1977, when the left-of-center Labor Party was voted out of office for the first time after nearly half a century of unbroken political dominance in pre- and post-state Israel. In 1977 a newly mandated regime was ushered in under Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who led the right-of-center Likud Bloc and who differed sharply with the Labor Party over political philosophy and both domestic and foreign policy. Likud was reconfirmed in power by the 1981 elections, but it suffered an almost irreparable blow with Begin's resignation in September 1983, which followed a series of failed policies concerning the 1982 invasion of Lebanon and the domestic economy. The less charismatic and more cautious Yitzhak Shamir succeeded Begin. Under the terms of the National Unity Government, established in September 1984, the leader of the Labor Party, Shimon Peres, was entrusted with the formation of a government with himself as prime minister, on the written understanding that he would relinquish the prime ministership in two years' time--halfway through the parliamentary term--to his designated "vice prime minister" (or vice premier) Shamir. The next elections to the Knesset (parliament) were held in November 1988; by reproducing the same inconclusive electoral results as in 1984, they led to the formation of a second Likud-and-Labor-led National Unity Government, except that this time Labor joined as a junior partner. Following a period of protracted coalition bargaining, Shamir was reinstated as prime minister, with Peres moving from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the Ministry of Finance. Moshe Arens, a former Likud minister of defense and a Shamir ally, was appointed minister of foreign affairs, and Labor's Yitzhak Rabin became minister of defense.

From 1984 to 1988, the National Unity Government acted as a joint executive committee of Labor and Likud. Under its direction, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) withdrew to an Israeli-dominated security zone in southern Lebanon; Israel's runaway inflation, which had plagued the economy under previous Likud rule, was curbed; and divisive political debates on major national issues were, to some extent, subdued. Nevertheless, on major issues such as participation in United States-sponsored peace initiatives to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, the exchange of "land for peace," and the political future of the West Bank and Gaza Strip territories, unity between Labor and Likud was lacking. The unity cabinet became deadlocked as each partner continuously strove to advance its own foreign policy agenda. In the latter half of the unity government's term, from 1986 to 1988, consensus on domestic issues disintegrated as the parties prepared for the 1988 Knesset elections. For the most part, this breakdown in consensus continued following the elections; although the United States began a dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the government continued to preserve the status quo on security issues.


For more information about the government, see Facts about Israel.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress