The Knesset

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The Knesset is a unicameral parliament and the supreme authority of the state. Its 120 members are elected by universal suffrage for a four-year term under a system of proportional representation. Basic Law: the Knesset provides for "general countryside, direct, equal, secret, and proportional" elections. This provision means that if, for example, in a national election a given party list received approximately 36,000 votes, it would be entitled to two seats in the Knesset. As a result, the top two names on the party's list would obtain Knesset seats. The legislative authority of the Knesset is unlimited, and legislative enactments cannot be vetoed by either the president or the prime minister nor can such enactments be nullified by the Supreme Court. The regular four-year term of the Knesset can be terminated only by the Knesset, which can then call for a new general election before its term expires.

The Knesset also has broad power of direction and supervision over government operations. It approves budgets, monitors government performance by questioning cabinet ministers, provides a public forum for debate of important issues, conducts wide-ranging legislative inquiries, and can topple the cabinet through a vote of no confidence that takes precedence over all other parliamentary business. The Knesset works through eleven permanent legislative committees, including the House Committee, which handles parliamentary rules and procedures, and the Law and Justice Committee, usually referred to as "Law." The jurisdictions of the remaining committees are the constitution, finance, foreign affairs and security, immigration and absorption, economics, education and culture, internal affairs and environment, labor and welfare, and state control. Committee assignments are made by the Arrangements Committee, a committee consisting of representatives of the various parties established at the beginning of each Knesset session, enabling each party to determine for itself where it wants its stronger delegates placed. Committee assignments are for the duration of the Knesset's tenure. Committee chairmen are formally elected at the first meeting of each respective committee upon the nomination of the House Committee. As a rule, however, the chairmanship of important committees is reserved for members of the ruling coalition. If a member resigns from his or her party, the place on the committee reverts to the party, even if the member remains in the Knesset.

Among the first tasks of a new Knesset is to assign members to the various standing committees and to elect a speaker, his or her deputies, and the chairmen of committees. The speaker is assisted by a presidium of several deputies chosen by the Knesset from the major parties. At a minimum, the Knesset is required to hold two sessions a year and to sit not fewer than eight months during the two sessions. The Knesset meets weekly to consider items on its agenda, but not on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays in deference to its Muslim, Jewish, and Christian members. Agendas are set by the speaker to permit the questioning of ministers and the consideration of proposals from the government or motions from members. Time allocations to individual members and parties are made in advance by the speaker so as to preclude filibusters or cloture. Other than national emergencies, budgetary issues have usually been the most important items dealt with by the Knesset at any of its session.

Following the British pattern, legislation is generally introduced by the cabinet; to a lesser extent it is initiated by various Knesset committees; and in limited cases, private bills are initiated by individual Knesset members. Bills are drafted by the ministries concerned in consultation with the Ministry of Justice. By majority vote of the cabinet, draft bills are sent to the speaker of the Knesset for legislative action. Proposed bills are considered by appropriate committees and go through three readings before being voted on by the Knesset after the third reading. Any number of Knesset members present constitutes a quorum, and a simple majority of those present is required for passage. Exceptions to this rule apply in the election or removal of the president of the state, removal of the state comptroller, changes to the system of proportional elections, and changes to or repeal of Basic Laws; in these instances, required majorities are specified by law.

Apart from the Knesset, which is the principal source of legislation, such public institutions as ministries, local authorities, and independent bodies can frame rules and regulations or subsidiary legislation on a wide range of matters. Subsidiary legislation has the effect of law, but it can be declared invalid by the courts when it contravenes any enactment of the Knesset.

Knesset members are granted extensive legal immunity and privileges. Their special legal status, which many observers regard as excessive, ranges from parliamentary immunity to protection from criminal proceedings for the entire period of Knesset membership. Immunity extends to acts committed before becoming a Knesset member, although such immunity can be removed by the Knesset upon the recommendation of the House Committee. Knesset members are also exempt from compulsory military service. The official language of the Knesset is Hebrew, but Arab members may address the legislature in Arabic, with simultaneous translation provided.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress