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Knesset Building
Knesset Building

The Knesset (כנסת, Hebrew for "assembly") is the Parliament of Israel. As the legislative branch of the Israeli government, the Knesset enacts laws, supervises the work of the government, and has the power to vote to remove the President of the State and the State Comptroller from office, dissolve itself by calling an early election, or replace the government and its Prime Minister by a vote of no-confidence. The Knesset first convened on February 14, 1949.

Laws passed by the Knesset may not conflict with the basic laws, which make up the de facto constitution of the country, but the Knesset also has the power to pass additional basic laws.

It is composed of 120 members elected in a single electorate to 4-year terms by a system of party-list proportional representation, but it hardly ever completes a full term.

The use of party-list proportional representation has had a profound effect on the nature of Israeli politics and thus on the wider Middle East conflict.

Prior to a national election each party holds an internal election to draft a party list showing who will sit in any Knesset seats it wins during the national election. Ideally this list should contain a full 120 names. As an example, if Likud won 23 seats during a national election those individuals at positions 1-23 on the Likud party list would be granted the seats in the Knesset.

In many western democracies voters elect only a single individual for an electorate. This leads to a direct (even personal) relationship between an elected individual and how well he or she serves constituents of a particular area. Under such a system the elected individual can be held personally accountable to the electorate. Many in Israel feel that their political system prevents them from holding their politicians accountable in this manner. Those with the greatest power in the party (and therefore those who become decision makers at a national level) are typically allocated priority positions on the party list. This means that their chances of failing to be re-elected are low regardless of how well they personally are seen to act.

One other effect of the use of party-list proportional representation is to cause the membership of the Knesset to be politically fragmented. Since no one party has ever achieved 61 seats (ie. greater than 50%) in the Knesset, or is ever likely to, all governments are made up of coalitions, very often containing a number of parties with only a few seats. This has meant that when the major parties like Likud and the Israeli Labour Party want to try to form a government following an election they must negotiate with a variety of parties in an effort to form a coalition containing at least 61 seats. This typically results in compromises of policy and sometimes bizarre political couplings.

The Israeli political system is widely regarded as giving disproportionately great power to the minor political parties. It has often been the case that the major parties have had to accept (sometimes extreme) minor parties into a coalition in order to be able to form a government. These minor parties are often able to dictate major policy decisions by threatening to leave the coalition should their wishes not be followed. This particular act, with respect to a number of extreme right-wing parties, has scuttled several promising peace initiatives over the last few decades.

Regardless of any other factors, a party must receive 1.5% of the popular vote to be awarded even a single seat. This requirement is seen to somewhat mitigate the political fragmentation of the Knesset.

Members of the Knesset have broad legal immunities regarding search, detention, free movement, and prosecution of acts relating to their duties. Members are also expected to avoid improper use of their immunities, conflicts of interest, etc., and transgressions may be dealt with by the Knesset Ethics Committee .

The Knesset Assemblies

The Knesset term (the condition of the Knesset between two general elections for parliament) is called "Assembly". For example: the first term of the Knesset from 1949 to 1951 was called "The 1st assembly" הכנסת הראשונה. The current assembly is the 16th Assembly ( הכנסת ה 16 , ha-Knesset ha-Shesh-Esre).

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Last updated: 11-08-2004 07:27:25