Inside View Jan/Feb 2024

I am writing this column a week after Hamas’s brutal massacre of Israelis along the Gaza border. Though we don’t yet know the war’s outcome, the horrific genocide has produced unexpected changes in Israel’s political landscape.

In the months leading up to Hamas’s slaughter of innocent Israeli civilians, Israel had experienced unprecedented political division over judicial reform, with weekly protests against the government.

Hamas saw this division as weakness and was emboldened to strike, hoping the protesters would support their attack. But the opposite occurred. Within five days, Benny Gantz, a key member of the Israeli opposition National Unity Party, joined Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to form an emergency unity government. The war resulted in national unity, rather than greater division.

The emergency unity government, a rarely used tactic, lays aside political differences to focus on defeating Israel’s enemies. It is similar to the emergency unity government formed in the days before the 1967 Six-Day War.

Israel’s political system can be a challenge for non-Israelis to understand. It differs completely from that of the United States. The U.S. government is made up of three branches: (1) legislative, (2) executive, and (3) judicial. Israel’s government is modeled after the British system, which fuses the legislative and executive branches. Though they are technically separate, they function jointly.

The Jewish state also has a multiparty system. Israeli citizens vote for members of the Knesset (legislative), whereas U.S. citizens vote both for members of Congress (legislative) and the president (executive).

The Knesset has one chamber, unlike the U.S. Congress, which has the House of Representatives and Senate. The Knesset contains 120 seats. But when Israelis go to the polls, they vote for a party, rather than individuals.

Prior to an election, each party composes a list of members so voters know who will serve in the Knesset. The election results determine the number of seats a party wins. A party receiving 10 percent of the vote would hold 12 seats. In this case, the first 12 members on the party’s list would join the Knesset.

This system makes it easy for anyone to form a political party in Israel and appear on the ballot. Each party has its own agenda. Some parties are religious; some are secular; and some represent special interests or groups, such as immigrants or Arab Israelis.

Only parties that garner at least 3.25 percent of the vote earn seats in the Knesset. In 2022, 10 of the 40 parties on the ballot received enough votes to join the Knesset. Israel’s government is formed by a coalition of parties representing 61 or more seats. Israelis don’t vote for their prime minister; rather, the coalition selects one.

In Israel’s 76-year history, no party has ever garnered 61 seats. So, the government is always a coalition. It serves a four-year term—unless one party or more withdraws from the bloc. If the number of seats held by the coalition falls below 61, new elections are required. The government continues to function until a new one forms. Only twice has an Israeli government lasted the full four-year term.

Because the legislative and executive functions are combined, the prime minister’s cabinet is primarily made up of coalition members. There is no separation of powers.

Interestingly, the State of Israel does not have a constitution. Its founders doubted the country needed one. Today, Israel operates on a series of Basic Laws passed by the Knesset.

Without a constitution, the judiciary often negates or modifies laws the Knesset passes. Since Israel has only two branches of government, the 2023 judicial-reform proposals pitted the Knesset against the judiciary, with no third branch to break the tie. Israelis grew increasingly divisive over this conflict of powers.

Hamas’s demonically inspired attack has reminded Israel the real enemy is not within, and it turned Israel’s division into unity.

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