The Knesset is the parliament of Israel. The word literally means "gathering" or "meeting".
A story is told of two brothers. One of whom had many children and also lots of successful crops and animals, and the other had no children, and a poor crop. One night, the first brother thought "my brother needs extra food and I have more than enough". So he took some of his produce and put it quietly in his brother's barn. The second brother thought "my brother has so many mouths to feed with all his children, he may need more than he can harvest". So he took some of his produce, and moved it too. This happened on a regular basis, this continuous friendship. One night, the two brothers happened to meet up and understood what had been happening and embraced each other. On this spot, the Temple was built.
There were also two more brothers. Again, one had children and crops, and the other was childless and had poor crops. The first brother thought "Even with all my produce, I need more" and he went and stole from his brother. The second brother thought "My brother has more than he needs anyway" and he went and stole as well. This also went on regularly. One night, the two brothers happened to meet up and understood what had been happening and killed each other. On this spot, the Knesset was built.
OK, so that's a story. The Knesset is located on the side of a hill in Jerusalem, in a purpose built building. This was opened in 1966, with the government before this sitting in a building in central Jerusalem. Apart from the main chamber, there are a number of meeting rooms for committees etc to sit. It has been expanded on a number of occasions since it was built. One of the most famous views outside it is the Menorah, a present from the British government, which has become the symbol of the Knesset.
The Knesset has 120 members, who are elected every 4 years. Although they are mostly Jewish, there are also fully democratically elected Arab members of the Knesset too. An election can also be called earlier if there is a no confidence vote in the government which passes. Briefly in the 1990's, there was an experiment whereby the people voted for their choice of party in the Knesset, and separately for the Prime Minister. This is no longer the case, and the Prime Minister is the leader of the party who can put together a coalition with 61 or more seats.
All members have a seat in the main chamber, with an electronic voting system. There is a viewing gallery on a higher level for members of the public. The President has a reserved section in this gallery separated by bullet-proof glass. The President of Israel is a figure-head as opposed to the head of the government (ie the Prime Minister) and is elected by the 120 members of the Knesset.
Election to the Knesset is by almost pure proportional representation. Each party submits a list of potential members before an election, and the entire country votes as one constituancy. The proportion of votes for each party are them simply divided among the 120 seats, with the top people on each list getting the seats. Sometimes parties will form pre-government coalitions and submit a joint list. Parties have to get at least about 4% of the vote to get any seats, to prevent the Knesset being too fragmented.
While this system seems very fair, it unfortunately results in a system where no party has an overall majority, and the largest party has to form a coalition with a number of smaller parties. This means that these smaller fringe parties actually have the balance of power, and can influence more power than their size should suggest. Additionally, nobody in the whole country has their own MP to talk to. So if you want to contact Parliament, there's no single person that you can say "You represent me and my town". This isn't a fault with PR as a system of multiple constituencies, with a small PR list in each constituency can work well.
If a sitting MK (Member of the Knesset) dies or resigns, the next person on the list that his party submitted is offered the seat.
The 16th Knesset
Elections for the 16th Knesset were held on 28th January 2003. Israel has traditionally had a very high turnout in elections - as is often the case in "young" countries, or countries with political difficulties. The turnout in this election was about 69%, one of the lowest - perhaps a sign that people weren't that happy with either choice. It is one of the most right-winged governments in Israeli history, probably a result of the Palestinian intifada that has been going on for a number of years.
The results were as follows. The name in brackets is the leader of the party.
- The Likud (Ariel Sharon) - 38 seats. The main centre-right party
- Ha'avodah (Amram Mitzna) - 19 seats. A coalition of the traditional Israeli Labour party and Meimad, a left-wing religious party (most religious people are more right wing in general).
- Shinui (Tommy Lapid) - 15 seats. Centre-right anti-religious party. Name means "Change".
- Shas (Eli Yishai) - 11 seats. Right wing Ultra-Orthodox party.
- HaIhud HaLeumi (Avidgor Lieberman) - 7 seats. A coalition of smaller right-wing parties.
- Meretz (Yossi Sarid) - 6 seats. A coalition of smaller left-wing parties.
- HaMafdal (Efi Eitam) - 6 seats. Moderate Orthodox party.
- Yahudut HaTorah (Avraham Liezman) - 5 seats. Religious party.
- Am Ehad (Amir Peretz) - 3 seats.
- Hadash-Taal (Mohammed Barakeh) - 3 seats. Coalition of two communist parties and the National Arab Movement.
- Balad (Azmi Bishara) - 3 seats. Another Arab list.
- Yisrael B'Aliyah (Natan Sharansky) - 2 seats. A right-leaning party founded by the famous Soviet refusenik. This party has now merged with the Likud.
- Raam (Abdulmalik Dehamshe) - 2 seats. A coalition of Arab parties.
Ariel Sharon formed a primarily right-wing government comprising of the Likud (and Yisrael B'Aliyah), Shinui, HaIhud HaLeumi and HaMafdal, a total of 68 seats. The composition of the ruling composition has changed since the election, as the political situation in Israel has changed.
The 17th Knesset
Elections for the 17th Knesset were held on Tuesday March 28th 2006 and the members were sworn in on Monday April 17th 2006. The election was largely prompted by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's decision to create a new party, Kadimah ("Forward"), and his subsequent stroke, leaving Ehud Olmert as acting Prime Minister. A large number of his former Likud colleagues left Likud to join Kadimah, with Binyamin Natanyahu remaining as head of the Likud.
A total of 3186739 ballots were cast, 49675 were defective or spoiled and 3137064 were valid. 62.3% in the Jewish population and 56% in the non-Jewish population voted. This is down from just under 80% 8 years ago.
The results by party were as follows.
- Kadima – 29 seats. Centrist, with a slight right leaning.
- Labor-Meimad - 19 seats. Centre-left.
- Shas – 12 seats. Right-wing Ultra-religious.
- Likud – 12 seats. Traditionally Centre-right, but moved further to the right as lots of its more centrist members moved to Kadimah.
- Yisrael Beitenu – 11 seats. Right wing.
- Ichud Leumi – Mafdal – 9 seats. Central-right Religious party.
- Gil (Pensioners) – 7 seats. Pensioners party.
- Torah and Shabbat Judaism – 6 seats. Religious party.
- Meretz – 5 seats. Left wing anti-religious party.
- United Arab List - Arab Renewal – 4 seats. Arab party.
- National Democratic Assembly – 3 seats. Secular Arab Democratic party.
- Hadash – 3 seats. Arab party.