Political Structure

Israel is a parliamentary democracy which consists of three branches: the legislature (the Knesset); the executive (the government); and the judiciary (the court system). It is based on the principle of separation of powers, with checks and balances built into the system.

The government is subject to the confidence of the Knesset, and the absolute independence of the judiciary is guaranteed by law. The president is the head of state; the office symbolizes the unity of the state and carries high prestige and moral force, above and beyond party politics.

Judiciary: The Court System

The judiciary is entirely independent. Judges are appointed by the president upon recommendation of a special nine-person committee composed of three Supreme Court justices, two members of the Israeli Bar and four public figures (i.e. government ministers, Knesset members). Judges receive appointments for life, with retirement at age 70.

Although legislative competence is wholly within the Knesset, the Supreme Court can and does call attention to the desirability of legislative changes; sitting as the High Court of Justice, it has the authority to determine whether a law properly conforms with the Basic Laws of the state.

The Court System

Magistrates' Court (1 judge) -- Civil and minor criminal offenses.

District Court (1 or 3 judges) -- Appellate jurisdiction over magistrates' courts; original jurisdiction in more important civil and criminal cases.

Supreme Court (1, 3, or 5 judges) -- Ultimate appellate jurisdiction; right to address issues when necessary to intervene for sake of justice; original jurisdiction in petitions for orders against the government, its ministers and all public officers/ agencies; authority to release persons detained or imprisoned illegally; power to override decisions of other courts should they exceed their jurisdiction.

Special Courts (1 judge) -- Traffic, labor, juvenile and municipal courts, with clearly defined jurisdiction; administrative tribunals.

Religious Courts (1 or 3 judges) -- Jurisdiction in matters of marriage and divorce; in rabbinical courts for Jews; sharia courts for Muslims and Druze; ecclesiastical courts for Christians.

The Attorney General, the chief legal adviser to the government and the head of the prosecution, heads the government legal service and holds exclusive power to represent the state in all major criminal, civil and administrative matters. The government is bound to abstain from any action which, in the opinion of the Attorney General, is unlawful, as long as the courts do not rule otherwise. Although appointed by the government, the Attorney General functions totally independently of the political system.

The State Comptroller and Ombudsman examines and reports on the legality, regularity, efficiency, economy and ethical integrity of the public service and deals with complaints lodged by the public. Elected by the Knesset in a secret ballot, the State Comptroller is accountable to the Knesset only and presents all findings to it in an annual report. Public bodies are bound by law to abide by the Comptroller's recommendations and apply them.

The Law of the Land

Upon attaining independence (1948), Israel passed the Law and Administration Ordinance, which stipulated that the laws prevailing in the country prior to statehood would remain in force insofar as they did not contradict the principles embodied in the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel and would not conflict with laws to be enacted by the Knesset. Thus, the legal system includes what has remained of Ottoman law (in force until 1917), many British Mandate laws (1918- 48), which incorporate a large body of English common law, elements of Jewish religious law and some aspects of other systems.

However, the prevailing characteristic of the legal system, which is still in the process of development, is the large corpus of independent statutory and case law which has evolved since 1948. The general approach follows the Western concept of the rule of law, the development of which is entrusted to the democratically elected Knesset and an independent judiciary.

The Constitutional Process

Israel has developed an operative constitution embodied in a set of Basic Laws reflecting the social context upon which the state is based. Enacted individually over a period of years, these laws do not constitute a formal constitution but do set out the framework and powers of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government and regulate areas of particular importance to Israel's polity such as the state's economy and lands, civil-military relations and the status of Jerusalem.

The Basic Laws are adopted by the Knesset in the same manner as other legislation. Their constitutional import is derived from their nature and, in some of them, from the inclusion of "entrenched clauses" which require a special majority to amend.

Basic Laws include:

  • The Knesset (1958)
  • State Lands (1960)
  • The President (1964)
  • The Government (1968)
  • The State Economy (1975)
  • Israel Defense Forces (1976)
  • Jerusalem (1980)
  • The Judiciary (1984)
  • The State Comptroller (1988)
  • Human Dignity and Liberty (1992)
  • Freedom of Occupation (1992).

Other instruments considered to be of a constitutional nature are the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel and several select laws, including the Law of Return, which encapsulates the raison d'etre of the Jewish state.

The Law of Return (1950) grants every Jew the right to return to Israel and, upon entry, to automatically acquire citizenship. It gives legal confirmation to the age- old yearning for the return to Zion as articulated in the Basle Program issued by the First Zionist Congress (1897); to Jewish immigration to the Land, spelled out in Article 6 of the Mandate for Palestine granted Great Britain by the League of Nations (1922); and to the concept of the "ingathering of the exiles" which lies at the heart of the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel (1948).

Judicial Interpretation

In addition to constitutional and legislative development, a process of judicial interpretation of laws has evolved. It was significantly strengthened by the enactment of the Foundations of Law statute (1980) which stipulates that when a legal question cannot be resolved through statute, case-law or analogy, the courts will decide it "in the light of the principles of freedom, justice, equity and peace of Israel's heritage."

In the process of judicial development, a whole array of civil rights and basic freedoms have been recognized, including the freedoms of speech, assembly, religion and conscience, the right not to be deprived of property without just compensation and the right not to be discriminated against by the administration.

The law provides an individual with the right to directly petition the Supreme Court, sitting as a High Court of Justice, against acts or omissions of government authorities.

In the absence of a formal constitution, this wide protection of civil rights and freedoms ensures equality before the law.


Excerpted from material by the Israeli Government.