Jewish Studies

Explore research options for Jewish history, Hebrew and Yiddish literature, Jewish philosophy and religion

Course Description and Syllabus

  • Israel’s politics and history are complex, involving multiple military conflicts, domestic struggles and dynamic international relationships. This course will focus on Israel’s domestic politics by tracing the story of the development of its party system and the parties composing it. Israel is a parliamentary democracy with a proportional representation electoral system, and its party system includes multiple parties who represent the various segments of Israeli society. What are the origins of this party system and the parties within it? What changes have they experienced and what are the factors that influence those changes? Who are the important actors and what might be motivating them? How have these parties influenced the development of Israel’s domestic politics? Using both historical and statistical materials, these questions and others will serve as our guide on a journey to a better understanding of Israel’s domestic politics, from its inception to the present day.
  • This course is designed as an undergraduate seminar. While some knowledge and familiarity with Israeli politics might be helpful, it is neither expected nor necessary to successfully participate in and complete this course.

System of Government

Israel’s system of government is parliamentary as opposed to presidential, like the U.S., for example. In a parliamentary system, the legislative and executive branches are connected: the executive, i.e., the government, which includes the Prime Minister and the cabinet, are part of the legislative branch, meaning that the authority of the former stems from the latter. Neither the Prime Minister, not members of their government are elected (or chosen) separately from members of parliament (with the exception of a brief period in 1990s during which the Prime Minister was elected directly by the voters), and parliament can dismiss the government by passing a vote of no-confidence, triggering a new general election. The Israeli parliament, the Knesset, has 120 members, or MKs.

Elections

Elections for the Knesset are held every four years, with the exception of the following events: (1) the government loses a vote of confidence, or the prime minister calls for a new election; (2) or the Knesset fails to approve a state budget three months after the start of the fiscal year; (3) or a government fails to form following a general election (Basic Law: The Knesset 1958; Basic Law: The Government 2001). While the third option is rare, it happened twice in 2019, the only times in the country’s history.

Electoral System

The electoral system in Israel is one of proportional representation, meaning that votes are translated into seats in parliament in proportion to the share of votes gained by political parties. In addition, the system is closed-list—parties stand for elections as whole units and voters can choose between them, without an ability to influence the identity of each party’s candidates on general-election day. Some parties, like Likud and Labour, allow their members to choose the candidates prior to general-election day by different internal selection processes. Finally, the whole country constitutes one single constituency, or voting district, as opposed to being divided into several districts.

While Israel’s electoral system has been the most proportional in the world throughout most of its history, some electoral threshold nevertheless exists, since there are only 120 MKs and many more voters. From 1951 to 1991, the electoral threshold was 1 per cent. It was changed for the first time to 1.5 per cent in the run up to the 1992 general election. The electoral threshold was raised again, this time to 2 per cent in 2004, and the current electoral threshold, of 3.25 per cent, was legislated in 2014 (Dolinsky, 2020).

Party System

With a highly proportional electoral system, and a diverse society made up of multiple social, political, cultural, religious, and ethnic groups, Israel has a multi-party system in which a large number of parties wins seats in parliament—an average of 12.3 parties between 1977-2015, and even a larger number of parties compete in each election—an average of 27.5 parties between 1977-2015 (Dolinsky, 2020).

  • In addition to the high number of parties, the Israeli party system is also characterized by a frequent turnover of parties: some parties disappear, and new ones appear, quiet often. For example, four of the 10 parties that won seats in the 2015 general election did not exist in 2005, in addition to the new alliance forged by the major Arab parties in the run of that 2015 election.
  • The party system is divided by two main cleavages, or issues – the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, and questions over the identity of the state as Jewish and democratic (Shamir and Arian, 1999).
  • Information on campaign finance in Israel in English from the Library of Congress.

Government Formation

The combination of the proportional representation electoral system and a multi-party system results in coalition- rather than single-party-governments. That means that several parties agree to share in the responsibilities of governing and get to enact their policies in a process of negotiation and compromise. Throughout Israel’s history, no single party has won a clear majority of seats in the Knesset (61), with only the Maarach (an alliance of Labour and Mapam) ever getting close with 56 seats in 1969. Once a coalition is agreed upon by its member parties, it is presented to the Knesset for a vote, since, as explained above, the executive branch comes out of the legislative branch (the Knesset) and depends on it for confidence.

Primary Sources

  • Election returns
    • The Israel Democracy Institute
      • Click “choose” tab by Israeli Elections on right side of screen to choose the election you want to see returns
    • Knesset website
      • On right-side of screen choose the desired election year to see results
  • Information on Israeli political parties
    • The Israel Democracy Institute
      • Click “choose” tab by Israeli Political Parties on left side of screen to choose which party you would like to learn about.
      • Includes historical information about the party, election returns, prominent leaders, and, where applicable, history in coalition governments.
  • The Israel National Election Studies
    • Statistical surveys of Israeli voters over time from 1969 to 2019 (requires knowledge of statistical software, either SPSS or STATA. The latter, which available to students through the apps tab on myLab on my.jhu.edu, will be taught during the course).
    • Includes list of publications using the National Election Studies

Journals

  • Israel Affairs
    • Academic journal covering Israeli history, politics, literature, art and more, with volumes from 1994 to the present. Available either through hyperlink or through FindIt on library website.
  • Israel Studies
    • Multidisciplinary academic journal covering modern Israeli history politics, society and culture, with volumes from 1996 to the present. Available either through hyperlink above or through FindIt on library website.

Select Readings (books held at MSEL)

  • Politics and Government in Israel. The Maturation of a Modern State. Mahler, Gregory S. 2011.
    • Part I – The Political Setting
      • 1. History and the Creation of Israel
        • The Emergence of Zionism, 1830-1917
        • Growth of the Yishuv, 1880-1939
        • The Balfour Declaration and the British Mandate Period, 1917-1947.
  • The Parliamentary System of Israel. Sager, Samuel. 1985.
    • 1. Pre-State Influences
      • The Zionist Congress and General Council
  • Politics in Israel: the second republic. Arian, Asher. 2005.
    • Party Organization
  • Israeli Democracy Under Stress. Shprinzak, Ehud, and Larry Diamond. 1993.
    • The Historical Origins of Israeli Democracy
  • The Founding of Israeli Democracy, 1948-1967. Medding, Peter. 1990.
    • Parties and Policies
    • The Political Dynamics of the Founding Period
  • Origins of the Israeli Polity: Palestine under the mandate. Horowitz, Dan and Moshe Lissak. 1978.
    • Political Mobilization and Institution Building in the Yishuv
  • Trouble in Utopia. The Overburdened Polity of Israel. Horowitz, Dan and Moshe Lisak. 1989
    • Government and Politics: From a Dominant Center to a Dual Center
  • The Oxford handbook of Israeli politics and society
    • Parties and the Party System in Israel
  • Election series:
    • The Elections in Israel series: the series provides a comprehensive analysis of each of Israel’s general elections between 1969 and 2015, including election results, campaign, voting behavior, and more.
      • 1969 (edited by Asher Arian)
      • 1973 (edited by Asher Arian)
      • 1977 (edited by Asher Arian) (select chapters available on course reserves)
      • 1981 (edited by Asher Arian) (select chapters available on course reserves) 
      • 1984 (edited by Asher Arian and Michal Shamir)
      • 1988 (edited by Asher Arian and Michal Shamir)
      • 1992 (edited by Asher Arian and Michal Shamir)
      • 1996 (edited by Asher Arian and Michal Shamir)
      • 1999 (edited by Asher Arian and Michal Shamir)
      • 2001 (edited by Asher Arian and Michal Shamir)
      • 2003 (edited by Asher Arian and Michal Shamir)
      • 2006 (edited by Asher Arian and Michal Shamir)
      • 2009 (edited by Asher Arian and Michal Shamir)
      • 2013 (edited by Michal Shamir)
      • 2015 (edited by Michal Shamir and Gideon Rahat)
  • Israel at the Polls series:
    • 1977 (edited by Howard Penniman)
    • 1981 (edited by Howard Penniman and Daniel Elazar)
    • 1984 (edited by Daniel Elazar and Shmuel Sandler)
    • 1988 (edited by Daniel Elazar and Shmuel Sandler)
    • 1992 (edited by Daniel Elazar and Shmuel Sandler)

More Resources

  • Elections and voters in Israel. Diskin 1991.
    • The debate between the promotion of personal interest and the general good of society has engaged political, social, and ethical theorists throughout history, and its volume addresses the topic of the Israeli electoral process within that theoretical framework. Abraham Diskin’s analysis of the voting process in Israel involves a definition of its ideological basis, profiles of voting constituencies, an outline of prominent political issues, as well as recommendations for needed reform within the system. Introductory material lays the foundation for the study by establishing as a point of departure the concept that democracy and its reliance on elections provides a viable answer to the basic social dilemma of self-interest versus the public good. An historical review that identifies how elections have reflected changes within Israel from 1949 to 1988 follows. Voting procedures and results, polling accuracy, and a close look at the significance of the Jewish ethnic and Arab votes (and the nature of the conflicts that have resulted) are the primary concerns of the text. This approach yields an evaluation of the Israeli electoral process that demonstrates the extent to which it succeeds in the exercise of democracy and thereby may help to outline a method of analysis for other voting systems as they search for constructive solutions to the social dilemma (from google).
  • Parties, elections, and cleavages: Israel in comparative and theoretical perspective. Hazan and Maor 2000.
    • This volume brings together a set of articles on parties, elections and social cleavages that address theoretical aspects of these concepts with reference to Israel, and subject Israel to a comparative analysis (from google).