Israel is an electoral democracy. A largely ceremonial president is elected by the 120-seat Knesset for seven-year terms. The prime minister is usually the leader of the largest party or coalition in the Knesset, members of which are elected by party-list proportional representation for four-year terms. At under 3 percent, Israel’s vote threshold for a party to win parliamentary representation is the world’s lowest, leading to the regular formation of niche parties and unstable coalitions.
Parties or candidates that deny the existence of Israel as a Jewish state, oppose the democratic system, or incite racism are prohibited. In 2009, the Knesset’s central election committee voted to ban two Arab parties—Balad and the United Arab List (UAL)–Ta’al —from that year’s elections, citing their alleged support for Hamas in the Gaza conflict. The ban was rapidly overturned by the Supreme Court, and the parties were allowed to run; UAL-Ta’al won four seats, and Balad won three. In July 2010, a Knesset plenum voted to strip Balad member Haneen Zoabi of some parliamentary privileges—including the right to hold a diplomatic passport and to subsidized legal counsel in the event of criminal proceedings—following her participation in the Mavi Marmara flotilla. Zoabi appealed the decision to the High Court in November; the case had not been heard by year’s end.
Thirteen members of the current Knesset are Arab Israelis. While the Arab population votes heavily for Arab-oriented parties, the left-leaning and centrist Zionist parties also draw strong support from the Arab community. No independent Arab party has been formally included in a governing coalition.
After Israel annexed East Jerusalem in 1967, Arab residents were issued Israeli identity cards and given the option of obtaining Israeli citizenship, though most choose not to seek citizenship for political reasons. The noncitizens have the same rights as Israeli citizens, except the right to vote in national elections. They can vote in municipal as well as PA elections, and remain eligible to apply for Israeli citizenship. However, Israeli law strips such Arabs of their Jerusalem residency if they stay outside the city for more than three months; in 2009, the Interior Ministry revoked the residency rights of 4,570 Palestinians, representing more than a third of all such revocations since 1967. The city’s Arab population does not receive a share of municipal services proportionate to its numbers.
Under the 1948 Law of Return, Jewish immigrants and their immediate families are granted Israeli citizenship and residence rights; other immigrants must apply for these rights. In 2010, the cabinet endorsed a Yisrael Beiteinu–sponsored amendment to Israel’s citizenship law that would require new citizens to swear loyalty to Israel “as a Jewish and democratic state.” Some cabinet members, many opposition parties, and nearly all Israeli human rights organizations condemned the move as unnecessary, dangerously vague, and discriminatory against non-Jews, and the bill was ultimately rejected by the government.
A 2003 law temporarily denied citizenship and residency status to West Bank or Gaza residents married to Israeli citizens. While the measure was criticized as blatantly discriminatory, supporters cited evidence that 14 percent of suicide bombers acquired Israeli identity cards via family reunification laws. The Supreme Court in 2006 upheld the legislation, which affects about 15,000 couples, but new hearings at the court were ongoing in 2010.
Israel was ranked 30 out of 178 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index. Corruption scandals in recent years have implicated senior officials including a prime minister, a foreign minister, a finance minister, and the heads of the tax authority and the police. Ehud Olmert resigned as prime minister in 2008 amid an investigation into donations and other gifts he had reportedly received from a U.S. businessman over many years, as well as several other alleged misdeeds dating to his previous posts in the cabinet and as mayor of Jerusalem. In 2009, Olmert was indicted in three of these scandals, and one trial began in 2010. Also in 2010, Olmert’s former deputy mayor, Uri Lupoliansky, was arrested and charged with a series of corruption offenses. Separately, Yisrael Beiteinu leader and current foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman was under investigation for money laundering, fraud, and breach of trust; in May, police recommended that the attorney general file charges against him.
Press freedom is respected in Israel, and the media are vibrant and independent. All Israeli newspapers are privately owned and freely criticize government policy. The Israel Broadcasting Authority operates public radio and television services, and commercial broadcasts are widely available. Most Israelis subscribe to cable or satellite television. Internet access is widespread and unrestricted. While print articles on security matters are subject to a military censor, the scope of permissible reporting is broad. In April 2010, a widely condemned gag order on the case of journalist Anat Kam was lifted, revealing that she had been charged with “serious espionage” for giving Haaretz newspaper reporter Uri Blau over 2,000 classified military documents. Kam, who allegedly leaked the documents during her military service, had reportedly been under house arrest since December 2009. Blau returned to Israel for questioning by the Shin Bet domestic security agency in October. The Government Press Office (GPO) has occasionally refused to provide press cards to journalists, especially Palestinians, to restrict them from entering Israel, claiming security considerations. In January 2010, Jared Maslin, an editor for the Palestinian news agency Ma’an, was denied entry to Israel and detained at an airport for a week for “failing to cooperate under questioning.”
While Israel’s founding documents define it as a “Jewish and democratic state,” freedom of religion is respected. Christian, Muslim, and Baha’i communities have jurisdiction over their own members in matters of marriage, divorce, and burial. Since the Orthodox establishment generally handles these matters among Jews, marriages between Jews and non-Jews are not recognized by the state unless conducted abroad. In July 2010, proposed legislation to give the Chief Rabbinate exclusive control over the conversion process drew significant opposition from non-Orthodox denominations, as the move would effectively annul non-Orthodox conversions to Judaism. By contrast, another conversion bill giving the chief rabbi of the IDF—and not the Chief Rabbinate—ultimate control over soldiers’ conversions passed a preliminary reading in the Knesset in December.
Muslim and Christian religious authorities are occasionally discriminated against in resource allocation and upkeep of religious sites, though the state budget officially assigns funds according to need. Citing security concerns, Israel occasionally restricts Muslim worshippers’ access to the Temple Mount, or Haram al-Sharif, in Jerusalem, and did so in February and March 2010. In October, police arrested two Muslim clerics from Nazareth on charges of supporting terrorism; the clerics allegedly called on supporters to join militant Islamist groups pledged to Israel’s destruction.
Primary and secondary education is universal, with instruction for the Arab minority based on the common curriculum used by the Jewish majority, but conducted in Arabic. In August 2010, the government mandated the teaching of Arabic in all state schools, starting with 170 schools in the north. School quality is generally worse in mostly Arab municipalities, and Arab children have reportedly had difficulty registering at mostly Jewish schools. Israel’s universities are open to all students based on merit, and have long been centers for dissent. In 2010, a number of civic organizations exerted pressure on university administrators to censure or fire faculty for allegedly enforcing “anti-Zionist” curriculums and political attitudes in the classroom, a charge echoed by Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar. Administrators generally rejected the accusations, and no censuring or firing took place. Periodic road closures and other security measures in recent years have made it difficult for West Bank and Gaza residents to reach Israeli universities.
Freedoms of assembly and association are respected. Israel hosts an active civil society, and demonstrations are widely permitted. Groups committed to the destruction of Israel are not allowed to demonstrate. In 2009, the cabinet approved a bill that would prohibit state funding for activities by local authorities that mark the Nakba, considered a day of mourning by many Arab Israelis and commemorated on Israeli independence day. The measure—which had yet to win the second of three required approvals from the Knesset by the end of 2010—also bars state funding for any activities that reject Israel’s existence as a Jewish and democratic state, or that fall within the official definition of armed struggle or terrorist activities against Israel. In 2010, a bill requiring nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to disclose all foreign donors passed through the Knesset’s Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee, though it had not yet been presented to the full chamber at year’s end.
Although most public protests against the IDF’s 2009 campaign in Gaza were allowed to proceed that year, human rights organizations alleged that permits were more difficult to obtain in Arab-majority towns in the north, that there were instances of physical violence by police, and that detained Arab Israeli protesters were more likely to be kept in custody during legal proceedings than their non-Arab counterparts. In June 2010, some 120,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews protested in Jerusalem and Bnei Barak over government efforts to reform their education system. In July, a similar number of demonstrators staged a 12-day, nearly countrywide march urging the government to secure the release of Gilad Shalit, a soldier held captive in Gaza since 2006.
Workers may join unions of their choice and have the right to strike and bargain collectively. Three-quarters of the workforce either belong to Histadrut, the national labor federation, or are covered by its social programs and bargaining agreements. Both sector-specific and general strikes are common, but typically last less than 24 hours. About 100,000 legal foreign workers enjoy wage protections, medical insurance, and guarantees against employer exploitation. However, those who leave their original employers are stripped of such rights and face deportation. Advocacy groups claim that there are at least 100,000 illegal workers in Israel, many of whom are exploited. In 2009, a new immigration enforcement unit announced plans to deport nearly 300,000 illegal migrants and visa violators. Following public opposition to a 2009 Interior Ministry decision to deport 250 migrant families, including 1,200 children, the government altered the plan in August 2010 to grant legal status to 800 of the children (and their families), specifically those who were enrolled in school, had been in the country for five years, and were fluent in Hebrew. In November, Israel began construction of a barrier along its border with Egypt to try to prevent undocumented African migrants from crossing into Israel. According to the interior ministry, over 30,000 illegal migrants have entered the country from Egypt in the past five years.
The judiciary is independent and regularly rules against the government. The Supreme Court hears direct petitions from citizens and Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The state generally adheres to court rulings, but the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) reported in 2009 that the state was in contempt of eight rulings handed down by the Supreme Court since 2006, including a 2006 rerouting of the West Bank security barrier.
The Emergency Powers (Detention) Law of 1979 provides for indefinite administrative detention without trial. According to the human rights group B’Tselem, by year’s end there were 5,705 Palestinians in Israeli jails: 4,662 serving sentences, 153 detainees, 683 being detained until the conclusion of legal proceedings, 204 administrative detainees, and 3 being detained under the Illegal Combatants Law. A temporary order in effect since 2006 permits the detention of suspects accused of security offenses for 96 hours without judicial oversight, compared with 24 hours for other detainees. Israel outlawed the use of torture to extract security information in 2000, but milder forms of coercion are permissible when the prisoner is believed to have vital information about impending terrorist attacks. Human rights groups criticize Israel for continuing to engage in what they consider torture. Interrogation methods include binding detainees to a chair in painful positions, slapping, kicking, and threatening violence against detainees and their relatives. In 2010, B’Tselem reported that, of the 645 interrogee complaints it has made to the Ministry of Justice concerning Israel Security Agency interrogators since 2001, none have led to a criminal investigation.
Personal security in Israel improved significantly in 2010. Rocket and mortar fire from Gaza continued, but far more sporadically than in previous years. According to B’Tselem, about 500 Israeli civilians have been killed by Palestinian militants since September 2000.
Although they have full political rights, the roughly one million Arab citizens of Israel (about 19 percent of the population) receive inferior education, housing, and social services relative to the Jewish population. According to a 2010 report by the NGO Mosawa, Arab Israelis own only 3.5 percent of the land in Israel and receive 3 to 5 percent of government spending, figures that were challenged by the government. Arab Israelis, except for the Druze minority, are not subject to the military draft, though they may volunteer. Those who do not serve are ineligible for the associated benefits, including scholarships and housing loans. In March 2010, the cabinet backed a $214 million investment plan to improve housing, transportation, and economic infrastructure in 12 Arab communities. In April and May, three Arab Israelis were arrested and charged with spying for Hezbollah, including the prominent Arab rights activist Amir Makhoul; Makhoul confessed and was convicted in October.
In 2008 and 2009, a number of semicommunal Jewish towns in the north began insisting that prospective property buyers accept Israel’s existence as a Jewish and democratic state as well as the towns’ “Zionist ethos.” While these restrictions—widely perceived as attempts to exclude Arabs—were being challenged in court in 2010, the Knesset’s Constitutional, Law, and Justice Committee approved a bill allowing communal settlements to turn down prospective residents who “fail to meet the fundamental views of the settlement.” The bill appeared highly unlikely to win final passage at year’s end. In October, a group of prominent rabbis—led by the chief rabbi of the city of Tzvat Shmuel Eliyahu—published a religious ruling urging Jews not to rent or sell property to non-Jews, especially Arabs; in December, dozens of other municipal rabbis signed the ruling. That same month, the government initiated an investigation against Eliyahu on charges of incitement to racism.
International and domestic human rights groups have accused the government of pervasive land and housing discrimination against the Bedouin, and have urged authorities to stop demolishing unlicensed Bedouin homes. In May 2010, the civil rights groups Adalah and ACRI accused the Interior Ministry of delaying elections to the Abu Basma regional council of Bedouin villages in order to keep it under the control of a ministry appointee. The state’s Israeli Lands Administration owns 93 percent of the land in Israel; 13 percent of that is owned by the Jewish National Fund (JNF). In 2005, the Supreme Court and attorney general ruled that the JNF could no longer market property only to Jews. The Knesset made several unsuccessful attempts to override those rulings.
Security measures can lead to delays at checkpoints and in public places. By law, all citizens must carry national identification cards. The West Bank security barrier restricts the movements of some East Jerusalem residents. Formal and informal local rules that prevent driving on Jewish holidays can also hamper freedom of movement.
Women have achieved substantial parity at almost all levels of Israeli society. However, Arab women and religious Jewish women face some discrimination and societal pressures that negatively affect their professional, political, and social lives. The trafficking of women for prostitution has become a problem in recent years; both the United Nations and the U.S. State Department have identified Israel as a top destination for trafficked women. The government has opened shelters for victims, and a 2006 law mandates prison terms of up to 20 years for perpetrators. In December 2010, former president Moshe Katsav was convicted of rape by a Tel Aviv court; Katsav had resigned in 2007 amid allegations of rape while he was tourism minister in the 1990s and sexual harassment during his tenure as president.
A 2005 Supreme Court decision granted guardianship rights to nonbiological parents in same-sex partnerships, and two lesbians were granted permission to legally adopt each other’s biological children in 2006. Openly gay Israelis are permitted to serve in the armed forces. In 2009, however, a gunman killed 2 people and wounded 15 at a gay, lesbian, and transgender support center in Tel Aviv.