The separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches in the Israeli political system generally follows the British pattern. The cabinet is the top executive policy-making body and the center of political power in the nation. It consists of the prime minister and an unspecified number of ministers. The head of government must be a Knesset member, but this is not a requirement for ministers. In practice, most ministers have been Knesset members; when non-Knesset members are considered for cabinet posts, their selection is subject to Knesset approval. A deputy prime minister and deputy ministers may be appointed from among the membership of the Knesset, usually as a result of coalition bargaining, but in this instance only the deputy prime minister is considered a regular cabinet member. As stated above, in September 1984, the National Unity Government established the position of vice prime minister, or vice premier. The vice prime minister, who was the leader of one of the two major parties in the unity coalition, was considered the second leading cabinet minister.
The cabinet takes office upon confirmation by the Knesset, to which it is collectively responsible for all its acts. To obtain this consent, the prime minister-designate must submit a list of cabinet members along with a detailed statement of basic principles and policies of his or her government. The cabinet can be dissolved if it resigns en masse, if the Knesset passes a motion of censure against it, or if the prime minister resigns or dies. The prime minister's resignation invalidates the cabinet, but resignations of individual ministers do not have this effect. Since independence all cabinets have been coalitions of parties, each coalition having been formed to achieve the required total of sixty-one or more Knesset seats. Although often based on political expediency, coalition formation is also concerned with ideological and issue compatibility among the participating groups. Cabinet posts are divided among coalition partners through behind-the-scenes bargaining and in proportion to the parliamentary strength of the parties involved, usually at the ratio of one cabinet portfolio for every three or four Knesset seats. This formula may be dispensed with, however, in times of national emergency or electoral and political stalemate. The first precedent in this direction occurred after the June 1967 War when a "national unity government" was formed by co-opting three opposition party leaders as cabinet ministers. This move, which was achieved without the standard cabinet formation procedure, was designed to demonstrate internal solidarity in the face of an external threat.
The members of coalition governments are obligated to fulfill their commitments to the coalition at the time of seeking a vote of confidence from the Knesset. A cabinet member may be dismissed for failing to support the government on any matter that is included in the original coalition pact except where the minister's dissenting vote in the Knesset for reasons of "conscience" is specifically approved in advance by the minister's party. This obligation also applies in the formation and maintenance of a national unity government, with the exception of times of emergency when opposition elements co-opted into the cabinet may disagree with the mainstream of the coalition on any matters other than those they have pledged to support. At a minimum, coalition members must vote with the government on issues of national defense, foreign policy, the budget, and motions of censure. Failure to do so constitutes grounds for their expulsion; ministers may simply withdraw from the government in protest if they cannot reconcile themselves to the mainstream.
As a rule, the cabinet meets at least once a week on Sunday morning or whenever extraordinary reasons warrant. Cabinet deliberations are confidential; this is especially true when the body meets as a session of the ministerial Committee for Security Affairs.
The cabinet conducts much of its work through four standing committees dealing with economic affairs, legislation, foreign affairs and security, and home affairs and services. The committees meet once a week and may set up special ad hoc committees of inquiry to scrutinize issues affecting coalition unity or other urgent questions. A cabinet member may be assigned to one or more committees. Committee decisions are final unless challenged in plenary cabinet sessions.
As compensation for serving in the cabinet, Knesset members' salaries and accompanying benefits are supplemented by the government. Ministers are given a car and a driver and offices in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The government provides them with an official residence in Jerusalem and covers personal expenses such as travel, hotels, and food on official business. They also receive comprehensive medical insurance and other allowances.
Until November 1988, the unity cabinet included, in addition to Prime Minister Shamir, nineteen ministers with portfolio, including the vice-prime minister and two deputy prime ministers. The jurisdictions of their portfolios were agriculture, communications, defense, economics and planning, education and culture, energy and infrastructure, finance, foreign affairs, health, housing and construction, immigration and absorption, industry and trade, interior, justice and tourism (both ministries were headed by one minister), labor and social affairs, police, religious affairs, science and development, and transportation. In addition, there were six ministers without portfolio. Upon approval of the second unity government by the Knesset in December 1988, the new cabinet consisted of twenty-eight ministers, the largest in the country's history. Its size was expanded to accommodate political demands by the coalition partners.
Interministerial coordination is the responsibility of the four standing cabinet committees and the Office of the Prime Minister, especially the Government Secretariat, which is located in that office. Headed by the secretary to the government (the position is also known as government secretary or cabinet secretary), the secretariat prepares the agenda for meetings of the cabinet and cabinet committees, maintains their records, coordinates the work of ministries, and informs the public of government decisions and policies.
Also in the Office of the Prime Minister are the Prime Minister's Bureau, which deals with confidential matters concerning the chief executive, and a staff of advisers on political and legal issues, national security, terrorism and counterterrorism, the media, petitions and complaints, Arab affairs, and welfare affairs. The most influential advisory personnel carry the title of "director general and political adviser" to the prime minister. Other constituent units of the office include the State Archives and Library, Government Names Committee, Government Press Office, National Council for Research and Development, Technological and Scientific Information Center, Atomic Energy Commission, Institute for Biological Research, National Parks Authority, and Central Bureau of Statistics.
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