The First Election Of Israel
The first Knesset elections were held on January 25, 1949, in all areas then under the jurisdiction of the State of Israel. It was a test of the state and its ability to establish and sustain a democratic structure. The Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel called for elections to create a constituent Assembly, and the existing leadership soon created the procedures for Israel’s first parliamentary election.
Before this could be done a census was required so that a list of eligible voters could be compiled. The census was taken on November 8, 1948, in the territory under Israeli control as of october 14. This included immigrants who arrived that day. The census identified a population of 712,000 Jews and 69,000 Arabs. The elections were then set for January 25, 1949.
The election campaign was relatively quiet by subsequent Israeli standards, in part because so many Israelis were serving in the army and because there was no expectation of great political changes given the prominence of the prestatehood groups and leaders.
Ben-Gurion was associated with and widely given credit for the political and military triumphs of the Jewish community in Palestine and with the postindependence state. challenging him and his Mapai Party would prove a daunting task. New political groups were established, but it was difficult for them to develop quickly a substantial constituency under existing conditions in the short period since independence.
The elections reflected an orderly democratic process, and a large number of political parties contested the 120 seats in the parliament. There were no major disturbances and no complaints of election fraud. officially, there were 506,567 eligible voters and 440,095 of them (86.9 percent) voted. (For each election, the Knesset specifies/defines voting eligibility.
The criteria are similar to those in the United States.) The results reflected a generally left-of-center, labor-oriented electorate. Mapai clearly emerged as the most powerful party, gaining 46 of the 120 seats in the Knesset.
Significantly, this first election took place while the country was still at war with its Arab neighbors, armistice agreements had not yet been negotiated, and its place in the region and the world had not been assured. In addition, many of the voters were recent immigrants who had come to the Palestine mandate or to Israel only since the end of World War II, and some were Holocaust survivors.
Many had never voted before, and some had little experience with democratic processes or orderly governmental change. So the experience of the first election was important in convincing Israelis that the democratic process and the parliamentary system not only worked but allowed expression of their views for the orderly functioning and changing of government.
The first election led to the establishment of a coalition government, a pattern that has been followed ever since, because no single party won a majority of the seats in parliament. The coalition was composed primarily of the left-of-center parties and the religious parties, a pattern that also became rather commonplace in subsequent decades. But there were religious differences and discord that soon led to the need for a second parliamentary election, which took place in 1951.
The Second Knesset Election
The second election did not show any significant shift in the composition of the Knesset with the exception of an increase in votes for the General Zionists. More than 75 percent of the eligible voters participated in the second election on July 30, 1951, but again did not give a majority to any one party. Mapai again emerged as the dominant party and again formed the government with religious party participation. The majority of its members were the old guard followed by officials of the Histadrut and its numerous bodies.
Israel is a republic based on an unwritten constitution. The first act of the constitutent Assembly in February 1949 was to enact the Transition Law (Small constitution) that became the basis of constitutional life in the state. Administrative and executive procedures were based on a combination of past experience in self-government, elements adapted from the former mandatory structure, and new legislation.
According to the Small constitution, Israel was established as a republic with a weak president and a strong cabinet and parliament. It was anticipated that this document would be replaced in due course by a more extensive one, and the first Knesset devoted much time to a profound discussion of the constitutional issue.
The main poles of the debate were between those who favored a written constitution and those who believed that the time was not appropriate for imposing rigid constitutional limitations on the country. The latter group argued that a written constitution could not be framed because of constantly changing social conditions resulting from mass immigration and lack of experience with independent governmental institutions.
There was also concern about the relationship between state and religion and the method of incorporating the precepts and ideals of Judaism into the proposed document. The discussion of these issues continued for more than a year. on June 13, 1950, it was decided that a written constitution would ultimately be adopted, but that for the time being there would not be a formal and comprehensive document. Instead, a number of fundamental or basic laws would be passed dealing with specific subjects, which might in time form chapters in a consolidated constitution.
Nevertheless, there are areas of general consensus, which together with the fundamental laws form the parameters of Israel’s system. Israel’s “Jewishness” is perhaps the most significant area of agreement, although there is a divergence of views on some of its tenets and their interpretation.
This general agreement centers on what are sometimes termed the goals or purposes of Israel such as the “ingathering of the exiles” (the return of the Jewish people from the Diaspora to their ancient homeland in Eretz Yisrael) and the establishment of a state based on “Jewish” principles. consensus is similarly applied to the view that Israel should be a welfare state, although there are conflicting views regarding the specific scope and method of implementation of this principle. Foreign and security policy constitutes another area enjoying wide consensus because of its overriding importance in light of the continuing IsraelArab dispute.
The IDF enjoys an enviable military reputation despite occasional criticism of its actions. It remains outside politics and under civilian control and is identified with the state rather than with any particular group or party but has served as an incubator for future political leaders. Its role in internal cohesion is increased by universal military service and the great awareness of the security situation.
The president, the government (cabinet), and the parliament (Knesset) perform the basic political functions of the state within the framework delineated by Israel’s constitutional consensus. The president is elected by parliament. He is head of state, and his powers and functions are essentially of a representative character.
The member of parliament entrusted with the task of forming the government establishes a cabinet, generally with himself as prime minister and a number of ministers. The government is constitutionally instituted upon obtaining a vote of confidence from the parliament.The cabinet is collectively responsible to parliament, reports to it, and remains in office as long as it enjoys the confidence of that body.
A government’s tenure may also be terminated by ending the parliament’s tenure, by the resignation of the government on its own initiative, or by the resignation of the prime minister.The Knesset is the supreme authority in the state. It is a unicameral parliament of 120 members elected by national, general, secret, direct, equal, and proportional suffrage for a term not to exceed four years.
The main functions of the Knesset are similar to those of most modern parliaments. They include expressing a vote of confidence or no-confidence in the government, legislating, participating in the formation of national policy, and supervising the activities of the governmental administration. The Knesset must also approve the budget and taxation, elect the president, recommend the appointment of the state comptroller, and participate in the appointment of judges.
Law of Return
Zionism as a political solution to anti-Semitism was enshrined in Israel’s declaration of independence. Israel faced the practical issue of what to do about Jewish remnants in Europe and Jews elsewhere who saw Israel as a refuge from their problems in their respective states.
Upon independence, Israel reversed the British restrictions on Jewish immigration to Palestine, affirmed the right of every Jew to live in Israel, and allowed essentially unfettered immigration in the Law of return (1950).
In the first four months of independence, some 50,000 newcomers, mainly Holocaust survivors, arrived in Israel; by the end of 1951, a total of 687,000 had arrived, more than 300,000 of them from Arab states, thus doubling the Jewish population.