Israel is a multiparty democracy with strong and independent institutions that guarantee political rights and civil liberties for most of the population. Although the judiciary is comparatively active in protecting minority rights, the political leadership and many in society have discriminated against Arab and other ethnic or religious minority populations, resulting in systemic disparities in areas including political representation, criminal justice, education, and economic opportunity.
- After two successive elections in 2019 failed to produce a governing majority, new parliamentary elections were held in March, and right-leaning incumbent prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu formed a coalition government that included his centrist rival, Benny Gantz, in May. However, the coalition collapsed in December 2020, and elections were scheduled for March 2021.
- Netanyahu remained in office throughout the year despite being on trial for three separate corruption charges. For several months, his critics maintained weekly protests outside his residence in Jerusalem and at other locations across the country.
- Israeli officials were fairly successful at containing the COVID-19 pandemic in the first half of the year, and related restrictions on assembly and movement were not unusually long lasting or widely disproportionate to the health threat. A surge in cases that began in the summer led to a second lockdown, and a third round of restrictions were imposed in December as case numbers spiked again.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?||4.004 4.004|
A largely ceremonial president is elected by the Knesset for one seven-year term. In 2014, Reuven Rivlin of the conservative Likud party was elected to replace outgoing president Shimon Peres, receiving 63 votes in a runoff against Meir Sheetrit of the centrist Hatnuah party.
The prime minister is usually the leader of the largest faction in the Knesset. In 2014, in a bid to create more stable governing coalitions, the electoral threshold for parties to win representation was raised from 2 percent to 3.25 percent, and the no-confidence procedure was revised so that opponents hoping to oust a sitting government must simultaneously vote in a new one.
The incumbent prime minister in 2020, Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud, had been in office since 2009. However, he served in a caretaker capacity from December 2018 through May 2020, as two elections in 2019 failed to result in a governing coalition. The March 2020 elections led to the formation of a unity government in which Netanyahu would serve as prime minister for the first 18 months and Benny Gantz of the centrist Blue and White bloc would then replace him. However, the agreement collapsed in December, and Netanyahu returned to his caretaker status pending new elections in March 2021.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?||4.004 4.004|
Members of the 120-seat Knesset are elected by party-list proportional representation for four-year terms, and elections are typically free and fair.
In the March 2020 elections, Likud won 36 seats, Blue and White won 33, and the Joint List—a coalition of parties representing Arab citizens of Israel, who often identify as Palestinian—took 15. Two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, took 9 and 7 seats; the left-leaning alliance Labour-Gesher-Meretz won 7; and the right-wing parties Yisrael Beiteinu and Yemina captured 7 and 6 seats, respectively.
Objecting to the formation of the unity government, more than a dozen members of Blue and White formed an opposition faction in the Knesset called Yesh Atid–Telem. Also in opposition during 2020 were the Joint List, Yisrael Beiteinu, Yamina, and Meretz.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?||4.004 4.004|
The fairness and integrity of elections are guaranteed by the Central Elections Committee (CEC), which is composed of delegations representing the various political groups in the Knesset and chaired by a Supreme Court judge. Elections are generally conducted in a peaceful and orderly manner, and all parties usually accept the results.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?||3.003 4.004|
Israel hosts a diverse and competitive multiparty system. However, parties or candidates that deny Israel’s Jewish character, oppose democracy, or incite racism are prohibited. Under a 2016 law, the Knesset can remove any members who incite racism or support armed struggle against the state of Israel with a three-quarters majority vote; critics allege that the law is aimed at silencing Arab representatives. Two far-right Jewish candidates were barred from running in the September 2019 elections. In February 2020, the Supreme Court rejected a bid to exclude Joint List candidate Heba Yazbak, and she went on to win a Knesset seat in March.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?||4.004 4.004|
Israel has undergone multiple, peaceful rotations of power among rival political groups during its history. Opposition parties control several major cities, including Tel Aviv, and many Arab-majority towns are run by mayors from the Joint List parties.
|Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?||4.004 4.004|
Israeli voters are generally free from coercion or undue influence by interest groups outside the political sphere. A 2017 law imposes funding restrictions on organizations that are not political parties but seek to influence elections. While it was aimed at limiting political interference by outside groups and wealthy donors, critics of the law said its provisions could affect civil society activism surrounding elections and infringe on freedoms of association and expression.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?||2.002 4.004|
Political power in Israel is held disproportionately by Jewish men; while Ashkenazim (Jews of European descent) have historically enjoyed particular advantages, Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern descent) have gained representation in recent decades.
Women generally enjoy full political rights in law and in practice, though they remain somewhat underrepresented in leadership positions and can encounter additional obstacles in parties and communities—both Jewish and Arab—that are associated with religious or cultural conservatism. Shas and United Torah Judaism continued to exclude women from their candidate lists in 2020, while Ra’am, an Islamist party on the Joint List, elected its first woman Knesset member.
In 2018, the Knesset adopted a new “basic law” known as the nation-state law, which introduced the principle that the right to exercise self-determination in the State of Israel belongs uniquely to the Jewish people, among other discriminatory provisions. The basic laws of Israel are considered equivalent to a constitution, and critics of the nation-state law said it created a framework for the erosion of non-Jewish citizens’ political and civil rights.
Arab or Palestinian citizens of Israel already faced some discrimination in practice, both legal and informal. No Arab party has ever been formally included in a governing coalition, and Arabs generally do not serve in senior positions in government. However, in the immediate aftermath of the 2020 elections, the Joint List supported Benny Gantz for prime minister, marking the first time the Arab parties have endorsed a candidate since Yitzhak Rabin in 1992. Arab voter turnout also surged to nearly 65 percent in 2020, up from 49 percent in April 2019 and the highest level since 1999.
The roughly 600,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem are Israeli citizens and can participate in Israeli elections. Arab residents of East Jerusalem have the option of obtaining Israeli citizenship, though most decline for political reasons. While these noncitizens are entitled to vote in municipal as well as Palestinian Authority (PA) elections, most have traditionally boycotted Israeli municipal balloting, and Israel has restricted PA election activity in the city. A Palestinian Jerusalem resident who is not a citizen cannot become mayor under current Israeli law. Israeli law strips noncitizens of their Jerusalem residency if they are away for extended periods, and a law adopted in 2018 empowers the interior minister to revoke such residency for those deemed to be involved in terrorism or treason-related offenses. Citizenship and residency status are denied to Palestinian residents of the West Bank or Gaza Strip who are married to Israeli citizens.
Courts can revoke the citizenship of any Israeli convicted of spying, treason, or aiding the enemy. Separately, it was reported during 2017 that the Interior Ministry had revoked the citizenship of dozens and possibly thousands of Bedouins over several years, citing decades-old registration errors.
Jewish immigrants and their immediate families are granted Israeli citizenship and residence rights. Other immigrants must apply for these rights, and it is difficult in practice for non-Jewish migrant workers and asylum seekers to obtain citizenship.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?||3.003 4.004|
The government and parliament are free to set and implement policies and laws without undue interference from unelected entities. Military service plays an important role in both political and civilian life, with many top officers entering politics at the end of their careers, but elected civilian institutions remain in firm control of the military.
In 2019, the failure of two successive elections to yield a governing majority meant that the country lacked a fully empowered government for the entire year, with the incumbents remaining in place in a caretaker capacity. The instability continued in 2020, as the government formed in the wake of the March elections collapsed after about seven months in office, necessitating the fourth round of balloting in just two years.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?||2.002 4.004|
High-level corruption investigations are relatively frequent, with senior officials implicated in several scandals and criminal cases in recent years. In November 2019, Netanyahu was indicted on separate charges of fraud, bribery, and breach of trust; police had recommended the charges in 2018 after conducting three investigations into his alleged acceptance of expensive gifts, his apparent attempt to collude with the owner of the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth to secure positive coverage, and the granting of regulatory favors to telecommunications operator and media conglomerate Bezeq in return for positive coverage. Netanyahu denied the charges against him, accused law enforcement bodies of perpetrating “an attempted coup,” and called for a commission to “investigate the investigators.” He refused to step down as prime minister after the indictment and continued to hold office through 2020. He also pursued legislative approval of an immunity bill that would shield him and other lawmakers from prosecution while in office, though the measure had not passed at year’s end. Pretrial hearings proceeded during the year, with the prosecution scheduled to formally open its case in early 2021.
Also during 2020, prosecutors continued to investigate Netanyahu’s former personal attorney, a former navy commander, and a number of other former officials for alleged bribery related to a contract to purchase naval vessels. Police had recommended charges in 2018.
A law passed in 2017 limits the circumstances under which the police can file indictment recommendations when investigating elected officials and senior civil servants, and increases the penalties for leaking a police recommendation or other investigative materials. While the law did not apply to existing investigations, the parliamentary opposition at the time accused the majority of trying to weaken law enforcement agencies to protect its political leadership.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?||3.003 4.004|
Israel’s laws, political practices, civil society groups, and independent media generally ensure a substantial level of governmental transparency, though recent corruption cases have illustrated persistent shortcomings. The Freedom of Information Law grants every citizen and resident of Israel the right to receive information from a public authority. However, the law includes blanket exemptions that allow officials to withhold information on the armed forces, intelligence services, the Atomic Energy Agency, and the prison system, potentially enabling the concealment of abuses.
|Are there free and independent media?||3.003 4.004|
The Israeli media sector as a whole is vibrant and free to criticize government policy. While the scope of permissible reporting is generally broad, print articles on security matters are subject to a military censor. According to the results of a freedom of information request, in 2019 the military partially redacted a total of 1,973 news items and fully barred publication of 202 others, out of 8,127 stories submitted for review; both figures represented a decline from the previous year. The Government Press Office has occasionally withheld press cards from journalists to restrict them from entering Israel, citing security considerations.
A 2017 law allows police and prosecutors to obtain court orders that require the blocking of websites found to publish criminal or offensive content. Freedom of expression advocates warned that the measure could permit the suppression of legitimate speech.
Netanyahu’s dual role as prime minister and communications minister between 2014 and 2017 raised questions about conflicts of interest involving the ministry’s regulatory functions. He was forced to resign as communications minister in light of the police investigations into his alleged attempts to arrange favorable coverage from certain private media outlets. While the next two communications ministers were considered close allies of the prime minister, a Blue and White member, Yoaz Hendel, took the post as part of the unity government formed in May 2020.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?||3.003 4.004|
While Israel defines itself as a Jewish state, freedom of religion is largely respected. Christian, Muslim, and Baha’i communities have jurisdiction over their own members in matters of marriage, divorce, and burial. The Orthodox establishment governs personal status matters among Jews, drawing objections from many non-Orthodox and secular Israelis. Most ultra-Orthodox Jews, or Haredim, have been excused from compulsory military service under a decades-old exemption for those engaged in full-time Torah study. The Supreme Court, having struck down the existing exemption law as unconstitutional in 2017, has called for the Knesset to adopt new guidelines or begin enforcing normal conscription rules, repeatedly extending deadlines for it to do so. No new legislation had been adopted as of 2020.
Although the law protects the religious sites of non-Jewish groups, they face discrimination in the allocation of state resources as well as persistent cases of vandalism or harassment, which usually go unsolved.
Citing security concerns, Israeli authorities have set varying limits on access to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif in East Jerusalem in recent years, affecting worshippers across the broader area. However, in 2018 the government lifted restrictions on Jewish lawmakers visiting the site that had been in place for nearly three years.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?||3.003 4.004|
Primary and secondary education is universal, though divided into multiple public school systems (state, state-religious, Haredi, and Arabic). School quality and resources are generally lower in mostly non-Jewish communities. A 2018 law bans groups that are in favor of legal action abroad against Israeli soldiers, or that otherwise undermine state educational goals by criticizing the military, from entering Israeli schools or interacting with students.
Israel’s universities have long been centers for dissent and are open to all students, though security-related restrictions on movement limit access for West Bank and Gaza residents in practice.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?||3.003 4.004|
While private discussion in Israel is generally open and free, there are some restrictions on political expression. For example, the 2011 Boycott Law exposes Israeli individuals and groups to civil lawsuits if they advocate an economic, cultural, or academic boycott of the state of Israel or West Bank settlements.
|Is there freedom of assembly?||3.003 4.004|
Protests and demonstrations are widely permitted and typically peaceful. However, some protest activities—such as desecration of the flag of Israel or a friendly country—can draw serious criminal penalties, and police have sometimes attempted to restrict peaceful demonstrations. Antigovernment protest activity continued throughout 2020 despite varying pandemic-related rules on social distancing. For several weeks, the authorities prohibited individuals from participating in protests more than a kilometer from their homes.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?||2.002 4.004|
The environment for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) has deteriorated in recent years. A law that took effect in 2012 requires NGOs to submit financial reports four times a year on support received from foreign government sources. Under a 2016 law, NGOs that receive more than half of their funding from foreign governments must disclose this fact publicly and in any written or oral communications with elected officials. The measure mainly affects groups associated with the political left that oppose Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians; foreign funding for right-leaning groups that support Jewish settlements in the West Bank, for example, more often comes from private sources.
A 2017 law bars access to the country for any foreign individuals or groups that publicly support a boycott of Israel or its West Bank settlements. The measure was criticized by civil society organizations as an obstacle to the activities of many pro-Palestinian and human rights groups. In 2019, the Supreme Court upheld a deportation order that authorities had issued the previous year against Human Rights Watch’s regional director, Omar Shakir, in part because the organization had called on businesses to stop operating in West Bank settlements to avoid complicity in human rights abuses. In a separate 2018 case, authorities sought to bar entry to a US student pursuing a graduate degree in Israel on the grounds that she had been involved with a proboycott organization in the past. The Supreme Court ruled later the same year that the 2017 law did not apply to the student, in part because it was meant to be preventive rather than punitive.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?||4.004 4.004|
Workers may join unions and have the right to strike and bargain collectively. Most of the workforce either belongs to Histadrut, the national labor federation, or is covered by its social programs and bargaining agreements.
|Is there an independent judiciary?||4.004 4.004|
The judiciary is independent and regularly rules against the government. The Supreme Court has historically played a crucial role in protecting minority groups and overturning decisions by the government and the parliament when they threaten human rights. The court hears direct petitions from both Israeli citizens and Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and the state generally adheres to court rulings.
Some right-wing politicians have advocated reforms that would allow the Knesset to override the Supreme Court when it strikes down legislation. However, lawmakers overwhelmingly rejected such a bill in August 2020, with Likud members abstaining to avoid a rupture in the governing coalition.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?||3.003 4.004|
Although due process is largely guaranteed in ordinary cases, those suspected of security-related offenses are subject to special legal provisions. Individuals can be held in administrative detention without trial for renewable six-month terms. According to the human rights group B’Tselem, there were a total of 4,279 Palestinians from the occupied territories in Israeli Prison Service facilities at the end of June 2020, including 357 in administrative detention. Under criminal law, individuals suspected of security offenses can be held for up to 96 hours without judicial review under certain circumstances, and be denied access to an attorney for up to 21 days.
According to Defense for Children International (DCI) Palestine, 151 Palestinian children (aged 12–17) from the occupied territories were being held in Israeli military detention as of June 2020. Although Israeli law prohibits the detention of children younger than 12, some are occasionally held. Most Palestinian child detainees are serving sentences—handed down by a special military court for minors created in 2009—for throwing stones or other projectiles at Israeli troops in the West Bank; acquittals on such charges are very rare, and the military courts have been criticized for a lack of due process protections. East Jerusalem Palestinian minors are tried in Israeli civilian juvenile courts.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?||2.002 4.004|
Israeli border communities receive occasional rocket and artillery fire from Syria and the Gaza Strip. Israeli security forces and civilians also face the ongoing threat of small-scale terrorist attacks, most often involving stabbings or vehicular assaults. Human rights groups have sometimes accused police of using deadly force against stone throwers or perpetrators of stabbing and vehicular attacks when they did not pose a lethal threat.
The Supreme Court banned torture in a 1999 ruling, but said physical coercion might be permissible during interrogations in cases involving an imminent threat. Human rights organizations accuse the authorities of continuing to use some forms of physical abuse and other measures such as isolation, sleep deprivation, psychological threats and pressure, painful binding, and humiliation.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?||2.002 4.004|
Jewish citizens, particularly those of Ashkenazi descent, typically enjoy practical advantages relative to the rest of the population on matters including legal treatment and socioeconomic conditions.
Arab or Palestinian citizens of Israel face de facto discrimination in education, social services, and access to housing and related permits. Aside from the Druze minority, they are exempted from military conscription, though they may volunteer. Those who do not serve are ineligible for the associated benefits, including scholarships and housing loans. The 2018 nation-state law downgraded Arabic from an official language of the country to a language with “special status,” while another clause said the change would not “affect the status given to the Arabic language before this law came into force,” suggesting that it would be a largely symbolic demotion. In 2019, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released a report that found a significant and growing gap between the abilities of Hebrew-speaking students and those of their Arabic-speaking peers in Israeli schools.
The 2018 nation-state law also declared that the state “views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value, and shall act to encourage and promote its establishment and strengthening.” The Jewish National Fund (JNF-KKL), which owns about 13 percent of the land in Israel, has effectively maintained a Jewish-only land-leasing policy thanks to a land-swap arrangement with the Israel Land Authority, which grants the JNF-KKL replacement property whenever an Arab bidder obtains a parcel of its land.
Many of Israel’s Bedouin citizens live in towns and villages that are not recognized by the state. Those in unrecognized villages cannot claim social services, are in some cases off the electricity grid, and have no official land rights, and the government routinely demolishes their unlicensed structures.
Israelis of Ethiopian origin suffer from discrimination—including in the criminal justice system—and lag behind the general population economically despite government integration efforts. In 2019, Ethiopian Israelis staged several days of demonstrations against police brutality after the fatal shooting of a teenager of Ethiopian descent by an off-duty police officer.
Women are treated equally in criminal and civil courts and have achieved substantial parity within Israeli society, though economic and other forms of discrimination persist, particularly among Arab and religious Jewish communities. Arab women are far less likely to be employed than either Arab men or Jewish women.
Discrimination based on sexual orientation is illegal, though LGBT+ people continue to face bias in some communities. Gay and transgender Israelis are permitted to serve openly in the military.
Individuals who enter the country irregularly, including asylum seekers, can be detained for up to a year without charges. Asylum applications, when fully processed, are nearly always rejected. In recent years the authorities have pressured thousands of African migrants and asylum seekers who entered the country irregularly—mostly from Eritrea and Sudan—to agree to be repatriated or deported to a third country, such as Rwanda or Uganda. There have been few new irregular entries since a barrier along the border with Egypt was completed in 2013, though there were more than 30,000 asylum seekers in the country as of 2020.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?||3.003 4.004|
Security measures can sometimes present obstacles to freedom of movement, though military checkpoints are restricted to the West Bank. Informal local rules that prevent driving on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays can also hamper free movement. Some movement restrictions were imposed for public health purposes during 2020, but they were generally limited in duration and grounded in genuine epidemiological concerns.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?||3.003 4.004|
Property rights within Israel are effectively protected, and business activity is generally free of undue interference. Businesses face a low risk of expropriation or criminal activity, and corruption is not a major obstacle for private investors. However, the authorities’ general commitment to property rights has been called into question given their handling of unrecognized Bedouin villages and settlement policies in the West Bank.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?||3.003 4.004|
Personal social freedoms are generally guaranteed. However, since religious courts oversee personal status issues, women face some disadvantages in divorce and other matters. Many ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities attempt to enforce unofficial rules on gender separation and personal attire. Marriages between Jews and non-Jews are not recognized by the state unless conducted abroad, nor are marriages involving a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim man. Israel recognizes same-sex marriages conducted abroad. Nonbiological parents in same-sex partnerships are eligible for guardianship rights. A 2018 law extended surrogacy rights to women without a male partner but not to men without a female partner, effectively excluding gay men.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?||2.002 4.004|
Israel remains a destination for human-trafficking victims, and African migrants and asylum seekers residing in the country are especially vulnerable to forced labor and sex trafficking. The government works actively to combat trafficking and protect victims. Israel’s legal foreign workers are formally protected from exploitation by employers, but these guarantees are poorly enforced. A smaller number of foreigners work in the country illegally. Histadrut has opened membership to foreign workers and called on employers to grant them equal rights. Discrimination against and exploitation of Palestinians from the occupied territories working in Israel remains commonplace.
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