Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Daniel Elazar Papers Index

Israel: Constitution, Government and Politics

Switzerland as a Model for
Constitutional Reform in Israel

Daniel J. Elazar

When Israelis consider constitutional reform, they usually look to the United States with its separation-of-powers system, the United Kingdom with its combination of Westminster-style parliamentary government and single member constituencies to parliamentary elections, or the French Fifth Republic with its presidential system. In doing so, they overlook Switzerland, a very useful example that has several features that should be of special interest to Israelis: the size of its territory (41,239 km2) and population (six million) are quite similar to those of Israel; certain aspects of the political culture of the two peoples are similar, particularly their fierce independence, sense of collective identity, and sense of special vocation; and, finally, Israel has already borrowed certain elements of its system from Switzerland, most particularly the Swiss system of military mobilization and reserve service.

The fact that such comparisons rarely are made may have to do with the superficial perception that Switzerland is so peaceful and prosperous and its people so simple and orderly that it cannot be compared to Israel. But it should be remembered that Switzerland, like Israel, was forged through an extended period of warfare with its neighbors that lasted continuously for four hundred years and that its present state of prosperous neutrality was only inaugurated after its liberation from Napoleonic conquest at the beginning of the nineteenth century, over five hundred years after the first three Swiss cantons confederated as the nucleus of modern Switzerland. Indeed, it was not until that late date that Switzerland achieved its present borders which were guaranteed by the powers of Europe in 1816. In those years of warfare the Swiss gained a worldwide reputation as tough soldiers who, in times of peace, went around the world to fight.

Moreover, during what may be called Switzerland's golden age in the sixteenth century, at the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, whose Reformed wing was basically a Swiss product, the Swiss leaders of the Reformation leaned heavily on the Hebrew Bible (to them the Old Testament) for inspiration and, indeed, direct constitutional application. They reorganized their cities and cantonal republics along biblical principles of governance, elements of which survive to this day. While the difference in decibel level between the two peoples is superficially significant, it may be that the Swiss are quieter today because they have found the political system that suits their particular political culture, whereas Israelis may be noisier than necessary because they are living with a political system that is utterly dysfunctional to their political culture.

What follows is a brief description of the highlights of those aspects of the Swiss political system of particular relevance to Israel. It is designed to suggest lines for further exploration.

The Swiss Political System

We can identify eleven facets of the Swiss political system worth exploring: 1) its written constitution: 2) the separation of powers; 3) a plural executive; 4) bicameralism; 5) the electoral and party system; 6) its federalism; 7) its strong cantonal and communal self-government; 8) institutionalized consultation; 9) its pattern of relationships between religion and state; 10) government as a civic responsibility; 11) the Swiss system of rights and liberties.

1. Written Constitution

In part because Switzerland is a federal system and in part because of the country's desire to preserve the Swiss conception of liberty, the Swiss have emphasized constitutionalism through a written constitution. The present Swiss constitution was adopted in 1848 and underwent substantial revision in 1874. Since Switzerland is a communal, liberal democracy the major concern of its constitution is the preservation of communal liberty, which manifests itself through the distribution of powers among communes, cantons and the federal government; among Protestants and Catholics, the two principal religious groups; and among German-speaking, French-speaking, Italian-speaking, and Romanch-speaking Swiss, the four principal linguistic groups.

The Swiss constitution also enshrines a major principle of popular democracy, namely, the system of legislation, legislative review, and constitutional amendment through referendum. All proposed constitutional amendments must be submitted to the voters in a referendum in which both a majority of the cantons and a majority of all votes cast are needed for enactment. It also is possible for 50,000 Swiss citizens entitled to vote to initiate constitutional amendments. Federal legislation must be submitted to referendum on the demand of 30,000 Swiss citizens entitled to vote or or eight cantons. As a rule, all federal laws of an organic, that is, constitutional character are submitted to referendum. Federal treaties may also be brought before the public for approval under the same terms. Cantons and communes have similar referendum procedures.

Israel could very much use a written constitution, especially in connection with the other constitutional reforms proposed, in order to anchor them and the protections needed to make them effective in Israeli constitutional law. One of the sticky points over the adoption of a written constitution in Israel has been the problem of associating all written constitutions with those of the liberal democracies. Switzerland offers a good example of a constitution which, while accepting most of the premises of liberal democracy, exists to secure communal and group rights in a manner more in tune with Israel's needs. These might include group rights for non-Jewish minorities and special protections for minorities within the Jewish fold, particularly the ultra-Orthodox. Rather than specify which groups, however, what is more likely to be needed in an Israeli constitution would be the establishment of common procedures under which groups could claim rights -- which might simply be the right to be consulted seriously on specific issues affecting them before governmental action is taken. Thus any groups from the Moslem Arab minority to the kibbutzim, would be able to claim recognition as a group to be consulted.

Moreover, there is good reason to consider the Swiss referendum system as a check on the government and the Knesset and as a means of increasing citizen responsibility and involvement. The Knesset should have the authority to submit items to referendum. Also, a sufficient number of citizens shall be able to petition for the submission of a particular measure to a referendum.

The language and style of the Swiss federal constitution is also worthy of close examination.

2. Separation of Powers

One of the most frequently suggested constitutional changes in Israel is to sharpen the separation of powers. While the Israeli constitution recognizes the importance of that separation, its governmental structure severely limits any possibility of separating executive and legislative powers. As a parliamentary system, Israel's executive is formally responsible to the Knesset and, as has proven true in every other parliamentary system, actually dominates it since Knesset members do not want to see the government fall and have to face new elections. This mutual lack of independence generates frustrating struggles for power which weaken both bodies at crucial junctures. This is a system worthy of consideration by Israel.

3. Plural Executive

It is this feature of the Swiss constitution which could make a separation of powers system work in the Israeli context. The Swiss Federal Council has seven members, elected by the Federal Assembly every four years. Its members are elected as individuals, by secret ballot, although there are certain conditions of selection that preserve a balance between cantons, groups and parties. The Council is not responsible to the Assembly, but serves a fixed term. The President of the Confederation is selected annually by the Federal Assembly from among the members of the Federal Council. His duties are essentially to preside over the Council and serve as ceremonial head of state. Each Councilor heads a department, the equivalent of a ministry, during his tenure. The Council functions as a collective body in determining state policy.

While this degree of collective behavior may be excessive for the Israeli scene and it might be necessary to have a chairman of the executive who holds office for the entire term, the idea of a plural executive is worth exploring. One would assume that a collective executive in Israel would reflect the kind of coalition building that seems necessary in the Israeli context, so a plural executive would have the advantage of enabling a reasonable coalition politics to continue, yet end the threat of small parties bringing down governments. Once in, parties would be in for the full term.

4. Bicameralism

"Subject to the rights reserved to the people and the cantons, the supreme authority of the Confederation is exercised by the Federal Assembly which is composed of two sections or councils: A) the National Council; B) the Council of States." The Federal Assembly is the supreme federal governing body; seats on the National Council are apportioned by population; members are elected for four-year fixed terms through a proportional representation system based on the flexible list system. Members of the Council of States are elected by the individual cantons, two from each full canton and one from each half-canton.

This feature of the Swiss polity is less attractive to Israel, unless it would turn out to be a means of accommodating both the territorial and ideological dimensions of the Israeli polity. It is somewhat surprising that in the debate over electoral reform in which these two principles are properly posed as opposites, no one has seriously raised the issue of a bicameral solution. Under such a solution, one house of the Knesset could be elected on a territorial basis and the other on a party list basis, thereby accommodating both faces of Israeli politics.

This would be particularly effective if the country were divided into permanent regions, with each region having some forum for the nomination and/or selection of candidates. One device might be that candidates are elected by a forum of all the general purpose local governments in the region. Another might be regional elections on a non-partisan basis. Still a third would be to allow the present system of party nominations, by allowing the voters to vote for individuals rather that party lists. In any case, equal or at least more balanced representation of regions in a second chamber would give so-called peripheral areas such as the Negev and the Galil a greater share in the government of the state than is possible under strict proportional representation or even under a territorial system, in which seats are apportioned strictly according to population. For any of these systems, the ideological dimension, if it gains expression, would do so in accordance with the views of the majority located in the territory represented.

Some might argue that this is simply adding one or more additional layers to an already heavy-handed, overbureaucratized apparatus dominated in a sufficient system. It is possible to argue, however, that it is precisely by loading the same institutions with multiple tasks that often conflict with one another that one gets the paralysis for which Israel is famous; that if institutions were separated so that each would have more discrete responsibilities, it would be far less paralyzing. Today the same cabinet minister, Knesset member or civil servant has to weigh competing interests which he or she must consider in every case. That makes for paralysis. If the same people could act on the basis that they had one set of interest to represent while others had other sets, the logjam might be broken.

This, indeed, may be one of the great lessons of the Swiss system. By dividing responsibilities among many institutions, no one institution has to consider every angle of every question. While it is unlikely that Israel will become like Switzerland in its general culture of stolid order, self-restraint and emphasis on literal law-abidingness, other civil societies without those characteristics -- the United States among them -- have found the proper design and structuring of their political institutions to have a great influence on their ability to achieve political order and stability, even in much more dynamic and fluid situations.

5. The Party System

As a country with permanent religious, linguistic, communal and political cleavages, Switzerland has had a multiparty system since the origin of modern political parties. In this respect, its ability to balance multiparty elections with stable government is particularly relevant to the Israeli experience. There are three major parties, one significant smaller one, and a group of lesser parties. They are roughly equivalent to the Israeli parties, allowing for the ideological differences between the two polities.

6. Federalism

The Swiss are the federal nation par excellence. Not only are they organized as a federation after centuries of existing as a confederation, but they are a federal people through and through, with a federal political culture. In the latter respect, the Jews resemble them greatly, but because of the differences in historic circumstances, Israel became a centralized unitary state rather than a federation of little republics -- even though Israel's beginnings were such that the matter could have gone either way.

Swiss federalism exists within a territory hardly larger that Israel's. Indeed, it existed when the territory of Switzerland was considerably smaller. Unlike most of the federations of the world, in which federation were adapted to serve very large territories and populations, the Swiss want federalism in order to preserve the small community. They do not object to cantons of a few tens of thousands in population and, indeed, base their system of citizenship on the acceptance as a citizen in a commune prior to the possibility of applying for and obtaining federal citizenship. Swiss federalism emphasizes the primary powers of the federal government. Even though, in fact, during the last hundred years there has been a flow of powers to the federal government, this basic form still exists.

It is not likely that Israel will try to imitate Switzerland in this regard -- in part because Swiss federalism grew from the communes and cantons outward over the course of centuries, whereas in Israel there would have to be an artifical division. Nevertheless, as we shall see, there are some virtues for considering even a certain measure of federatization in Israel; for example, to better represent regional interest and thereby strengthen what are today defined as the country's peripheries and to strengthen local government. Israel could appropriately be divided into anywhere from six to twelve cantons with Jerusalem as a capital district to provide regional self-government, a permanent basis for territorial representation in the Knesset, and even a way to devolve certain issues of state and society to local populations. We will return to that below. Since the establishment of the state and even before, there has been considerable discussion about the underrepresentation of the Galil and the Negev and the overrepresentation of Tel Aviv and Gush Dan in state affairs. Studies have shown that the overwhelming majority of Knesset members come from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and have only fleeting contact with the rest of the country. The only other area that has equal or greater representation than its population calls for is the Jezreel Valley because of the disproportionate number of kibbutz members on the lists of the labor camp. The rest of the regions are clearly, and at times drastically, underrepresented. However, even if the electoral system were changed and Knesset members were elected by district with seats distributed in proportion to population, the concentration of population in the Tel Aviv area and the adjacent coastal plain or in Jerusalem would keep the interests of a major share of the country effectively underrepresented.

Democracy prohibits overrepresentation of underpopulated areas in common institutions, but the desired goals can be achieved through greater regional and local autonomy -- by giving the people who live in those regions greater control over their own affairs. That, indeed is what the institution of cantons would do for Israel, since in Israel, with one or two exceptions, we are not talking about regionally based ethnic or cultural differences; what we are talking about is more self-government for people who share a common culture, which is how similar systems work in most western countries today.

The precise allocation of powers to the intermediate governmental units will have to be decided by negotiation. However, they would likely include those powers which require extensive inter-local cooperation, such as land use planning and control, regional, educational and elemosynary institutions, water and waste disposal, regional educational facilities, regional roads, programs of regional cooperation and development. In essence, it is not a question of assigning separate functions to regional governments, but in introducing a regional component into shared functions.

7. Cantonal and Communal Government

We have already noted that the Swiss pride themselves on their powerful cantonal and communal governments. The various studies that have been made in Israel have all suggested the need for an intermediate governmental arena between the state and local governments. While those intermediate arenas need not be empowered the way the independent Swiss cantons are, such arenas should be established and allocated substantial powers in specific fields.

Beyond that, the Swiss model of local government would far better serve Israel than the modified English model presently in vogue whereby local government ordinances, budgets and decisions are subject too state veto through one channel or another and all local governments are considered ultra vires, namely, they have only the powers specifically delegated to them. The ultra vires system may have some value in the Anglo-American countries where local governments are essentially service providers. But in Israel, as in Switzerland, local governments have major responsibilities for the social well-being and cultural expression of their citizens. (That is to say they do not only provide basic services like roads, maintenance and sanitation but they offer religious services, support, cultural institutions, and serve as the arms of a highly developed welfare state.) At least in these areas there should be far greater local autonomy than presently exists, and the Swiss model would be helpful in this regard. Granting local authorities constitutional homerule, which would eliminate ultra vires giving them appropriate taxing powers and/or automatic revenue sharing which will increase their ability and responsibility to make decisions on matters of local concern. It would also entail a substantial reduction in local dependence on decisions made outside of the local jurisdiction even under circumstances where they influence the results of those decisions.

8. Institutionalized Consultation

A feature of the Swiss polity little noted by outsiders is the system of institutionalized consultation designed to keep the peace in a highly heterogeneous country. Under this system it is expected and usually written into law that when significant legislative or administrative changes are proposed, there will be widespread consultation with every group having an opportunity to express its views so that the end result that emerges has achieved support by consensus before it is brought to a vote. Over time Switzerland has evolved its own ways of determining which groups to be consulted. First of all, of course, are all governments - federal, cantonal and communal. The major religious groups - Catholic, Protestant and Jewish - are also on the list. So are the political parties and the associations of commerce and industry and the labor unions. Organized linguistic minorities are consulted and other interest groups are consulted as relevant and needed. A new group gets on the list through consultation with the appropriate authorities until recognition is obtained. Israel would do well to learn from this system of institutionalized consultation and introduce as much of it as possible into the Israeli polity.

9. Religion and State

One of the major purposes of the Swiss system is to maintain the particular relationship between religion and state which has developed in Switzerland. Switzerland may very well be the most intensely religious country in Europe today, with a level of religious involvement and commitment approaching that of the United States. That is because, as in the United States, religion has been considered an ally of liberty and not an oppressor of it.

Under the Swiss system, then, the major ties between religion and state are to be found in the cantons or communes. The federal government acts as a guarantor and protector, both of the religious communities and of religious liberty, while particular cantons and communes continue to maintain established churches and other intimate ties between religion and state. Thus, for example, even in cosmopolitan, liberal Zurich, the cantonal university restricts the appointment of non-Protestants to professorships, because, after all, it is the university of Zwingli, one of the leaders of the Protestant Reformation. By recognizing the necessity for a more intimate connection between religion and state than the liberal democracies, but at the same time shifting the burden for such ties to the cantonal and communal arenas, Switzerland maintains its support for religion while also maintaining civil peace.

If Israel were to adopt a modified cantonal system, as I have suggested in this paper, it could shift some of the burden with regard to religion and state from the state to the regional and local governments, allowing far greater opportunities for pluralism without diminishing the intimate connection which is necessary in a Middle Eastern state in general and a Jewish state in particular. Clearly, there are some questions of religion, state and society that can only be dealt with by the state as a whole. In the case of some, such as the "Who is a Jew?" issue, even the state is not, in fact, free to act on its own, but must take into consideration the needs of the entire Jewish people in Israel and the diaspora. Others, such as determining the military service status of yeshiva students or women are issues to be resolved by the state as a whole. Other questions, however, such as whether public places of entertainment or particular streets should be open on the Sabbath, could well be handled on a local or regional basis. In other words, what we might call the retail or consumer issues, as distinct from the wholesale issues, can be handled at what is the governmental equivalent of the retail outlet.

This would, indeed, lead to a mosaic of arrangements within the country, and in some places there would be local conflict over what decisions should be made, but in a relatively short time matters are likely to sort themselves out as it becomes apparent what is allowed where. Handling these kinds of "retail" conflicts in the state arena will inevitably require limitations on the non-religious majority in order to protect the group rights of the religious minority, or via vissa, something which Israel's brand of coalition politics makes politically, if not morally, necessary. These kind of decisions in the state arena are polarizing and leave either the minority or the majority alienated. Thus diffusion of at least part of the issue into the regional and especially local arenas can prove to be diffusing for the whole society and, hopefully, will enable Jews to live together when it comes to other, cross-cutting issues.

At the same time, such an arrangement would enable the state to more clearly maintain those fundamental commitments to Judaism which one would expect in a Jewish state, while reducing the possibility that they will be exploited by ultras. With the burden of certain problems removed, it will be possible to achieve wall-to-wall agreement on other fundamental issues, precisely because most Jews in Israel want to be Jewish, but they do not want to be bound to Orthodox interpretations of halacha in certain areas of activity.

10. Government as a Civic Responsibility

The Swiss polity is so structured that participation in government becomes a civic responsibility for every citizen. There are so many elected offices within relatively small units of government that almost everyone has to take his or her turn at serving in some elected position. Frequent elections and referenda require a high level of civic awareness and activity. The system of institutionalized consultation makes participation in interest groups useful and productive, thereby encouraging citizen involvement.

It is hard to envision the Israeli population as any less capable of such activity than the Swiss; only under the present Israeli system there are so few possibilities for citizen involvement that government has almost ceased to be a civic responsibility. It is all the more amazing, then, that Israelis vote in the percentages they do and follow political affairs the way they do. Under a system of civic involvement similar to that of the Swiss one could assume that the Israeli response would be very good.

Such a system of involvement would strengthen civic life in Israel and substantially change the present party system with its monopolistic approach to political power.

11. The Swiss System of Rights and Liberty

As indicated above, the Swiss approach to democracy is one of protecting liberties, particularly communal liberties, rather than simply emphasizing individual rights. The Swiss believe that it is through the preservation and extension of communal liberties that individual rights are best protected. Nevertheless, the Swiss constitution does provide all the normal protections of individual rights expected in a liberal democracy. Federal constitutional guarantees are particularly important in the religious sphere where they serve to curb possible excesses arising from the fact of established churches in most of the cantons.

The Swiss approach is very similar to the historic Jewish approach to similar questions and, indeed, was much influenced by the Hebrew Bible. If examined more closely, much will be found that will be of relevance to the Israeli experience. The essence of what the Swiss can teach Israelis is how to make the transition from ideological to territorial democracy without unduly disadvantaging minority groupings which benefitted from the previous system. In the years in which modern Switzerland emerged, the Swiss, too, were divided on the basis of religious ideology. Ultimately they institutionalized means for the different ideological groupings to live together on a territorial basis.

As a new society, Israel was founded through an ideological imperative, Zionism, which embraced several different visions of what Israel should be. At one time the Zionist Movement and the Yishuv could accommodate those ideologies through a system of consociationalism. Since virtually everybody in the emerging Jewish society in Eretz Israel had an ideological commitment, everyone belonged to one camp or another which could then provide services on an a territorial basis, with the power and resources divided among the camps, which then provided services to their members. Since the establishment of the state, that ideological impetus has declined substantially except in the religious camp. This is only to be expected, since it the fate of all new societies to pass through the ideological stage of the founding generation and ultimately to come to rest on a territorial basis, whereby most people are committed to the society and its institutions because they were born and raised there rather than because of any initial ideological commitment. Ideological commitments may still be important but they become secondary to territorial realities.

The problem is: how does a polity shift from an ideological to a territorial basis when there are still strong ideological minorities that must be conciliated and a basic vision that keeps the polity alive. Israelis tend to look to the American experience for examples, but the United States has chosen a path of individualistic pluralism which, if adopted, would repudiate the Zionist vision of a Jewish state, for secular no less than religious Jews. The Swiss have adopted other solutions to the same problem -- solutions more appropriate to the Israeli scene as Israel goes through this same transition which inevitably will continue.


In this brief paper I have tried to indicate some of the areas in which the Swiss polity and political experience can be useful to Israelis seeking constitutional reform. It should be obvious that the previous pages are suggestive rather than exhaustive, since in each case a more thorough study of the way the Swiss system works and why it works the way it does would be needed before its relevance for Israel could be properly determined. At the same time, a similar study would be needed of what would be the likely consequences of introducing each element of the Swiss system into Israel. Such an exploration would seem to be very much worth the while of Israeli constitutional reformers.


Barber, Benjamin R., The Death of Communal Liberty: A History of Freedom in a Swiss Mountain Canton (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1974

Codding, George Arthur Jr., The Federal Government of Switzerland (Boston: Houghton Mifflen Co., 1961).

Rappard, William E., La Constitution Federale de la Swisse (Neuchatel: A la Baconniere, 1948).

de Rougement, Denis, La Confederation helvetique (Monaco: Editions du Rocher, 1953)

Sigfried, Andre, Switzerland: A Democratic Way of Life trans. Edward Fitzgerald (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, n.d.).

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