The recipients of the prize are Israeli citizens or organizations who have displayed excellence in their field(s), or have contributed strongly to Israeli culture. The winners are selected by committees of judges, who pass on their recommendations to the Education Minister.
Prize winners are elected by ad-hoc committees, appointed by the minister of education for each category each year. Decisions of the committee must be unanimous.
As of 2004, the prize has been awarded 551 times. Prominent winners include Shmuel Yosef Agnon, Aharon Appelfeld, Abba Eban, Leah Goldberg, Israel Aumann, Michael O. Rabin and Saharon Shelah. Though the prize is generally awarded to Israeli citizens only, in exceptional cases it can be awarded to non-Israelis who have held Israeli residency for many years. Zubin Mehta won the Israel Prize in 1991. Mehta is originally from India, and is Music Director of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.
The prize money was 50,000 NIS as of 2006.
On occasion, the committee has been criticized for failing to award the prize to a specific individual. For example, many have expressed criticism (or regret) that the poet Natan Yonatan never received the prize.
Another criticism of the prize is that the large majority of winners have been male and Jewish. Non-Jewish winners so far include Zubin Mehta, actor Makram Khouri, Druze leader Amin Tarif, writer Emile Habibi and theologian Marcel-Jacques Dubois. On the other hand, awarding the prize to controversial figures such as Habibi resulted in Yuval Ne'eman relinquishing his own prize.
In other cases, the recipients were reluctant to retrieve the prize. These include Prime Minister David Ben Gurion and performer Uri Zohar. In 2003, artist Moshe Gershoni informed the press that he will not shake the hands of the Prime Minister and Education Minister, and in return his prize was annulled.