If you’re a US citizen, you have a rather narrow choice of parties to elect into government- you can vote either Democrat or Republican. A British citizen has three main options, which are two more than a Syrian has to choose from at the moment. In Germany there are six major parties to choose from.
A well-known Jewish joke says that any Jewish community will always have at least three synagogues: the one you go to, the one you don’t go to and the one you’ll never set foot in. Israeli politics has inherited the underlying principle of this joke. The current Knesset is made up of no less than thirteen political parties, comprising its 120 seats.
The pre-state Jewish community was fractured; it was divided along many different lines. Politically, some movements leaned towards a capitalistic approach, while others had a more socialist view, and yet others supported the communist ideas spread by Mother Russia at the time. A second division addressed what needed be done in order to achieve statehood: some supported diplomatic action. Others, especially during the Holocaust, believed that more decisive action should be taken, including the use of force against the British who were limiting the immigration of Jewish survivors. There were also cultural barriers. While the majority of the Jewish community had come from Western countries, waves of Jews were arriving, especially in the 1950s, from Middle Eastern countries, bringing with them Eastern culture, mentality and customs. A further division existed between secular Zionists, Orthodox Zionists and Ultra-Orthodox non-Zionists. With the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, the community had to expand to include non-Jews as well.
When it came time to form an elected legislature, it was obvious that it would have to be formed in such a way that would allow representation of as many different groups as possible. The method adopted was a proportional representation system, in which the percentage of people voting for a party gets translated into the same percentage of seats in the Knesset. Such a method gives each group its fair share of representation, but it also provides politicians the opportunity to form new parties for strategic reasons like political survival, thus splitting the legislature into teensy-weensy parties. Proportional representation has its pros and cons. The pros are the ability to give everyone a voice, the cons are the increasing difficulties in forming lasting governments which can then promote policy changes.
This will be a two-part post in which I will give a basic description of the 13 parties (and then some) currently in existence in the Israeli Knesset.
Right and Left in Israel
Customarily, “right” and “left” are used to describe conservative as opposed to liberal socio-economic views. In Israel, that distinction is only second to the distinction between Hawkish and Dovish foreign policy views. While the Right believes in taking a tougher stand in the Jewish-Arab conflict, the Left advocates compromise and concessions. While the rest of the world argues between socialist and capitalist ideologies, the main issues in Israeli politics since the Six-Day War in 1967 have been related to security and diplomacy. Socio-economic issues have taken a back seat to the Israeli-Palestinian “Peace Process” and the war on terror.
Labor, Likud and Kadima
The two main players in this field have always been the Labor party on the left, and the Likud party on the right. The Labor party used to be the largest party in the Knesset, and in fact was in power continuously from 1948 to 1977. In the last elections, the Labor Party suffered defeat and was reduced to a meager 13 seats out of 120. To make matters worse, the head of the Labor party in 2011, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, out of fear of being ousted by his own party, split the party into two. Along with four other Labor Party members he formed a new party called “Atzma’ut” (Independence), leaving only 8 members in the Labor party. According to a recent poll, the new head of the Labor party, Shelly Yachimovitch, is expected to increase the party to almost 20 seats in the next elections, while Barak’s Atzma’ut party is expected to disappear completely.
The Likud party, headed by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, currently has 27 seats in the Knesset. This is enough to be in power, as it is the only party capable of forming a coalition with a majority of the Knesset members.
The Likud’s own tribulations were Ehud Barak’s model for his new party, as the same trick was pulled in 2005 by then-Prime-Minister Ariel Sharon. Sharon had implemented a policy which was at odds with what the Likud stood for when he unilaterally withdrew from the Gaza Strip, uprooting almost 9,000 Israeli citizens from their homes. Fearing defeat in the upcoming internal primary elections, he left the Likud party along with many other Likud members and formed what he dubbed “a center party” called “Kadima” (Forward) along with ex-Labor party members. Soon after that, Sharon himself succumbed to a massive stroke and has been in a coma ever since. Kadima was taken over by another ex-Likud member, Ehud Olmert, who was elected Prime Minister, but had to step down after three years, facing no less than eight different corruption charges. Kadima has 28 seats in the Knesset and is now headed by the newly elected Shaul Mofaz, a former IDF Chief of Staff. Current polls predict as little as three to seven seats for Kadima in the next election. It is a wonder that Kadima has managed to stay afloat for so long, being made up of members holding opposing views, and not having a clear vision of its own.
Further right and further left
The three major parties are Likud on the right, Labor on the left, and Kadima in between the two. Being large parties, they naturally try to cater to a larger audience and all three are actually near the ideological center. But there are also other parties to the right and to the left of them that sometimes have a profound effect on Israeli politics. But they’ll wait for Part 2 of this post.
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