Israeli Parties and Politics- Part 2

In part 1, I wrote about the three central parties: Likud, Kadima and Labor. I wrote that the main issue that has divided Israeli politics between “Right” and “Left” is the security/diplomatic issue, rather than the economic one, although that has been changing lately, with the rise of the Israeli version of the “Occupy” movement. Likud is on the hawkish side, Labor on the dovish side and Kadima in the middle, or a mixture of the two.

 There are also smaller parties which take a more pronounced stance on some of these issues. To the right of Likud, there are no less than three different parties: “Yisrael Beiteinu” (“Israel is our home”, 15 seats), the “Ichud Leumi” party (“National Unity”, 4 seats) and the religious “Habayit Hayehudi” (“The Jewish Home”, 3 seats).

 To the left of the Labor Party are “Meretz” (3 seats) and three Arab parties: the communist “HADASH” (4 seats), “RAAM-TAAL” (4 seats), and “BALAD” (3 seats). The latter two parties strive towards turning the state of Israel into a Palestinian or Arab state, instead of a Jewish one. BALAD’s views are Pan-Arabic compared to those of RAAM-TAAL, as they do not see Palestinians as a separate entity, but rather as part of one collective Arab nation. And here, we’ve hit on another division- between Jews and Arabs. There are a small number of Arabs within the three central parties, and there is one Jew in the communist HADASH party, but in general, there is very little mixing between Jews and Arabs in the Knesset, as well as in the general population.

 There are three parties in the Knesset that represent the religious Jewish population. “Shas” represents the Sephardic Ultra-Orthodox Jews. The supreme leader of the party is Rabbi Ovadia Yosef who handpicks, along with two other rabbis, the members of the party in the Knesset. “Yahadut Hatora” (Judaism of the Torah) is one party made up of the union of two older parties, one representing Ashkenazi Hassidic Jews and the other representing Ashkenazi Lithuanian Ultra-Orthodox Jews. The third party is “Habayit Hayehudi” (The Jewish Home), representing Modern-Orthodox Jews. I realize an explanation is needed for the terms I just used, but that will have to wait for a later post on the various religious groups in Israeli society. “Shas” is the largest of the three with 11 seats (although one Shas MK, Rabbi Haim Amsalem has been acting alone for the past year after publicly denouncing his own party’s policies on many issues). “Yahadut Hatora” currently has 5 seats and “Habayit Hayehudi” has 3 seats. Until recently, none of the three parties held primary elections, which are not mandatory under Israeli law. However, “Habayit Hayehudi” has decided to hold it’s first-ever primary election, in the hope of injecting new spirit into the party. The campaign is proving to be quite interesting, as it is quite possible that the party will be completely transformed by the results.

The Knesset. Photo: The Knesset website.

 I have now mentioned all 13 parties currently in the Knesset. There is one more party worth mentioning – “Yesh Atid” (There is a Future), run by the journalist and son of a late MK (MK= Member of Knesset), Ya’ir Lapid. Until recently, Lapid hosted a current affairs show on Israeli Channel 2 TV and he still writes in the “Yediot Ahronot” (“Latest News”) newspaper. He announced his candidacy in April this year. As a popular journalist and aided by his good-looks, he was expected to receive up to 17 seats, even before announcing who is in his party (something he has not disclosed to this day) or what his views are. However, as time goes on, his popularity has been dwindling and current polls predict approximately seven seats for his yet-unknown party.

 I know I’ve dumped quite a lot of information on you, regarding 14 different parties. In order to make things simpler, I’ve put the information into a table, which can be found at the bottom of this post.

 Some more tidbits:

 The Israeli President

The Israeli President- Shimon Peres. Photo: Wikipedia

 The Israeli President is mainly a ceremonial position, similar to that of the Queen of England. The current president is Shimon Peres. As a seasoned Labor Party member, Peres has been in politics for many decades and has held the positions of Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and many others. The President does have two formal tasks: giving pardons and deciding who will form the government following a general election.

General elections

The method of election is a proportional one. The percentage of votes cast for a party in the election is the proportion of seats they will receive in the Knesset. The voting ballot includes the name of the party. The list of candidates is given prior to the election, and they are given in order according to the party’s own method of selection of candidates. In other words, when one votes, one votes for an idea rather than for a specific person. However, Israeli law does not currently forbid MKs from leaving their own party after the election and joining another party or forming a new one, thus taking seats away from their original party. This shortcoming of the law has raised a lot of moral questions and has been exploited more than once.

 

Forming a government

Intuition would say that a government is formed by the head of the largest party in the Knesset. But the law does not say that, and the President has the task of deciding which party has the best chances of forming a government and giving that task over to the head of that party. That is exactly what happened in the last election in 2009. “Kadima” won 28 seats in the Knesset, while “Likud” won 27. However, Peres, a “Kadima” member himself, realized that Tzipi Livni, who was head of “Kadima” at the time, would not be able to gather a majority of Knesset members in order to form a government, while Binyamin Netanyahu of the “Likud” could.

 Subsequently, Netanyahu formed a government along with “Yisrael Beiteinu”, Labor (before it split into Labor and “Atzmaut”), and the three religious parties – “Shas”, “Habayit Hayehudi” and “Yahadut Hatora”, with a total majority of 69 out of the 120 Knesset seats.

 A legal crisis, which I plan to write about in more detail sometime during the coming week, actually brought about the enlargement of the coalition from 61 seats (the 8 remaining members of Labor left the government when the party split) to an unprecedented 94 seats. For many years, members of the Ultra-Orthodox community have received an exemption from mandatory military service (three years of military service are mandatory for every 18 year old in Israel, with certain exceptions). The Supreme Court recently ruled that this arrangement is unconstitutional (although Israel does not have a constitution – but that’s a matter for a separate post as well). The court gave the government until July 31st to come up with a new arrangement that would fit in with the principles of equality.

 However, the constellation of parties in the coalition would not have allowed any such arrangement to be reached, because recruiting the Ultra-Orthodox community would have led the 16 members of the two Ultra-Orthodox parties to leave the government, thus leaving it with only 45 members – which would have led to early elections.

 At the start of the summer session of the Knesset in April, Prime Minister Netanyahu executed a brilliant political move, which will probably be discussed by political strategists for years to come. He declared that he had no choice but to declare early elections, instead of serving a full term until the next election scheduled for October 22nd of 2013. It might be worth mentioning at this point that due to the large number of rivaling parties only six of the eighteen elected “Knessets” have managed to serve a full term (the Knesset is elected once every four years. This has happened 18 times since the foundation of the state in 1948).

A vote in the Knesset, 1992. Photo: The Knesset website.

 For a full two weeks, the Israeli political world was in a frenzy, trying frantically to prepare for primary elections that would have to be held if an election was to be had before the end of 2012. Polls were advertised almost daily. One particular political player was very affected by this sudden change. Shaul Mofaz, the newly elected head of the largest party in the Knesset, “Kadima”, saw his party crashing in the polls from 28 seats to somewhere between 3 and 10.

 In a dramatic turn of events, Mofaz announced that his party would join the government, thus neutralizing the Ultra-Orthodox parties’ power over the government and enlarging the coalition to 94 seats, the largest coalition ever. It is speculated that Netanyahu never intended to hold an early election and that the announcement was meant to force Mofaz into joining the government.

 

Separation of powers

I would like to make clear one more point in Israeli politics that is quite different from the American system. A parliamentary system, as we have in Israel, does not have the same separation of powers that a presidential system has. The legislative and executive branches are fused together: the executive branch is part of the legislative branch, but can also be toppled by it. Almost all ministers in the government are also Knesset members (currently, the only minister who is not a member of Knesset is the Justice Minister, Yaakov Ne’eman, who was brought in to the government for his legal expertise).

In conclusion

Israel’s multi-party system allows a lot of diversity in the Knesset, so that many different groups in society can have their say. However, it is a system that can prove challenging to any Prime Minister who has to appease many partners who oftentimes hold conflicting opinions. Often, it is those partners who hold the least amount of electoral power who can wield their power to topple the government the most effectively. There have been ideas thrown around about ways to make government more effective (the German system has come up as a possible model, for instance), but for the time being it looks like things are staying the way they are.


Table: Parties in the Israeli Knesset

 

Name of Party

Kadima

Likud

Labor

Atzmaut

Party head

Shaul Mofaz

Binyamin Netanyahu

Shelly Yehimovitch

Ehud Barak

 

Photo: Kadima website

Photo: Binyamin Netanyahu’s Facebook page

  

Photo: Shelly Yehimovitz’s Facebook page

  

Photo: Wikipedia

Current Position

Vice Prime Minister

Prime Minister

Head of Opposition

Defense Minister

Former positions

Defense Minister, IDF Chief of Staff

Prime Minister (1996-99), Finance Minister, Diplomat

Former Journalist

Prime Minister (1999-03), Defense Minister, IDF Chief of Staff

Coalition/ Opposition

Coalition

Coalition

Opposition

Coalition

Number of seats

28

27

8

5

Diplomatic/ security policy

Center

Hawkish

Dovish

Center-dovish

Economic policy

Center

Right

Left

Left

Religious views

Secular

Method of candidate selection

Primary election

Primary election

Primary election

Name of Party

Yisrael Beiteinu

Habayit Hayehudi

Ichud Leumi

Meretz

Party Head

Avigdor Lieberman

Daniel Hershkovitz

Ya’akov Katz

Zehava Gal’on

 

  

Photo: Avigdor Lieberman’s Facebook page

Photo: Wikipedia

Photo: Ya’akov Katz’s Facebook page

  

Photo: Zehava Gal’on’s Facebook page

Current Position

Foreign Minister

Minister of Science & Technology

Knesset Member

Knesset Member

Former positions

Government Minister

Dean of Mathematics Department inTechnionUniversity(Haifa)

Housing Minister, Settler leader

Human Rights Activist, Women’s Rights Activist

Coalition/ Opposition

Coalition

Coalition

Opposition

Opposition

Number of seats

15

3

4

3

Diplomatic/ security policy

Far-right

Far-right

Farthest-right

Far-left

Economic policy

Right

Left

Religious views

Secular

Modern Orthodox

Mixed: Secular & Modern Orthodox

Secular

Method of candidate selection

Hand picked by Lieberman

1st primary election ever planned for October 2012

Made up of a few different parties, each with their own method

Selection by elected committee

Name of Party

HADASH

RAAM-TAAL

BALAD

Shas

Party Head

Mohammad Barake

Ibrahim Sarsur

Jamal Zahalqa

Eli Yishay

 

Photo: Knesset website

  

Photo: Ibrahim Sarsur’s Facebook page

  

Photo: Wikipedia

  

Photo: Eli Yishay’s Facebook page

Current Position

Knesset Member

Knesset Member

Knesset Member

Minister of Interior

Former positions

Arab Student Leader

Head of Municipality, Muslim Sheikh

Chemist, Communist Activist

Government Minister

Coalition/ Opposition

Opposition

Opposition

Opposition

Coalition

Number of seats

4

4

3

11* (including Haim Amsalem)

Diplomatic/ security policy

Extreme-left

Palestinian

Pan-Arab

Center-right

Economic policy

Communist

Left

Left

Center-left

Religious views

Islamist

Sephardic Ultra- Orthodox

Method of candidate selection

* I have so far not been able to ascertain what method is used for candidate selection in the three Arab parties.

Hand picked by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef

Name of Party

Yahadut Hatora

Yesh Atid

Party Head

Menahem Eliezer Moses

Yair Lapid

 

Photo: Wikipedia

Photo: Ya’ir Lapid’s Facebook page

Current Position

Deputy Education Minister

Candidate in 2013 General Election and journalist

Former positions

Leadership positions in the Hassidic community

Journalist

Coalition/ Opposition

Coalition

Number of seats

5

Diplomatic/ security policy

Center-right

Unclear

Economic policy

Center-left

Unclear

Religious views

Ashkenazi Ultra-Orthodox

Secular

Method of candidate selection

Handpicked by a committee of  non-elected Rabbis

Handpicked by Yair Lapid

Have any questions about this post? Please feel free to leave a comment!

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12 comments

  1. How does one cast their vote and how are issues known before casting a vote?

    1. Anyone can be a member of one party, and if that party is one of those that holds a primary election, all the members can vote (This is relevant for 4 parties at this point: Kadima, Likud, Labor and Habayit Hayehudi). Sadly, very few people choose to join a party, and thus the party lists are usually formed by a very small body of voters.

      Before an election, every party runs its own election campaign and tries to win over as many voters as it can. As part of the campaign the parties make known their views on various issues, just as in any other democratic country.

      When you vote, you vote for the party that fits your views and whose list of candidates you approve of. If you are not a member of any party, that is the only power you have over the outcome. If you are a member of a party you have some power over who the candidates will be and some power over policy on different issues. That is because candidates care very much about party members’ views, because they are the ones that decide their fate, more than the general population.

      The list of candidates for any party is usually made up of 120 people, which is the maximum number of people who could ever be elected. If the party receives 10 seats, for instance, then the top 10 people on the list turn into Knesset members. That’s why most of the spots on the list are ‘honorary’ ones.

      Physically, you go behind a curtain with an empty envelope, and choose a piece of paper that has the party’s name on it, put it in the envelope, and then the envelope goes into the blue ballot box.

  2. […] my last post I mentioned the legal crisis regarding military service in the Ultra-Orthodox community and […]

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