The Israeli Electoral System and its Major Political Parties

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The Israeli Electoral System

The Israeli government has been a democracy since its founding in 1948. Like any democratic government, Israel’s government holds elections, creates laws that all of its citizens must follow, and obeys the idea of a majority rule. Moreover, the government is split into three branches: executive, legislative and judicial. Any citizen over eighteen has the right to vote in an Israeli election. Israel’s government follows a multi-party system which means that more than one party can hold power. This is based on the amount of support each party receives during an election. With this in mind, it is almost never possible for one party to have complete power, a fact that forces the different parties to work together.

The legislative branch consists of a house of representatives that is referred to as the Knesset and holds 120 members. The Knesset has twelve committees that contribute to completing the responsibilities of the legislature. It also has a plenary which is responsible for debates, typically on possible bills, and usually ends in votes based on those debates. In order to reach the plenary, there is an extensive process that a bill must go through. After a member or members of the Knesset propose a bill, it must go through all of the government ministries for feedback and to make sure that it is legal and realistic. Next, the bill is written in proper format to be passed on to the Knesset as a first draft. The bill is read over three times and in between each of these times the bill is read, voted on and possibly sent to a committee of the Knesset for editing. If a bill is passed after the third reading, it is published in the Official Gazette and is signed by important leaders including the Knesset speaker and the Minister who proposed the bill. The plenary follows the majority rule and almost every decision made is based on a vote. As with the committees of the Knesset, they are responsible for keeping in contact with the Government Ministries and reporting back to the plenary.

Due to the fact that more than one party can have power in Israeli government, the government tends to be very fractured and it becomes difficult to form a cohesive coalition. There are four main parties: Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu, Yesh Atid and the Labor Party. The Likud Party is currently led by Benjamin Netanyahu. Yisrael Beiteinu ("Israel is Our Home") is directly affiliated with Likud is led by Avigdor Lieberman. His right hand man, Uzi Landau, once led a Likud rebel group opposing longtime leader Ariel Sharon. Yesh Atid ("There is a Future") is a brand new party led by the popular former television newsman, Yair Lapid. The party stunned observers by finishing 2nd in the 2012 Knesset elections, running as a moderate party that favored requiring the ultra-religious to serve in the military. The Labor Party is the most prominent party on the political left, but this party that was Israel's largest for many years is now struggling to remain politically relevant.

In order to be voted into the Knesset, a party has needed at least 2% of the vote (this requirement was raised to 3% by the Knesset in 2013). When voting for the Knesset, voters do not vote for individuals but rather for lists. The people on the lists are determined with a direct vote, sometimes in a Preliminary vote. The only people that can vote in the Primary are people who are registered members of the party. For a particular party, the more votes a person gets the higher he or she is on the list. The percentage of the vote that a party wins is in proportion to the number of seats that party has in the Knesset. From there, the people starting at the top of list for that party are given the seats in the Knesset for that party.

After an election occurs, the President must give a member of the Knesset the responsibility of forming a government. The member that is chosen, usually the leader of the party with the majority, has 42 days to work with the different parties and form a government. Once the Knesset has a vote of confidence and the newly formed government is approved, the member that was chosen becomes the Prime Minister of Israel.

Political Parties

There are many political parties in the State of Israel, but the most significant ones (in addition to Yesh Atid, the identity of which is still very much taking shape) are Labor, Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu.

Labor Party

In order to fully understand the creation of the Labor Party, the history of Mapai must be understood. Mapai is an extremely left party that was created in 1930. In Israel’s first election in 1949, Mapai won the majority of the government with 35.7% and 46 seats. David Ben-Gurion was a major leader of the party and was Prime Minister of the government in 1949. From this point until 1965, the left Mapai party had significant control in the government. All in all, Mapai had a major influence on Israeli politics throughout Israel’s early history.

Along with this, the Labor Party is a center-left party in its beliefs and positions. It is both a social democrat and Zionist party. This party was formed in 1965 when the biggest left-wing party, Mapai, combined with a more central party, Ahdut HaAvoda. It was created in order to gain power for the Mapai party as David-Ben Gurion left this party in order to form another party known as Rafi. The reason for his leaving was because the Mapai party would not change the voting system to one of proportional representation, which is the voting system today. In 1965, this group was known as the Labor alignment and won 45 out of 120 seats in the house and was able to gain power in Israeli government. Three years later, Rafi joined this alignment to form what is now known as the Labor Party. A year later the party joined with Mapam, another party, and became known as the Alignment. The Labor party had the largest role in this Alignment and Mapam was not a steady member of the group. It left during the eighth Knesset, returned and then left again after the eleventh Knesset. In 1991, the Alignment ended and every party that was a part of it became known solely as the Labor Party.

Until 1977, all of the Prime Ministers were from the Labor Party. At this point, some background about the members of each party must be mentioned. The Labor Party consisted of European Jews that had immigrated to Israel when it was created. These Jews tended to be of higher class and economic status. The Likud Party consisted of Jews who immigrated to Israel much later and were from North Africa. The Jews that supported the Likud party were of lower class and had less power prior to the election of 1977. However, in the election of 1977 the Likud party had a large victory over the Labor Party. It was the first time that Jews from a lower status and newer to the land of Israel had the power over government. Moreover, the Israeli government had a swing from the left towards the right.

In 1992, Yitzhak Rabin led the party to a win in the elections and had the power to form the government, which Rabin held until he was assassinated in 1995. Labor lost the Prime Ministership the next year, but won it back in 1999 when Ehud Barak soundly defeated Likud Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Barak's tenure as Prime Minister was brief, ending in 2001 with the withering of the Camp David initiative led by American President Bill Clinton.

After 2001, Labor's political fortunes were on a steady decline for over a decade, though the Prime Ministerships of Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert, and the second tenure of Benjamin Netanyahu. As Labor Party leader, Ehud Barak joined Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition as Minister of Defense in 2009, despite Labor's winning only a very modest 13 of 120 parliament (knesset) seats. Under Barak, Labor stayed in the coalition until 2011 when Barak, under pressure from Labor Party knesset members upset with Netanyahu's resistance to actively seeking a two-state solution, split with Labor to form his own party ("Independence") taking four other Labor knesset members with him. In the 2013 Knesset elections, Labor (led by Shelly Yachimovich) had something of a renaissance, almost doubling its seats to 15, and becoming the lead party of the opposition. While this is nowhere near Labor's glory days, perhaps it is an indicator of better things to come.


Likud

In 1948, the right wing party of Israel known as Herut was formed by Menachem Begin. It was based off of the ideals of Russian Jewish Zionism party in the 1920s and 1930s. It was formed from the right-wing underground group known as Irgun Zvai Leumi. This was a militant group that committed many acts of terrorism and separated in 1948. Upon its separation, the Herut party was created. Likud is now the dominant center right political party and was founded in 1973 by Menachem Begin. That same year, Herut became a part of the Likud party and was one of the main parties in the group. Hence the Likud party is the more conservative political party in Israel. When Begin formed this party and won the election in 1977, it was the first time that a right-wing party had beaten out a party of the left. Throughout the 1980’s the Likud party had significant power in the government. Although more recently, the Likud has not won many elections and has lost the power it once had. In 1996 one of the Likud members, Benjamin Netanyahu, won the election for Prime Minister and was recently given the responsibility of forming the government for 2009. One of the troubles that occurred within the Likud party was the leaving of Ariel Sharon in 2005 in order to form the Kadima Party.

Likud was the first party to make peace with Israel’s Arab neighbors. An example of this is when Begin signed the Camp David Accords in Egypt to return the Sinai Peninsula back to Egypt in order to gain peace. However, as of 2009, Likud does not support the idea of a two-state solution. Moreover, the party supports keeping Jewish settlements in the West Bank. This has complicated attempts to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict because the Likud is more uncompromising than other parties. The Likud believes in approaching the conflict in a different manner. Rather than negotiating land, the Likud would like to attempt to keep its security while providing Palestinians with more opportunity and better quality of life. Hence, if the Likud has a large amount of control over the government the approach towards a solution will be very different than it has been in the past.

As of this writing in 2014, neither the United States nor the European Union has shown a strong willingness to push Prime Minister Netanyahu to more actively seek a negotiated solution with the Palestinians, or to contemplate politically painful terriorial compromises. With Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu and Yesh Atid in his coalition, Netanyahu's political control looked solid, and Likud's leadership in Israel looked secure for the foreseeable future.


Yisrael Beiteinu

Yisrael Beiteinu, which means Israel is our home in Hebrew, is another right wing party in Israel. It ran third in the 2007 elections, and was founded by Avigdor Lieberman, who is still the leader in 2009. Lieberman was once a member of the Likud party. This party strongly believes in a Jewish Israeli state and is therefore willing to create a Palestinian state in an effort to decrease the Arab population in Israel. This would occur because the new Israeli borders would cause Arabs who were once Israeli citizens to lose their citizenship. Over the past few years, Yisrael Beiteinu has gained more and more popularity which has led it to gaining more power in the government. Although this party is conservative like the Likud party, it takes a more realistic approach on the Arab-Israeli conflict while continuing to stick with the beliefs of the party. It is unrealistic to completely deny that the Palestinians are in the Middle East and want their own state. This party accepts this idea and is willing to deal with the Palestinian people more openly than the Likud Party.

Another major part of the platform of this party is increasing Jewish immigration into Israel. Yisrael Beiteinu is much more comfortable with a two-state solution than the Likud party. This party consists of Russian Jews as opposed to European or North African Jews of the other parties. A conflict arises with this in that the more religious Jews believe that Russian Jews are not Jewish by the way that they define Judaism. This is because many Russian Jews have converted to Judaism or are only Jewish because of very distant relatives. They used their religion in order to immigrate to Israel after its independence. This could lead to problems in bringing all of the government together because of the strong views that religious Jews have against the Russian Jews. A law regarding marriage between different levels of religion is just one example of something that will cause much debate in the government.


Religious Parties

There are three important religious parties in Israel: Shas, United Torah Judaism and The National Union.

The Shas Party is an ultra-Orthodox political party in Israel whose leader is Eli Yishai. In 2009 it has 11 seats in the Knesset, more seats than any other religious party. This party supports Halakha, the Jewish religious law, which consists of laws such as those prohibiting actions on Shabbat. The Shas is socially conservative and works to convert non-Orthodox Jews into ultra-orthodox. The party believes in the Greater Israel when discussing the Arab-Israeli conflict. Shas is not completely fond of the Ashkenazi Jews because they possess a non-Torah ideology (the Torah contains Jewish law) and were once known for discriminating the Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews. The Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews make up the Shah party.

United Torah Judaism is composed of Agudat Israel and Degel HaTorah, two ultra-Orthodox parties. Both of these smaller parties consist of Ashkenazi Jews. United Torah Judaism strongly believes that Israel is in fact a Jewish state and would like to find peace for the country. However, it does not believe in negotiating for the formation of a Palestinian State. This party does advocate for increasing settlements in Israel to better the country economically and socially.

The National Union consists of members from four different parties: Moledet, Hatikva, Eretz Yisrael Shelanu and Tkuma. These smaller parties are all Zionist parties. National Union advocates strengthening the Jewish identity and that Israel should follow the beliefs of the Jewish people. The party is nationalist and advocates doing more to stop the war on terror and stopping Palestinian terrorism. National Union does not agree with the Oslo Accords and does not want to negotiate with the Palestinians. The party feels that the Palestinians are not ready to negotiate. Moreover, the party believes that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and Israel alone. The party is not willing to share the capital with the Palestinians.


Israeli-Arab Parties

There are two Israeli-Arab political parties in Israel: Balad and Ta’al.

Balad is the Arab nationalist political party, which is a party that believes in all Arabs of the Arab World sticking together because of their common background. The main goal of the Arab nationalists is to minimize and hopefully get rid of the Western influence that exists in the Arab world. The goal of the Balad party in particular, is to work towards a complete democracy in Israel that includes all of the people living within Israel’s borders. This would allow everyone, regardless of ethnicity or religion, to have a fair say in the Israeli government. Balad supports the Palestinian people and believe that they should have equal rights to everyone else living in Israel. They are in favor of a Palestinian state which would consist of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. This would mean that Jerusalem would be shared between Israel and the Palestinian State.

Ta’al is a two-man party that is led by Ahmad Tibi and Mahmud Asad. Tibi was originally a member of Balad and created Ta’al after the 15th Knesset. Since the party is so small, it has been running on a joint list in past elections. This means that the party pairs with another party in an attempt to gain seats in the Knesset. However, it is the largest Arab party in the Knesset. Ta’al believes that Palestinians should have the “right of return” back to Israel, and want the Palestinians to have their own state with East Jerusalem as its capital. This is a shared ideal between Balad and Ta’al. Ta’al was almost disqualified from the 2009 elections, as they were accused of supporting terrorism and failing to recognize Israel’s right to existence. This decision was overturned by the High Court of Justice, though, and the party was allowed to run in the election.

References

http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Politics/how_govt_works.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Labor_Party_(Israel)

http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Politics/labor.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Israeli_legislative_election,_2009

http://www.prospectsforpeace.com/2009/02/israeli_elections_a_clarifying.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kadima_party

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Likud

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yisrael_Beiteinu

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mapai

http://www.middleeastprogress.org/2008/11/israeli-elections-and-coalition-building/

http://www.theisraelsituation.com/2009/01/israel-election-process-explained.html

http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/263963/Herut-Party

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_political_parties_in_Israel

http://www.middleeastprogress.org/2009/03/status-of-coalition-talks/

http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Politics/UAL.html

http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Politics/NationalUnityParty.html

http://www.bitterlemons.org/issue/isr2.php

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