Political parties

   Israel's political parties, many with roots in late-19th- and early-20th-century Europe, fall into several distinct categories, many with cross-cutting ideological and denominational lines. These categories of parties include secular-nationalist, left-wing Zionist, religious, Arab or extreme left-wing mixed Arab-Jewish, and centrist.
   The largest of the secular-nationalist parties is Likud, which is the successor to the Revisionist Zionist Movement of Vladimir Ze'ev Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin's Gahal and Herut parties. Likud was severely affected by Likud prime minister Ariel Sharon's 2005 unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank. Ideologically, a schism emerged between pragmatists and those within the party who viewed ceding any part of Eretz Israel as a repudiation of core Zionist principles. In addition, Likud was torn asunder by bitter intraparty attacks on Sharon, contributing to his decision (on 21 November 2005) to quit Likud to form the centrist Kadima Party and contest the election to the 17th Knesset.
   Sharon took with him 12 Likud members of Knesset and senior cabinet ministers. Under the renewed leadership of former party leader and prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Likud's security and foreign policy platform in the 2006 election campaign emphasized "defensible borders," whereby Israel would retain the Jordan Valley, the Golan Heights, an undivided Jerusalem, and the West Bank settlement blocs in any final peace settlement with the Palestinians. To ensure maximum security for Ben-Gurion Airport and the heartland of the country, sections of Israel's West Bank security barrier would be moved closer to their initial route, although a Likud-led government of Israel would continue to minimize the humanitarian suffering of Palestinians in line with judgments of Israel's Supreme Court.
   Likud favored a negotiated agreement with the Palestinians but did not rule out another unilateral withdrawal in the continued absence of a credible Palestinian negotiating partner. A Palestinian state would not be ruled out, but there would be no talk of a final-status agreement without an end to terrorism, violence, and anti-Israel incitement. Likud rejects any contact with a Hamas-led Palestinian government. To appeal to the centrist political tendencies of Israeli voters, Netanyahu presented himself as the "natural heir" to the ailing Sharon and denied extreme right-wing elements a place on Likud's 2006 electoral slate.
   At the dissolution of the 16th Knesset in December 2006, Likud held 27 mandates. This number fell to only 12 in the 17th Knesset, elected in March 2007. Netanyahu's leadership of the Likud Party was overwhelmingly reaffirmed in a leadership primary in August 2007.
   The National Religious Party (also known as NRP, or Mafdal) nearly broke apart over the 2005 Gaza disengagement, with two prominent hard-liners seceding in a dispute about the party's response to the evacuation of settlements. Polling indicated that, running on its own, the NRP would barely pass the new threshold of two percent of the popular vote required for winning seats in the 17th Knesset. At the last moment, the NRP agreed to submit a joint electoral list with the National Union Party. The National Union-NRP campaign in 2006 focused almost exclusively on protecting the settler community's interests and blocking Israel's government from undertaking any further territorial concessions. The joint right-wing list took only nine seats in the 2006 election, far less than anticipated by its organizers and far less than required to singularly block possible additional territorial concessions by Israel's government.
   The Israel Beiteinu (also known as IB, or Israel Our Home) sat in the 16th Knesset as part of the National Union but chose to go it alone in the 2006 election. Like the other parties in the secular-nationalist camp, IB holds to the "Greater Israel" concept and is opposed in principle to any further territorial compromise. What sets it apart is its deep roots in Israel's vast Russian immigrant (see ALIYA) community. Its leader, Avigdor Lieberman, has promoted public transportation on the Sabbath and a formal separation of religion and state, issues of concern to many Russian voters. IB took a surprising 11 seats in the 17th Knesset and joined the Kadima-led 30th government of Israel in October 2006, with Lieberman serving as deputy prime minister and minister for strategic threats in the prime minister's office. It quit the government on 16 January 2008.
   The Israel Labor Party is the largest of Israel's left-wing Zionist political parties. It had, in various forms and manifestations, dominated the politics and political culture of the prestate Yishuv and Israel for the first quarter century after statehood, until the first victory of Begin's Likud Party in the 1977 Knesset election.
   Labor was in need of serious renewal and redefinition after the collapse of the Oslo peace agreement (to which the party was closely identified) as well as after its humbling losses to Sharon and the Likud in the 2001 and 2003 elections. The November 2005 surprise election of Histadrut labor federation chairman Amir Peretz as Labor Party leader marked a potentially important stage in this renewal process. Indeed, Labor's strategic highlighting of Peretz's humble Sephardic (see ORIENTAL JEWS) roots, combined with Peretz's determined efforts to force social and economic issues to the top of the national agenda (alongside political and security questions) helped to frame the 2006 election campaign discourse. Labor also sought to exploit the political corruption and financial scandals that hit several of Israel's other major political parties.
   The four main pillars of Labor's foreign and security policy platform in 2006 were a two-state settlement of Israel's conflict with the Palestinians, direct negotiations involving Israelis and Palestinians, an uncompromising war against terrorism, and the immediate completion of Israel's security barrier. A Labor-led government would incorporate large settlement blocs but would evacuate an unspecified number of other West Bank settlements. Labor's preference was for a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians, but it would aim for unilateral and diplomatic separation if it became clear that Israel had no partner in peace. Under Labor, Jerusalem would remain strong and united, "with a Jewish character and a Jewish majority population." Labor did not consider Hamas a partner for peace negotiations and had no intention of "allowing a third party to force us to recognize an organization that openly seeks to destroy Israel."
   Domestically, Labor defined poverty as just as much of a strategic threat to Israel as terrorism. Labor pledged to reduce poverty, gradually increase the minimum wage, pass legislation guaranteeing pensions to every employee, minimize the number of employees working in the country without benefits, cut the national unemployment rate by 4 percent, defer repayment of student loans, and increase social security benefits for the elderly and the handicapped.
   The Labor-Meimad electoral coalition took a total of 19 seats in the 2006 election. It joined the Kadima-led coalition headed by Ehud Olmert, with Peretz serving as deputy prime minister and minister of defense. Former party leader and prime minister Ehud Barak was elected to again lead the Israel Labor Party in June 2007 and subsequently replaced Olmert as defense minister in the Olmert-led coalition government.
   Meretz was initially a coalition comprised of three left-wing Zionist political parties (Mapam, Citizens' Rights and Peace Movement [CRM], and Shinui) formed to contest the 1992 Knesset election. However, Shinui subsequently left the coalition to run as an independent list. Meretz sought to redefine itself as Yahad-Social Democratic Israel in March 2004 under the leadership of former Labor Party MK and cabinet minister Joseph (Yossi) Beilin.
   Although tainted by Beilin's close identification with the failed Oslo peace agreement, Meretz-Yahad sought to portray itself as an avant-garde party. Its foreign policy in the 2006 election campaign had four declared planks: "partition of the land and an end to the occupation"; a two-state solution for the conflict with the Palestinians; guaranteeing a situation in which the Palestinian state would maintain security and stability; and cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian state in defense, economics, and culture. Meretz called for the renewal of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations from the point at which they left off at the Taba negotiations in February 2001. Only if it became obvious that there was no Palestinian partner for peace or it was impossible to reach agreements would Israel decide on a one-time unilateral withdrawal. Such a withdrawal would enable the establishment of a contiguous Palestinian state but would not be a return to the 1967 borders and would involve reasonable efforts to coordinate with the Palestinian side. As for relations with Palestinian terror groups, party leader Beilin declared, "We won't place conditions for speaking with Hamas. If it wants to talk to us—we'll talk with it. . . . We don't rule them out just because they are called Hamas."
   Domestically, in 2006 Meretz-Yahad advocated an avowedly liberal policy platform, including promoting the rights of women, Israeli Arabs, gays, and the handicapped. It endorsed the legalization of marijuana. It promoted the recognition of non-Orthodox conversions to Judaism performed in Israel as a means of addressing the status of Israel's estimated 300,000 "mixed" couples, most of whom are immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Under Beilin's leadership, support for Meretz-Yahad slipped to five seats in 2006, down from six in 2003.
   Among Israel's religious political parties, the largest is the Sephardi Torah Guardians, also known as SHAS. Its support is derived from religious as well as ethnic factors. SHAS is an ultra-Orthodox political party that draws electoral support primarily from Israel's large Moroccan and Sephardic community; many of its voters, though not themselves Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox (haredi) nevertheless respect SHAS's devotion to traditional Judaism and also benefit from its subsidized educational and social service network. SHAS's political orientation is non-Zionist in that it contends that true redemption of the Jewish people will only occur with the arrival of the Messiah. However, unlike its counterparts from the Ashkenazic haredi parties, SHAS has fully participated in coalition governments since the early 1990s, and many of its young men serve military duty or perform alternate national service.
   SHAS's domestic policy platform emphasizes its long-standing goals of enhancing the status of the Sephardic community and ensuring the incorporation of Orthodox Jewish practices in Israeli daily life. It focused in the 2006 election campaign on ameliorating the effects of poverty. With regard to foreign and security policy, SHAS has stood apart from the other haredi parties by virtue of its relatively pragmatic approach to territorial compromise if such action would save lives (based on the religious precept of pikuah nefesh). SHAS is opposed to unilateral territorial concessions or negotiations with Hamas, but party chairman Eliyahu Yishai acknowledged during the 2006 election campaign that "talk about holding onto all our [West Bank] settlements was relevant 20 years ago. . . . Today it is outdated." SHAS took 12 seats in the 2006 election (down from the 15 won in 2003) and belatedly joined the Kadima-led coalition government.
   United Torah Judaism (UTJ) is an electoral coalition comprised of two Ashkenazic ultra-Orthodox political parties: Agudat Israel, representing various Hasidic movements in Israel, and Degel Ha-torah, representing the non-Hasidic Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community. The party's political orientation is non-Zionist. Although it agrees to sit in Israel's coalition governments, it declines to take on full ministerial responsibility (for to do so would be to contradict the proposition that Jewish salvation would only arrive with the Messiah). Its primary interests are to promote the status of Israel's Ashke-nazic haredi community and ensure the maximum application of Orthodox religious precepts and practices to Israeli daily life. It also promotes subsidized social services for large families — a fundamental interest of the expanding ultra-Orthodox sector of Israeli society. Agudat Israel and Degel Hatorah split in 2005 over various issues, including whether to support Prime Minister Sharon's postdisengage-ment government, but facing the prospect of missing the threshold for taking seats in the Knesset on their own, the two factions agreed to again submit a joint slate for the 2006 election. Voter support for the UTJ in 2006 rose to six Knesset seats, up from five seats in 2003.
   Meimad (Dimension/Movement on the Religious Center) is a moderate Orthodox party that in the mid-1980s split from the NRP to protest the latter's growing stridency on the final disposition of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and its increasingly close ties with the militant Gush Emunim settlement movement. Its political orientation is decidedly Zionist; its spiritual leader, Rabbi Yehuda Amital, is a founder of the hesder Yeshiva Movement that combines Orthodox religious studies with military service. Meimad believes that the incorporation of Orthodox religious practice in Israeli life should be accomplished through education rather than the "coercive" and heavy-handed measures it accuses the haredi parties of often using. It initially ran as an independent party but never succeeded in attracting sufficient popular support to win seats in the Knesset. Since 1999, it has sat in an electoral coalition with Labor.
   Representatives of Israel's Arab, Druze, and Bedouin communities are elected to the Knesset in the same way as their Jewish counterparts and are to be found in both Jewish and Arab or extreme left-wing mixed Arab-Jewish political parties. Of this category, the most prominent include the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (Hadash; also known as Rakah); the National Democratic Assembly (Balad); and the United Arab List (also known as UAL or Ra'am).
   Hadash is an avowedly secular, mixed political party comprised of Arabs and left-wing Jewish Israelis. It promotes the extension of social, economic, and political opportunities to Israeli Arabs as well as direct negotiations involving Israelis and Palestinians leading to a two-state settlement based on Israel's complete withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Because of its secular orientation, there had been some concern among the Hadash leadership that the party's traditional base of support was being eroded by the process of "Is-lamization" experienced in Israeli Arab society in recent years. But Hadash held its share of the popular vote in the 2006 Knesset election, taking three seats, the same as it did in 2003.
   Balad promotes a political agenda that is decidedly anti-Zionist in orientation. It was initially barred from contesting the 2003 Knesset election campaign because of its leader Azmi Bishara's declarations of support for Hezbollah attacks against Israel as well as his call for Israel to become a "state for all its citizens." The disqualification was overturned on appeal to Israel's Supreme Court, and the party went on to win three seats in the 16th Knesset. Bishara and other Balad MKs continued to promote highly provocative positions, including the image of Israel's creation as the "robbery of the century" and of Prime Minister Sharon as a "war criminal." In February 2006, Bishara was placed under investigation by Israeli police for additional pro-Hezbollah remarks. There was some speculation that this investigation might lead to Bishara and Balad being disqualified from participating in the 2006 Knesset election, but the party did participate in the election winning three seats, the same as in 2003. Bishara abruptly resigned his Knesset seat in April 2007 amid a police investigation of his contacts with Hezbollah and Syria.
   UAL is a coalition comprised of the southern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel and the Mada Bedouin Party. Its orientation is both anti-Zionist and Islamist. It promotes the increased introduction of Islamic practices in Israeli Arab society and urges Israel to unconditionally recognize and engage diplomatically with Islamist groups among the Palestinians, including Hamas. Israel's Central Elections Committee was petitioned to disqualify the UAL from participating in the 2006 Knesset election based on an alleged call by party leader Sheikh Ibrahim Sarsur for the establishment of Islamic rule over Israel. The petition was rejected by the Central Elections Commission. The UAL, running on a joint slate with Ahmed Tibi's Ta'al (Arab Movement for Change), took four seats in 2006 (up from the three it won in the 2003 Knesset election).
   The fifth and final category of political parties inhabiting Israel's complex electoral system are those generally defined as centrist parties. Centrist parties have tended to have a mercurial existence in Israeli politics, emerging amid much fanfare and with significant impact on the outcome of singular elections but then disappearing from the political scene before the next election.
   The first such case was that of the Democratic Movement for Change (also known as DMC or DASH), which was founded in 1976 by Yigael Yadin in response to popular disenchantment over the 1973 Yom Kippur War and as a pragmatic, centrist ideological alternative to the two dominant political parties, Labor and Likud. The DMC won a surprising 15 seats in the 1977 Knesset elections and, after a period of reflection, joined the first Likud-led government of Israel headed by Begin, with Yadin serving as deputy prime minister. However, there were significant internal disputes within the DMC resulting from divergent foreign policy views and positions. The DMC's membership cut across political ideologies and party affiliations, and the party lacked a strong set of guiding principles; it disintegrated by the time of the 1981 Knesset election.
   The Center Party (also known as Mercaz) was a centrist political party formed in late 1998 to contest the 1999 election to the 15th Knesset. Its founders included disenchanted former Likud MKs and a former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff who were responding to strong popular support for a political party that would occupy the ideological middle ground between the Likud and Labor parties and their respective alliance partners. It won six seats in the 1999 Knesset election and joined the Labor-led governing coalition headed by Prime Minister Barak, but the party had dissolved by 2001, with its key actors either returning to their roots in the Likud Party or withdrawing from electoral politics. The party's rapid demise resulted from the lack of a strong, positive ideological grounding and disputes among the party's founders, who shared little in common other than their animosity toward the new Likud Party leader, Netanyahu.
   Shinui (Change) was initially a liberal party founded in the wake of the Yom Kippur War of 1973 to correct the errors in the political system that had caused Israel's mishandling of the war. In 1976, it joined with diverse factions to form the DMC that won 15 seats in the 1977 Knesset election under the leadership of Yadin. Although Yadin's faction of the DMC joined Begin's Likud-led governing coalition, Shinui dissented based on differences of opinion over foreign policy. Shinui favored a negotiated peace agreement with the Palestinians, including Israel's withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. After the dissolution of the DMC, Shinui again emerged as an independent political unit. In 1992, it joined with two other left-wing Zionist parties (Mapam and CRM) to form the Meretz/Democratic Israel coalition that won 12 Knessets and joined Rabin's Labor-led coalition. Prior to the May 1999 Knesset election, Shinui broke away from Meretz and sought to redefine itself as a centrist party. Under the leadership of the prominent media personality Yosef (Tommy) Lapid, Shinui opposed "religious coercion" and unfair special privileges accorded the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox political parties. Shinui experienced its breakthrough in the 2003 Knesset election. Trading equally on its anticlerical message and popular disaffection with "politics as usual," it took 15 Knesset seats and agreed to join the Likud-led governing coalition headed by Sharon—on the condition that no ultra-Orthodox (haredi) party be involved in the coalition. Shinui's refusal to compromise on this strident anticlericalism contributed to its ultimate downfall. In December 2004, Shinui ministers were dismissed from the cabinet when they refused to support special budgetary allocations to ultra-Orthodox communities and to Orthodox political parties — steps required by Sharon to shore up Knesset support for his coalition in the buildup to the controversial Gaza disengagement. In addition, Shinui split up during the 2006 Knesset election campaign mainly in a dispute over whether the party should soften its anticlerical ideology.
   Gil (also known as Gimla'ey Israel LaKnesset) is a political party representing the interests of Israel's retired and senior citizens. In various elections in the 1990s, it had failed to attract sufficient popular support to pass the threshold for winning seats in the Knesset, however trading on popular disenchantment with the two dominant ideological parties (Likud and Labor), corruption in politics, and widespread concern about the long-term viability of the country's social security system, Gil took a surprising seven seats in the 2006 Knesset election and joined the Kadima-led governing coalition. However, looking at the paucity of its firm stance on many of the critical policy issues confronting Israel, the viability of the "Pensioners' Party" as a true centrist political entity was in doubt.
   Kadima (Forward) is the name adopted by the new political party established by Sharon upon his departure from the Likud Party on 21 November 2005. Sharon's declared intent was to cast Kadima as a pragmatic, centrist alternative to the Likud and Labor parties, the policy approaches of which, Sharon argued, had failed to deliver either peace or security vis-a-vis the Palestinians. Sharon pointed to Israel's 2005 withdrawal from Gaza as an example of the centrist policy approach that his new party would follow. The leadership of Kadima was transferred to Olmert following Sharon's debilitating illness. Under Olmert's leadership, the party took 29 seats in the 2006 Knesset election (well below where the party had been polling prior to Sharon's illness). Olmert became prime minister and formed the governing coalition. However, his proposal to extend the Gaza disengagement to much of the West Bank was derailed by continuing Palestinian terrorism and severe popular disenchantment with the Israeli government's handling of the Second Lebanon War (2006), as well as persistent allegations about Olmert's personal financial dealings. Was Kadima, without the force of Sharon's dominant personality, fated to be yet another short-lived Israeli centrist political party?

Historical Dictionary of Israel. .

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