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Brit Tzedek v'Shalom

Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace

Educational Resources

Israeli Election and Results

   Printable version

On November 5, 2002, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon petitioned Israeli President Moshe Katzav to dissolve the Knesset (Israeli Parliament), thus forcing early elections within 90 days. This paper outlines basic information on the elections scheduled for Tuesday, January 28, 2003.

The Parliamentary System
Israel has an electoral system based on nationwide proportional representation. The 120 members of the Knesset are elected from ranked lists of candidates selected during the party primaries with the party leader at the top of the list. No list's platform may oppose the existence of the State of Israel as a democracy and a Jewish state or incite racism. The voters select the list/party of their choice, and then the list receives seats in the Knesset proportionate to their percentage of the vote. A list must reach the 1.5% qualifying threshold for a seat. For example, if a party receives 33% of the total vote, it gets 33% percent of the seats in the Knesset, or 40 seats. The first 40 people on the party's list become Knesset members. Most Israeli parliamentary elections have 25 to 35 parties on the ballot of which 10 to 15 usually get enough votes to be represented in the Knesset. From 1996 to 2001, Israel experimented with directly electing the Prime Minister, but this year it has returned to a full parliamentary system.

By law, Knesset elections take place approximately every four years. Early elections may also be held under the following conditions: the Prime Minister dissolves the Knesset; the Knesset votes to dissolve itself before its term is completed; a motion of no confidence in the Prime Minister passes; or the Knesset fails to pass a timely budget law.

In recent years, the proliferation of political parties and the highly divided electorate have made it difficult for the Prime Minister to maintain majority support in the Knesset. In this case, the Prime Minister usually attempts to form a new coalition and, if that fails, he calls for new elections. As a result, no prime minister has completed a full four-year term in more than a decade. Much of Israel's decision-making around the peace process has been dictated by the difficulties implicit in maintaining stable coalition governments.

Political Parties and Coalitions
In theory, the party receiving the majority of the vote would run the government. However, since no party has ever received a majority, the Israeli President (mostly a figurehead position) invites the party leader most likely to be able to form a coalition - usually the party receiving the largest number of seats - to form a government. Then that party leader builds a coalition of parties - often six or seven and sometimes more - to form a government. The leader of the largest party then becomes the Prime Minister. For the last two years, Ariel Sharon has led a National Unity government including the two largest parties, Labor and Likud. Sharon is Prime Minister, because he was directly elected to the post in 2001 although he has had to work with a more left-leaning Knesset which was elected with Labor Prime Minister Ehud Barak in 1999.

RIGHT-AND-FAR-RIGHT PARTIES (Currently 36 seats, projected to have 38-49 seats)* (note)

These parties tend to be very hawkish on land-for-peace. They are often sympathetic to the state being more "Jewish" and are sometimes more oriented towards capitalist free-market policies.

Likud is led by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (who defeated Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a primary). Likud is the largest right-wing party. Prime Minister Sharon formally supports the creation of a Palestinian state, but most of his policies including two decades as an ardent advocate of West Bank settlement expansion, indicate that he doesn't support a viable Palestinian state or real political compromise with the Palestinians. He has offered the Palestinians a state on about 40% of the West Bank, less than half of what the previous Labor-led government offered at Taba (January, 2001). The Likud is formally on record as opposing the creation of a Palestinian state. Many of its voters are Sephardic (Jews whose family originated in Spain) and Mizrahi (Jews whose families originated in the Middle East). Until recently, Likud was expected to win an easy victory with surveys projecting that they would gain 40 or more seats. However, in the last month two scandals have seriously damaged the Likud's political prospects. The first involved the charges of bribery surrounding the Likud Knesset primary. Prime Minister Sharon fired Deputy Minister Naomi Blumenthal when she refuses to talk to investigators. The second scandal involves charges that Prime Minister Sharon and his sons Omri (who is on the Likud Knesset list) and Gilad received an illegal loan from a South African businessman which was used to pay off a loan that they had taken out to pay off previous illegal campaign contributions from an earlier campaign. These scandals have damaged Sharon's credibility and the public trust in Sharon and the Likud. Likud has been losing votes to Shas, Shinui, and the National Union. (Currently 21 seats, projected 27-34 seats)

National Union-Yisrael Beitenu, Herut is led by Binyamin Elon and Avigdor Lieberman. The National Union represents the far-right in Israel. It strongly opposes negotiating with the Palestinians. Unlike Likud, it unambiguously opposes the peace process. While a secular party, many of its voters are likely to be somewhat religious or traditional. It is highly nationalistic party; some members and factions of the party call for the "transfer" (that is ethnic cleansing) of the Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories. The Yisrael Beitenu faction (which recently merged with National Union) represents right-wing Russian Jews. The Herut party which ran on a joint ticket with National Union in 1999; it broke away from National Union after the election. Herut is led by Michael Kleiner who currently holds its only Knesset seat. Herut openly calls for transferring the Israeli Arabs. Baruch Marzel, the former leader of the banned Kach movement (a Kahanist party) is second to Kleiner on the Herut list. An attempt to ban Marzel from participating in the election failed. (Currently 7 seats, 8 seats including Herut, projected 7-11 seats for National Union)

National Religious Party (Mafdal) is lead by Efraim Eitam. This party is a religious party representing religious nationalists. It is closely associated with the Israeli settlement movement and opposes the peace process. Once a major force in Israeli political life, it has been shrinking in recent years. (Currently, 5 seats projected 3-6 seats)

CONSTITUENCY PARTIES (Currently 26 seats, projected 17-21 seats)
These parties generally represent a specific ethnic or religious segment of the population; and while they often take left-or-right-leaning ideological positions, they join both left- and right-leaning governments, because their primary concern is getting money and benefits for the members of their constituency.

Shas is led by Interior Minister EliyahuYishai. This is an ethno-religious party representing Mizrachi and Sephardic Jews. The leadership is Orthodox, although most of its voters are traditional religious Mizrahi Jews rather than strictly Orthodox. The party has a large base among Moroccan Jews. Their association with Shas is primarily ethnic since many Mizrahi Jews resent the fact that they were excluded from Israeli political and economic life for many decades in a state that was built by and to this day is still dominated by European Jews. Shas's leadership has been open to the peace process at times, but most of its members are not terribly supportive of it. Its main concern is providing financial support for its religious school system and social services for Sephardic/Mizrahi Jews. The party did very well during the 1999 election following the imprisonment of its former leader Aryeh Deri on corruption charges. At one time it was expected to lose at least half of its seats in this election, as many of its voters return to the Likud party; however, it has regained several seats in recent weeks as a result of the Likud scandals. (Currently 17 seats, projected 9-13 seats)

United Torah Judaism is led by Meir Porush. This is an Ashkenazi (Jews whose families originated in Eastern Europe) religious party with ties to various Hasidic and non-Hasidic Orthodox movements. Its leaders and members are likely to be critical of the peace process, but they are chiefly concerned about financial support for their religious schools. (Currently 5 seats, projected 5 seats)

Yisrael b'Aliya is led by Housing Minister (and former Soviet prisoner of conscience) Natan Sharansky. This party attracts support mostly from recent Russian Jewish immigrants. Sharansky has increasingly leaned rightward, but the party's major concern is financial support for economically struggling Russian Jewish community. Since most Russians are secular, Yisrael b' Aliya supports reducing religious coercion in public life and has sometimes clashed with Shas over this issue. (Currently 4 seats, projected 3-4 seats)

LEFT-LEANING PARTIES (Currently 48 seats, projected 42-46 seats)
Left-leaning parties tend to be dovish on the issue of land in return for peace with the Palestinians, as well as being sympathetic to the concept of a secular state. They often favor more government spending on social programs.

Labor-Meimad is led by newly-elected Labor leader and Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna. Mitzna is a former general who has long been an opponent of Ariel Sharon. (In 1982, while still a general, Mitzna criticized Sharon's actions during the Lebanon War.) He has been successful as the mayor of Haifa, which has a large population of Israeli Arabs, but is a relatively new face on the national Israeli political scene. Mitzna has promised that if he's elected, Israel will unilaterally pull out of the Gaza Strip and remove Israeli settlements there. He has promised to reenter negotiations with the Palestinians without preconditions for a year. If the negotiations fail to reach a final settlement, he has said he will implement a unilateral pull-out from the West Bank. His platform is one of completing Oslo's Land-for-Peace process as quickly as possible. Labor, which was the dominant Israeli party for Israel's first two decades, largely represents secular Ashkenzi Jews. On January 14, Mitzna publicly declared that after the elections Labor will not enter a National Unity government with the Likud Party. If he keeps this promise, it precludes the possibility of a National Unity government - which many had considered likely. Meimad is a small dovish religious faction that runs on a joint list with Labor under the leadership of Former Deputy Foreign Minister Rabbi Michael Melchior. (Currently 25 seats, projected 20-24 seats)

Meretz, led by Former Education Minister Yossi Sarid, is positioned to the left of Labor on social issues and the peace process. It advocates peace and compromise with the Palestinians. It is a combination of Mapam (closely linked with the Kibbutz movement) and Ratz (the civil rights movement). It also just entered into an alliance with a leftist Russian faction, Democratic Choice led by Roman Bronfman. Meretz represents secular Ashkenazi Israelis and attracts some votes from Israeli Arabs. It has close ties to a variety of Israeli peace movements. Former Labor Justice Minister Yossi Beilin joined the Meretz list after doing poorly in the Labor primaries. (Currently Meretz 10 seats, Democratic Choice 2 seats, projected 6-10 seats)

Shinui, led by former television commentator Yosef (Tommy) Lapid, gained a lot of ground in the 1999 election and is still gaining - mostly at the expense of Meretz, Labor, and Likud. It also appeals to secular Ashkenazi voters. Shinui is most well-known for its strong position against religious coercion and its support of a secular state. It has focused on issues such as opposing military exceptions for yeshiva students. It has refused to enter any coalition that will include religious parties (Shas, United Torah Judaism, NRP). It has also said that it will not join a coalition with Israeli Arab parties. Shinui favors a secular unity government with both Labor and Likud. The party and its voters are somewhat distrustful of Arafat and the peace process. Shinui defines itself as an economically liberal free-market party. It is defined here as a left-wing party on the basis of its views on religious coercion, but it does not really fit into either category since its economic and security policy are somewhat more right-wing. (Currently 6 seats, projected 7-9 seats)

One Nation is led by Amir Peretz. This is a small leftist party focuses on worker's rights issues like employment, education, and healthcare. It is generally supportive of the peace process, though it does not focus on it. (Currently 2 seats, projected 2-4 seats)

Aleh Yarok is a small party that has never been elected to the Knesset before. Their platform focuses on legalization of marijuana and prostitution (both of which are currently illegal in Israel). They are struggling to crack the 1.5% threshold needed to enter the Knesset. (Projected 0-2 seats)

NON-ZIONIST PARTIES (Currently 10 seats, projected 7-11 seats)
- None of these parties has ever been invited to join an Israeli government due to the political taboo against including Israeli Palestinian Arab parties joining the government. Some experts believe that the recent unsuccessful attempts to ban several Israeli Arab leaders from participating in the election may cause Israeli Arabs to turn out in large numbers unlike the unlike last election in 2001when many Israeli Arabs boycotted the Prime Minister's election between Ariel Sharon and Ehud Barak.

Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (Hadash), led by Mohammed Baraka, resulted from the merger of the Israeli Communist Party and the Black Panther Party in 1977. It is the only party that runs on a 50-50 Arab-Jewish list and always includes women among its top slots. It calls for complete withdrawal from the Occupied Territories and supports the creation of a Palestinian state. Hadash calls for full equality for Israeli Arabs, more support for economically disadvantaged sectors, and the ratification of a secular Constitution. It also favors progressive policies on social issues and women's rights. This year it has entered an alliance with a small Arab faction called the Arab Movement for Renewal led by Ahmed Tibi. Tibi has been well-known in the past as an advisor to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The Israeli Central Election Committee attempted to ban Tibi from participating in the election; however, this decision was overturned by the Israeli Supreme Court. (Currently Hadash 3 seats, Arab Movement for Renewal 1 seat)

United Arab List (Ra'am), led by Abdel Wahab Daroushe. This is a joint list combining the Arab Democratic Party, the National Arab Party, and the Islamic Movement. Its platform focuses on attaining full equality for Israeli Arabs and a full Israeli withdrawal from the Occupied Territories. (Currently United Arab List 3 seats, National Arab Party 2 seats)

National Democratic Alliance (Balad), led by Azmi Bishara. Bishara gained considerable notoriety in 1999 when he became the first Israeli Arab to compete in a direct election for Prime Minister. His party advocates for a fully democratic state that includes Israeli Arabs. Balad also supports a right of return for Palestinian refuges, service by Israeli Arabs in the Israeli Defense Forces, and the creation of a Palestinian state. The Israeli Central Election Committee attempted to ban both Bishara and Balad from participating in the election; however, this decision was overturned by the Israeli Supreme Court. (Currently 1 seat)

POSSIBLE COALITION GOVERNMENTS 1) A narrow Right-leaning coalition led by Ariel Sharon. This would include all of the right- wing parties above and some or all of the constituency parties as well. It is not Sharon's first choice, because he would be held hostage to the demands of far-right parties and religious parties. He would have to bring in right-wing parties opposed to a Palestinian state and adopt positions somewhat acceptable to them. This would create a great deal of friction with the Bush administration, which is pushing Sharon to agree to a "Roadmap" to a Palestinian state. On January 13, Sharon told New York Times Columnist William Safire that, "I won't put myself in the hands of any radical parties, neither of the left nor the right. I can't have those who want to give up everything or those who want to keep everything. I need the center because we have to take painful steps." This statement seemed to imply that Sharon is ruling out the possibility of forming a government including National Union and Herut. Still he may have no other choice. Despite Sharon's comments, this scenario seems like a strong possibility, but such a government might well be short-lived and unstable.

2) A National Unity Government led by Ariel Sharon. Sharon would prefer this sort of government, which would be very similar to the one that he led from February 2000 to November 2001. Bringing in Labor would allow him to exclude the far-right parties and limit the influence of three religious parties. It would give him the cover of having someone like Nobel Peace Prize winner Shimon Peres as his Foreign Minister. It would allow him to sound more moderate while carrying out his current Occupation policies. The problem is that Labor leader Amram Mitzna stated unequivocally on January 14 that he won't support bringing Labor into a Unity government. If Labor loses, the party may hold a new leadership election and bring back a leader like former Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer who would gladly lead Labor into a Unity Government. The only difference would be that Likud would likely be in a somewhat stronger position within such a government than under the previous unity government. Another possibility is that Labor might split and some members of the party around Ben-Eliezer might join a Sharon-led government. Sharon may form a narrow government and later bring in Labor under a new leader. It is also possible that if a US-led invasion of Iraq leads to an attack on Israel, that Labor will have a face-saving excuse for abandoning its promise not to enter a unity government. Some variation of this scenario seems possible, but it is difficult to predict prior to the election.

3) A narrow Left-leaning Government led by Amran Mitzna. This is the scenario that is most likely to promote the advancement of the peace process. This would involve a government of Labor, Meretz, One Nation, and perhaps Shinui and/or Yisrael b'Aliya. Mitzna could invite in the religious parties (Shas and United Torah Judiasm, but this would likely mean that he'd lose Shinui which insists it will not join a government with religious parties). Shinui's refusal to enter a government with either the religious parties or the Arab parties makes it very difficult to imagine such a scenario actually materializing. A really groundbreaking move would be to break all previous precedent and invite in some of the Israeli Arab parties. It is also possible that if Mitzna does very well, some portion of Likud might join some type of Labor-led unity government. Given current polling, this scenario is somewhat unlikely, but the situation can change rapidly.

Prepared by David J. Albert and the Brit Tzedek Education Committee (Updated 1/14/03)

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