Israel: Overview of Political Parties in
ISRAEL: OVERVIEW OF POLITICAL PARTIES IN
Political parties played an important role in Israel's achieving statehood; many parties operated as organized structures for decades prior to independence.
Among the factors accounting for the central role of political parties in Israeli politics are: (1) the electoral system, (2) the breadth of party influence in all levels of government during much of the early statehood period, (3) the complexity of major political issues, (4) the intensity of Israeli democracy, and (5) social, economic, and political modernization. The combination of these factors has often resulted in considerable political immobility—a governmental inability to take decisive action in specific policy areas for fear of generating a no-confidence vote and losing its political legitimacy.
Israel's electoral system has led to both centralization of control within many parties and frequently to extreme fragmentation of the party system. Structurally, the country is a single constituency, with proportional representation. Voters cast their ballots for a single party list, and parties receive a number of seats in the Knesset in proportion to the votes they receive. A party that receives 10 percent of the vote will receive 12 seats in the Knesset (10 percent of 120 seats); individual winners are determined by their position on the formal electoral lists that parties file with the Central Elections Commission prior to the vote; if a party wins 10 seats, the top ten names on its list are elected, but the eleventh is not. Names lower on the list may move up if vacancies occur in the party's Knesset delegation between elections. The position of candidates on each party's list is determined by the party organization; some parties use primary elections, some use conventions, and some lists are simply determined by party leadership.
Electoral behavior has been affected in recent years by several phenomena. One is the arrival of modern campaign techniques, including television, which have made it possible for charismatic entrants to affect a party's electoral fortunes. Another is the emergence of hitherto underrepresented groups like the Sephardim who have used arenas such as local mayoralty campaigns to challenge a party's central leadership. The two major parties, the Labor Party and the Likud, have responded by broadening their process of selecting party leaders and Knesset candidates through a series of primary elections involving all of their members. Some parties represent very specific constituencies, for example Russian immigrants. Others focus on a single ideological position.
Electoral reform has been an issue in Israel for decades, and after every election proponents of reform have used that election as further proof that reform was necessary. After many years of active debate, in 1992 the Knesset approved a major change in the Israeli electoral system, allowing the prime minister to be elected directly rather than being chosen from among members of the Knesset. Voters would have two ballots, a vote for prime minister and a separate proportional representation vote for a political party for the Knesset. The new electoral system affected three Israeli prime ministerial elections: May 1996, May 1999, and the special election of February 2001. Rather than creating more stable coalition governments—which was the intent of the change—the new system resulted in increased support for small parties in the Knesset and decreased support for the parties of the prime ministerial candidates. In March 2001, the Knesset voted to bring back the electoral system that had operated from independence until 1992, under which voters would cast a single ballot for a political party to represent them in the Knesset and the prime minister would be selected from Knesset members. The first election under the re-established electoral system took place in January 2003.
The fragmented party system is the result of another feature of the electoral system: one of the world's lowest thresholds for winning a legislative seat. Until 1992, a party needed only 1 percent of the vote to win a seat in a Knesset election, which brought many small parties to the Knesset. This meant that no party has ever received a majority in the Knesset, so it has always been necessary for prime minister–designates to form complex and fragile coalitions, making it exceptionally difficult for their governments to survive if they propose bold initiatives. When the threshold was raised to 1.5 percent in the 1992 election, it had some effect: Only
ten of the twenty-six parties that ran candidates won Knesset seats.
Breadth of Party Influence
Another aspect of party activity is the legacy and breadth of party influence in the early years of statehood. In the prestate period and the early years of statehood, the importance of political parties was enhanced by their role in various quasi-governmental activities, including employment, education, housing, medical care, immigrant absorption, publishing, and even sports. Although many of these functions were later taken over by the government, elections in nongovernmental organizations like the Histadrut (General Confederation of Trade Unions) and the Jewish Agency continue to be contested within the framework of candidate lists submitted by the major political parties.
The importance of small parties has also been magnified by the complexity of Israeli political issues. The political parties can be divided into five major groups, but the groups are not at all homogeneous, and many parties fit only partially into any group. These groups are (1) the left, which is generally socialist in domestic politics and conciliatory on the Palestinian issue; (2) the center and right, which generally is less sympathetic to socialist ideology, takes a hard line on the Palestinian issue and Greater Israel, and would give up none of the territories won during the Arab-Israel War (1967); (3) the religious parties, which have held the balance of power in every government in Israel's history and some of whose members have made coalitions with both Labor and Likud in exchange for the furtherance of Orthodox religious interests; (4) reform parties, which have pressed for changes beyond those advocated by any of the larger, more entrenched parties; and (5) the far left, Communist, and Arab parties, which provide choices for voters but whose members have traditionally been outside of the mainstream of political decision making.
The proliferation and survival of the many parties is encouraged by the ideological and issue-oriented setting within which Israeli parties operate. Israeli parties cluster around many major issues, including at least one dealing with government activity in the domestic economy, one dealing with policy in relation to Arab states and the Palestinians, one dealing with government and religion, one dealing with government and Zionism (which is distinct from religion), and one dealing with national security (which is distinct from Arab relations). Many issues touch more than one of these dimensions. Given the number of central issues in the polity—and this list of issues does not include the problems of immigrants, gender-related issues, ethnicity and politics, and many other highly contentious issues around which a political party might be created—it is no wonder that literally dozens of political parties compete in each election.
Intensity of Israeli Democracy
Each of the larger groupings of parties is made up of several subgroups, and each of these at one time or another has been a separate political party that ran candidates for the Knesset; many of them still consider themselves to be distinct. The result is what seems a never-ending series of political marriages and divorces, and even though both Labor and Likud have been fairly well established for some time, most of the numerous factions within each insist on keeping their own names.
The role of political parties has been diminished by aspects of social, political, and economic modernization. These include an electorate increasingly likely to scrutinize the parties, a large increase in the number of Israelis who consider themselves independents, and dissatisfaction with all of the traditional political parties. The result is that many new parties and movements have frequently received sizable votes, even in their initial ventures into the electoral fray.
Political parties continue to be the vehicle of political activity in Israel, and even with recent structural changes in the political system, no pattern of increased nonpartisan activity has emerged in the polity that would suggest a diminution of the role of political parties in the future.
see also arab–israel war (1967); eretz yisrael; histadrut; likud.
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walter f. weiker
updated by gregory s. mahler