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Israeli Political System and PartiesDefinition

Israeli Political System and Parties - Israel has the most democratic government in the Middle East. All citizens over the age of 18, regardless of sex, religion or ethnic group can vote and serve in the government. Jews, Arabs and Druze all serve as members of the Knesset, and one (Ghaleb Majadle) has served as a minister in the outgoing (2008) government. To date, no Arab party has served in any coalition government. Racist parties or parties that strive to subvert or overthrow the state are outlawed.

Israel does not have a constitution, but it does have a number of basic laws that govern how the government is structured, rights of individuals and similar matters. Attempts to create a constitution have been blocked by religious parties, that do not want to formalize separation of religion and state.

Israel has a parliamentary democracy system with partial separation of powers between the judicial branch on the one hand, and the legislative and executive branches on the other. The President is largely a ceremonial figurehead. The post was probably created in part by David Ben-Gurion to honor Chaim Weizmann (see Presidents of Israel). The President is elected by the Knesset.

120 members of the Knesset (parliament) are elected in nation-wide elections from party lists. The head of the party that has the best chance of forming a coalition (usually, but not necessarily the party with the largest number of mandates) is then chosen by the President to attempt to form a government. Since no party has ever won a majority, a coalition must be formed.

The Israeli system is not like the British system, in which members are elected from districts. Rather, it is like the French Fourth Republic system. The members are chosen from party lists, and are elected in proportion to the number of votes received by the party, according to the predetermined order of candidates that was presented to the elections commission. As a result, the members are not beholden to a particular constituency and some of the back-bench members of larger lists are virtual unknowns. In theory, this produces a system based on ideologies represented in the party platforms. In the early years of the state this resulted in the formation of numerous small lists. The law has been amended repeatedly to raise the minimum percentage required for a party to enter the Knesset. According to the latest revision (Bader-Ofer Law), a party that receives less than 2% of the vote gets no representation at all, and its votes are "lost" - they are distributed proportionately. Excess vote of different parties that passed the minimum may be traded according to prior agreement.

A peculiarity of the system is that even though members are elected to lists, the mandate belongs to the individual. Individuals or groups may split off from the main party taking their mandates with them. Often they do leave to form new lists and one person "factions," resulting in a bewildering array of tiny "parties" that usually exist for one Knesset session only. Individuals or groups that leave with the intention of forcing a change in their party often form "lists" rather than parties, indicating that the ideological platform is the same as that of the original party, but the personnel are different. Such lists (reshimot) usually last for one or two elections. The Rafi list of David Ben-Gurion was one such party.

Election funding is regulated by law and is proportionate to the number of representatives elected in the previous two elections. Television commercial time, given only during specific hours, is also allotted proportionately. The allocation of parties that split from an existing party is unclear (this was an issue for Ariel Sharon's Kadima Party). Party operations are subsidized in proportion to the number of representatives elected.

Regularly scheduled general elections are held four years after the last elections. In addition, a government may fall either by a motion of the government dissolving the Knesset, or on a no confidence motion of parties in the Knesset. To limit the number of such motions and stabilize the government, a no confidence motion requires 61 votes to be carried, and the initiators must name a candidate whom they will back to form a government.

The party structure evolved from the structure of the Zionist Executive and Va'ad Leumi prior to the existence of the state, around several axes. The main axis was the several labor parties and their satellites which continually split and recombined. Since the pre-state society was run by the Labor Zionist movement, these parties formed the center of power, led by Mapai, later called the Labor Party. The second axis evolved in the 1970s, when the opposition Likud party, a coalition of the old revisionist Herut party of Menachem Begin and various liberal non-labor groups took power. Labor or Likud took as partners the different religious parties, who usually were willing to form a coalition provided they received support for their institutions and religious legislation. All prime Ministers have hitherto belonged to either Labor or Likud. In recent years, the tendency of religious parties to form coalitions with either large party has waned. The NRP (National Religious Party ) became committed to the cause of Greater Israel. Likewise the Agudath Yisrael, Shas and Degel Hatorah parties now favor the right either because of their commitments to greater Israel or because they believe the right will more readily uphold religions law. In recent years there have been several, so far unsuccessful attempts to form large stable center parties such as Shinui, the Center Party party and Ariel Sharon's new Kadima (Qadima) party, now (2008) led by Tzipi Livni. For the 2009 elections, the NRP has merged with the National Union Party.

In early years the parties were often movements led by one man, who was re-elected in basically uncontested or consensual elections by a small central committee. Menachem Begin was the virtually uncontested head of the Herut party, David Ben-Gurion was the head of the Labor party, Meir Yaari was the head of MAPAM. The party heads were the ideological and intellectual gurus. Newer generations felt the need for greater democracy and instituted primaries.

In theory, the system ensures that virtually every segment of society and every viewpoint can be represented, which would not be possible with district elections. However, the system does not allow for a strong executive that can take unpopular measures, since as happened recently, disaffected party members can cause their own party's government to fall. The need for coalition government magnifies the power of tiny parties who may have the small number of votes needed to make up the coalition, and who are able to use those votes to get favors for special interests or enact laws such as religious legislation that are not supported by a majority of the people.

Parties are often formed to reflect ethnic or religious groupings. This may or may not be masked behind high-sounding ideology. Thus there were several Yemenite lists and lists of Russian immigrants for example, but there is also a Shas party that has for many years claimed to represent the interests of Mizrachi Jews. The Shinui Party of Tomy Lapid, on the other hand represented people whose families came from central Europe. There are at present three "Arab" parties that have mostly Arab voters and Arab candidates. The Degel Hatorah and Agudath Yisrael are both ultra-orthodox Haredi religious parties that periodically unite to form the United Torah Judaism List and then may divide for elections only. The difference between them is that Agudath Yisrael are Hassidim and mostly followers of the Lubavitcher Rabbi and their set of rabbis, while Degel Hatora is a party of anti-Hassidic orthodox Jews whose followers originated in Vilna.

Following is listing of major current political parties, number of MKs in the 16-18th Knesset (the one elected February 10m 2009) and a summary of their political orientations.

Name Orientation Personalities Mandates
(Knesset #)
16th 17 18
Labor Center-Left,Zionist Ehud Barak,
Benjamin Eliezer
Amir Peretz
21 19 13
Kadima Center-Right, Zionist, Populist Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni
Shaul Mofaz
* 29 28
Likud Right, Zionist, Capitalist, Zionist Benjamin Netanyahu, 40 12 27
Meretz Leftist, Secular Zionist Haim Oron, Yossi Beilin,
Ran Cohen
6 5 3
Hatikva+ Far right Arieh Eldad (joined NU) 0 0 --
Shinui (now defunct) Center, Zionist, Capitalist Tommy Lapid, Avraham Poraz,
Eliezer Zandberg
15+ 0 --
Noy Center Right? David Tal 1# 0 --
National Union Extreme Right, Zionist Benny Eilon 7 9
Pensioners Party Not announced - Pensioners rights Rafi Eitan 0 7 0
Yisrael Beiteynu Extreme Right, Zionist Avigdor Lieberman ** 11 15
NRP (National Religious Party) Extreme Right, Religious Zionist Zevulun Orlev
Nissan Slomiansky
Shaul Yahalom
6 *** With NU 3
Shas Ultra-Orthodox, Center-Right,
Nissim Dahan;Yair Peretz;
Shlomo Ben-Izri
11 12 11
Agudath Yisrael**** Ultra Orthodox, Right, non-Zionist Yakov Litzman, Meir Porush 3 6 5
Degel Hatorah**** Ultra Orthodox, non-Zionist, Dovish Moshe Gafni Avraham Ravitz 2 -- --
Hadash Communist Party of Israel,
Anti-Zionist ("Arab" party)
Muhamed Barakeh,Ahmad Tibi 3 3 4
National Democratic Assembly (Balad) Anti-Zionist ("Arab" party), progressive Azmi Bishara 3 3 4
United Arab List (Ra'am-Ta'al) Anti Zionist ("Arab" party)
includes Islamists
Abdulmalik Dehamshe
Talab El-Sana
2 4 3

+Hatikva party was formed in the 17th Knesset. Aryeh Eldad heads the party, but he is currently an MK of the National Union.

* Kadima party was formed in November 2005 and had no current representation in the 16th Knesseth. 14 Likud members including Ariel Sharon joined the party.

** Yisrael Beiteynu merged with National Union party

*** NRP had 4 members in the 16th Knessset, as Effie Eitam and Yitzhak Levy left to form the more extreme right Renewed National Zionism Faction. In the 17th Knesset they joined with National Union.

**** Joined together frequently as "United Torah Judaism = "Yahadut Hatorah"

+ Shinui currently has 14 members. Joseph Paritzky was ejected from the party for ethical violations and formed the Zionism Liberalism Equality list

# David Tal broke away from the Shas party to join Amir Peretz's Am Ehad, then left Am Ehad when that party merged with Labor.

Major Israeli Political Parties (Current and Historic) and approximate political classification

Socialist-Zionist Liberal - Center Right Orthodox Non or Anti-Zionist
Ahdut Ha'avoda Center Party Gahal Agudath Yisrael Arab Democratic Party
Am Ehad Democratic Movement for Change Herut Degel Hatorah Balad
Labor General Zionists Likud Mizrachi Hadash
Labor Alignment Independent Liberal Moledet NRP Haolam Hazeh
Mapai Liberal Party National Union Shas Maki
MAPAM Progressive Tehiya Rakah (Rakah)-Communist
Meretz Ratz-Citizens Rights Tzomet Sheli
Poalei Tziyon Shinui Yisrael Beiteynu United Arab
Rafi Kadima
Reshima Mamlachtit Pensioner's Party (Gil)

Ami Isseroff

Updated February 12, 2009

Synonyms and alternate spellings:

Further Information:Knesset Basic Law - The Knesset - Basic Law: The Government of Israel (1992)
Updated version of Basic Election Law enacted March 7, 2001

Hebrew/Arabic pronunciation and transliteration conventions:

'H - ('het) a guttural sound made deep in the throat. To Western ears it may sound like the "ch" in loch. In Arabic there are several letters that have similar sounds. Examples: 'hanukah, 'hamas, 'haredi. Formerly, this sound was often represented by ch, especially in German transliterations of Hebrew. Thus, 'hanukah is often rendered as Chanuka for example.

ch - (chaf) a sound like "ch" in loch or the Russian Kh as in Khruschev or German Ach, made by putting the tongue against the roof of the mouth. In Hebrew, a chaf can never occur at the beginning of a word. At the beginning of a word, it has a dot in it and is pronounced "Kaf."

u - usually between oo as in spoon and u as in put.

a- sounded like a in arm

ah- used to represent an a sound made by the letter hey at the end of a word. It is the same sound as a. Haganah and Hagana are alternative acceptable transliterations.

'a-notation used for Hebrew and Arabic ayin, a guttural ah sound.

o - close to the French o as in homme.

th - (taf without a dot) - Th was formerly used to transliterate the Hebrew taf sound for taf without a dot. However in modern Hebrew there is no detectable difference in standard pronunciation of taf with or without a dot, and therefore Histadruth and Histadrut, Rehovoth and Rehovot are all acceptable.

q- (quf) - In transliteration of Hebrew and Arabic, it is best to consistently use the letter q for the quf, to avoid confusion with similar sounding words that might be spelled with a kaf, which should be transliterated as K. Thus, Hatiqva is preferable to Hatikva for example.


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