Since the creation of the State of Israel, Israel’s politics have centered on its relations with neighboring Arab countries. Political parties and candidates have taken strong positions on issues ranging from the role of religion in a Jewish state to the place of government in an economy with both capitalist and socialist elements. However, defense and diplomacy remain the decisive issues.
Larger parties tend to dominate the political scene, though the parliamentary system gives much influence to lesser-known parties. In the 2006 elections, for example, the three largest parties, Kadima, Labor, and Likud together won only 60 of the 120 seats in the Knesset. Though those parties did better in 2009, the rise of formerly minor parties like Yisrael Beiteinu and the weakening of Labor indicated a major shift.
Traditionally, the larger parties control successful coalitions, producing the Prime Ministers and senior government officials that run the state and set policy. Today, there are three major parties: center-left Labor, center-right Likud, and centrist Kadima.
When Israel was founded, David Ben Gurion led the liberal Mapai Party for two decades of political dominance. The party eventually merged with two other parties to make the Labor (Avodah) Party in 1968. Labor retained its dominant position until Likud’s victory in the 1977 elections. It was the first time the liberal party lost control over the government in the nation’s history.
For the next two decades, the liberal party would trade leadership positions with Likud. Perhaps the most famous Labor politician is Yitzhak Rabin, who signed the Oslo Accords and the Israel-Jordan Treaty, and won the Nobel Peace Prize with Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres before being assassinated.
In recent years, Labor has argued for increasing the minimum wage and emphasizing social democratic policies, while pushing for negotiations with Israel’s Arab neighbors.
Opposite the liberal parties were a series of conservative parties that spent the first two decades of Israel’s existence as the decidedly weaker element. Much of the history of Israeli conservatism can be written as the story of Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon. Begin led the right wing party Herut (Liberty), which eventually gave way to Likud (meaning “Consolidation”) in 1973.
Within four years of its founding, Likud decisively won the elections and made Begin the first conservative prime minister of Israel. To form Likud, Begin used the help of military hero Ariel Sharon, who would himself become prime minister in 2001 with the support of Likud, until he left it to form a new party, Kadima (meaning “Forward”) in 2005. Those who remained in Likud emphasize the belief that peace can only come when groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah are dismantled.
The bipolar nature of Israeli politics, bracketed by Labor to the left and Likud to the right, changed, when Likud Prime Minister Ariel Sharon created Kadima. With his new party’s backing, he simultaneously withdrew Israeli troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip–implicitly supporting a Palestinian state–and built a security fence, thus backing strong security measures to protect Israel from its eventual neighbor. This became a middle seam of Israeli politics.
The remaining political parties in Israel can be divided into three groups; rightist, religious, and leftist. Though they take different positions, the distinction between many is more a function of ethnic identity than ideological stance.
The rightist party Yisrael Beiteinu, was founded in 1999 by Avigdor Lieberman as a break-away from the National Union, an alliance of rightist parties. The new party emphasized opposition to Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) policies and is characterized by extreme hawkish positions on defense. It calls for loyalty tests for all non-Zionists in Israel, including notably the Israeli Arabs and Haredim. Though Yisrael Beiteinu supports a Palestinian state, it argues that the borders should be determined not by the pre-1967 war borders, but by ethnicity, with all Arabs in Palestine and all Jews in Israel.
The National Union party (HaIhud HaLeumi) is a coalition party of rightist groups that have affiliated and disaffiliated since its founding in 1999. The National Union party is strongly opposed to any Palestinian state, and supports an increase of settlements and settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Two parties formerly of National Union, Tkuma and Moledet, left in 2008 to form the Jewish Home party (Bayit Yehudi), which emphasizes the religious nature of the state.
Shas was founded in 1984 by Rabbis Ovadia Yosef and Elazar Schach to represent Haredi Sephardic voters, though many of its supports are non-Haredi Mizrahi Jews who rely on the party to provide local social services. It leans conservative on matters of defense, though it has been notably passive in its support of the settlers, reserving its greatest political fire for economic issues of importance to its supporters. It advocates for state funding for religious schools, hospitals, and other institutions.
United Torah Judaism (Yahdut Hatorah) was founded in 1992 as an alliance of Degel HaTorah and Agudat Yisrael. Its supporters lean Ashkenazi Haredi, taking a strong stance on defense and being passionately supportive of the settler movement.
Meimad is a liberal religious party founded in 1988 by Rabbi Yehuda Amital in an effort to unite the religious and non-religious in support of a Jewish democratic state. It supports protecting the environment, but is primarily known for backing the inclusion of religious studies in public schools and the increased usage of clerical courts in addition to civil courts.
Hadash is a Jewish-Arab party, founded in 1977 with Marxist roots, that strongly supports the creation of a fully independent Palestinian state. Beyond that, it actively supports worker rights and education and health care for all people in Israel.
Ra’am, a party founded in 1996 in support of a Palestinian state whose capital is in East Jerusalem, garners significant support from the Bedouin population.
Ta’al is a party founded by Ahmad Tibi, who had been a negotiator for Yasser Arafat before deciding to run for Knesset in 1999. It is a strong supporter of negotiations with the Palestinians, Lebanese, and Syrians, and respecting rights of Israeli Arabs.
Balad is an Arab nationalist party that believes in the two-state solution and an entirely non-sectarian Israel. It was founded in 1995 by a group of Israeli-Arab intellectuals led by Azmi Bishara. Though the Central Elections Committee regularly attempts to disqualify it for claimed connections with terrorist groups, it ran in 1999 in conjunction with Ta’al. It has since ran alone.
Meretz is a left-wing Zionist party founded in 1992 as a coalition of Shinui, Ratz, and Mapam. Though once a powerful party, it has lost support over recent years as the Israeli populate has shifted rightward. It backs the two-state solution of the Geneva Accords, and is a strong supporter of human rights both in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as for the LGBT and Israeli Arab populations in Israel proper.
For more information, see a current list of the political parties in Israel.
Pronounced: AHSH-ken-AH-zee, Origin: Hebrew, Jews of Central and Eastern European origin.
Pronounced: k’NESS-et, Origin: Hebrew, Israel’s parliament, comprising 120 seats.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.
Pronounced: yuh-HOO-dah or yuh-hoo-DAH (oo as in boot), Origin: Hebrew, Judah, one of Joseph’s brothers in the Torah.
Pronounced: eetz-KHAHK, Origin: Hebrew, Hebrew name for Isaac.