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.