Q1: Was there anything special about the election to the 17th Knesset and its outcomes?
A1: There were two new political cards and a change of balance in both the traditionally large and the main smaller parties, narrowing the coalition options:
Two months before the election, new centrist Kadima Party founder and leader, PM Ariel Sharon, suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage. Under new leadership the party failed to gain the predicted 40 seats, although holding the most seats, having won a significant proportion of the Likud and Labor vote.
The Gil Pensioners' Party entered the Knesset for the first time with 7 seats, presumed to be from Labor and Likud voters; the liberal Shinui Party lost all its Knesset seats; on the left wing, Meretz was greatly weakened, while Sephardi orthodox Shas regained lost ground and right-wing Yisrael Beitenu was returned with substantial representation.
Q2: Were there any notable alignments or leadership changes in the 17th Knesset?
A2: Ehud Olmert as Kadima leader reached out to the Labor Party led by Amir Peretz and the Gil Pensioners' Party, in order to form a center-left coalition, but without additional parties like Shas, he could not form a government, so he moved to the right and Shas joined, with Labor acquiescing. There was an uncomfortable partnership with right-wing Yisrael Beitenu for about 14 months which ensured the government's majority, after which the coalition became increasingly insecure.
Labor leader Amir Peretz was replaced in internal party elections by former PM Ehud Barak mid-term (after the Second Lebanon War); Yossi Beilin resigned in 2007 as leader of Meretz and was replaced by Haim Oron; elder statesman Shimon Peres, who had joined Kadima, was elected President and resigned from the Knesset. Ehud Olmert resigned as Kadima leader but not as Prime Minister with the intensification of Police corruption and fraud investigations, to be replaced in September 2008 by Tzipi Livni, after which the government coalition lost its support from Shas and Labor - and fell.
Q3: Which regional events had the most impact on the 17th Knesset?
a. Gaza Strip and the Palestinian Authority
- In the period prior to the March 2006 elections, Israel had completed its unilateral Disengagement from Gaza (August 2005), while Hamas won the Palestinian Authority elections and established control over the Gaza Strip. Later that Spring, Israel's adjacent towns and agricultural periphery came under intensive, constant and uncontrolled mortar and missile bombardment, without recourse to effective response.
- Hamas and the Islamic Jihad were receiving smuggled supplies via tunnels under the Egyptian border and from seagoing ships, including Iranian technology and terrorist know-how, contributed by Hizbullah in Lebanon. When Corporal Gilad Shalit was kidnapped from patrol inside Israel's border, it became clear that there were also multiple tunnels under the Israeli border.
- In Spring 2008, a cease-fire negotiated with Hamas was not completely effective, but it lasted just under six months - into Israel's pre-election period - during which time all the terrorist factions restocked and acquired Katyusha rockets that threatened a wider range of Israel's southern cities, including Beersheva. The escalation of mortar and rocket fire by Hamas and the Islamic Jihad was massive. This led, on December 27th, to an Israeli response in Operation Oferet Yetzukah - Cast Lead, to remove and neutralize terrorist sites and armed personnel: the initial week was marked by an air operation supported by the Navy, which was followed by an IDF incursion by land.
Within days of Gilad Shalit's kidnap in June 2006, the Lebanese border – a secondary frontier since the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 – was violated by Hizbullah: Israeli soldiers on border security patrol were ambushed and killed, while the two surviving, injured soldiers – Eldad Regev and Ehud (Udi) Goldwasser – were kidnapped from inside Israel under the eye of an unresponsive UNIFIL and possibly even deploying a UN vehicle (complete film documentation remains undisclosed!).
- All the cities in Israel's north, including Haifa and Tzfat came under heavy missile shelling, with major civilian casualties, exposing the entire Home Front to war, and revealing inadequate basic services and facilities. The unexpected flare-up into a major conflict unveiled Hizbullah's major arms and military installations in southern Lebanon and the paucity of Israeli intelligence. Israel's air strike and response to seek out Syrian and Iranian-supported Hizbullah and bring back its soldiers hit major targets and moved Hizbullah away from the border with Israel, but failed to achieve its stated goals, becoming a long summer war on the ground, known as the Second Lebanon War, with a high toll of lives.
- UN Security Council (cease-fire) Resolution #1701, negotiated under international auspices provided for final regulation of the Israel-Lebanon border, and included provisions for regulating non-Lebanese forces in Lebanon, but with Hizbullah firmly entrenched in the Lebanese government, the removal of the Syrian presence was the only significant achievement. Hizbullah re-armed; Lebanon did not control the South; the Israeli Winograd Commission of Inquiry highlighted grave political and military shortcomings and inadequacies, ill-advised decision-making, such as lack of goal formation and strategic planning, chain of command, not taking account of poor civilian and military infrastructure, not providing services and defense structures for the civilian population.
The Second Lebanon War undermined the Israeli public's confidence in the government, destablized the small government majority and raised serious questions about Iran's stated intentions and growing tactical capacity to inflame the region.
c. The Peace Process
The UN and US role in ending the Second Lebanon War was intended to provide Israel with guarantees about its northern border and also mark the beginning of renewal of the Peace Process, under the Saudi initiative and the Annapolis agreement. Despite a great deal of shuttle diplomacy fostered by the EU and the UN, as well as Israel's attempts to improve relations with Egypt and make initial contacts with Syria via Turkey, Israel's core issue remained escalating terrorism and little was achieved during the last year of President Bush's second term of office.
Ahmadinnejad's Iran was not seriously internationally challenged on nuclear armament: Israel was the immediate target of Iran's threats but contended that they affected the international community and deferred to diplomatic maneuvers. By the end of the 17th Knesset, Iran's nuclear fuel production was almost online it was due to take delivery of Russian (formerly Soviet) missile technology that would give it a tactical and strategic advantage over Israel, while also threatening Europe.
Q4: What internal factors had significant impact on the 17th Knesset?
a. The Second Lebanon War
Israeli civil society, weakened by a large socio-economic gap, despite a traumatized southern and northern periphery due to missile bombardment, provided extensive social and mutual support during the Second Lebanon War to its members. This solidarity was a major factor in ensuring that a Commission of Inquiry was established, wich then examined and exposed the problems and failings of the War and enhanced public disaffection with a weak government, as well as opposition to the government leadership from both right and left in the Knesset.
b. Economic and Social Problems
Disaffection and political instability were also exacerbated by non-resolution of humanitarian issues and consequent positioning by political parties with related platforms: financial hardship, deteriorating health care and restricted social safety network services; the displaced status, unemployment, and non-relocation and integration of the evacuees from the Gaza settlements with attendant psycho-social problems; the related political polarization of part of the settler movement and its younger generation.
Within the two major government parties, there were leadership issues and changes: in Labor, this was a direct outcome of the Second Lebanon War; in Kadima, this was primarily related to corruption investigations; there were other significant corruption investigations in Kadima, as well as indictments against members of the government that were proven in court. Olmert's refusal to resign or declare incapacity as Prime Minister subsequently undermined Livni's attempts as the new party leader to form a coalition government in October 2008 - and the government fell.
Q5: Did Israel make a difference through its legislation or its actions during this period?
A5: On balance, the achievements were significant, but prioritization of long-term planning and enforcement of existing regulations and laws would and could yield far greater benefits for Israel.
a. Constitutional and Juridical
The 17th Knesset committees made promising initial progress toward the basis for a constitution, but became embroiled in ideological conflicts over issues of personal status and religion & state - no real headway was made.
The government introduced legislation enhancing the powers of the Minister for Justice and limiting the consitutional review powers of the Israel Supreme Court. Judicial purview over the religious courts see-sawed between limiting their jurisdiction over civil matters and rubber-stamping a non-Zionist Chief Rabbinate which later challenged the status of converts to Judaism.
b. Tikkun Olam - Legislation
Opposition and sectoral government partners collaborated on issues related to:
- The health and medical care basket, which was improved, but which still fell short of meeting the needs of the large elderly, incapacitated, handicapped and low income populations;
- Allowance and supplementary benefits to large families that had been slashed under the previous government were not re-instated, but some cuts in invalid and mobility benefits were revised upwards, following demonstrations and protests; o Introducing compulsory old-age pension plans – however, rather than instituting statutory collection through the NII, this was farmed out to the private market with its high costs and lower returns, just prior to the collapse of the finance market;
- In a ground-breaking Israeli court, a woman whose husband refused to issue a get (religious decree of divorce) was granted a substantial compensation payment in a ruling against the recalcitrant husband. In last-minute Knesset legislation, financial settlement in divorce proceedings became the domain of the civil courts, rather than part of the religious divorce settlement: one benefit was that women (or men) in separation and divorce proceedings were thus able to request recognition as single earners prior to divorce; the main outcome, however, was the regulation of financial arrangements in a proper manner, and the removal - in hostile divorce proceedings - of frequently applied leverage on women (or men) to renounce rights to child custody, alimony, joint or personal property, and other financial assets, in under-the-table deals to conclude arrangements for issuing (or accepting) a get.
c. Tikkun Olam – not just the Knesset
- The government resolved to complete the Aliyah program for Ethiopian Jews waiting in Addis Abbaba; however, there were delays in implementing the program and protests about the thousands who were not deemed entitled to Aliyah under the Law of Return. Israel resolved to continue discreet, gradual Aliyah of the Bnei Menashe tribe from Manipur, India;
- Israel continued to host refugees from Darfur, but to limit the entry of new refugees. When the voluntary medical center in Tel Aviv ran out of funding, parliamentary opposition activity succeeded in mobilizing financial support from government and public sources;
- The Israel Foreign Ministry, together with public and private hospitals, medical care and a coalition of aid organizations from Israel and Jewish communities worldwide, continued their participation in international medical and social rescue operations, including offering hi-tech surgery and treatment in Israel (and overseas) to children and citizens of the Palestinian Authority, Iraq, Jordan, African states, and others;
- Significantly, in 2007, Magen David Adom was finally officially recognized and granted status of a protected medical aid organization by the IRCC, under the Geneva Convention, as well as being accorded an international symbol that is not a cross.
d. Tikkun Olam - The Environment
While Israeli technology leads the world in water conservation and combatting desertification, primarily as an export industry; inside Israel its potential is not sufficiently realized due to inadequate prioritization and funding.
- With a population increase of approximately 20% in a quarter of a century, Israel's water supply had decreased, rather than increased - partly because of drought and draining of reserves (including excessive unauthorized well-drilling in the PA), but also because of its water supply commitments to Jordan, the PA and occasionally because problems with Syrian barrages of the source of the River Jordan. The proposed Mediterranean desalination plant near Ashkelon went into construction after obstructive delays by the Finance Ministry, which had preferred to import water from Turkey by sea as a short term measure, also for diplomatic reasons. The interim ecological damage to the Kinneret, Dead Sea and coastal aquifer may not be reversible;
- Israel expanded its desert agriculture in the Negev based on underground brackish water reserves; Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael continued to advance its recycling and water purification projects in the western Galilee, and its rehabilitation programs for Israel's rivers, especially the Kishon estuary, in concert with decontamination and stricter governmental regulation of industrial effluent;
- The Tel-Aviv-Dan, Netanya, Haifa port, Eilat and other coastal authorities continued to flout government environmental regulation on industrial waste and sewerage, damaging sea life and the Israeli coast; in the PA, unregulated sewage and waste dumping into rivers continued on a wide scale, polluting the lower reaches of many rivers inside Israel;
- Green lobbies were not very successful in their fight to keep beaches and the Israeli coastline as a national heritage and open to the public, as well as encouraging their conservation: coastal land was appropriated for more private beaches, more marinas and more shoreline property development; there was significant erosion of the coastal cliffs in Netanya and the turtle coast in northern Israel was threatened by incursion and pollution;
- Green organizations and the Ministry for the Environment led some successful campaigns on water quality, cellular antennae, and even prosecuted a number of industrial companies for pollution. The Hiriya landfill (formerly a major hazard to air traffic / Ben Gurion airport, as well as a health hazard to the local population) is at last being rehabilitated, and decisions have been made to reduce the density of dangerous chemicals and fuel storage in Haifa. However, toxic waste and supplies' storage continues unabated in the Negev, as does landfill refuse dumping.
e. Socio-religious issues
- As mentioned, legislation was passed to ensure that civil matters related to separation or divorce proceedings could be conducted in civil and family courts, even prior to the religious courts' closure and approval of a get: while this increased the risk of appellants failing to complete the proceedings for a get, it made a significant difference to appellants in acriminous, lengthy, or unresolved proceedings, including battered women and agunot, who had previously been unable to claim domicile, social and tax benefits as single earners or single parents;
- Following the Ministry of Justice-supported election of the new, non-Zionist, hareidi Chief Rabbis, hareidi rabbinical pressure led to a major crisis over conversion recognitions from the USA, even orthodox conversions, and retrospectively over the conversion of Russian immigrants inside Israel under the government-initiated unified conversion program in conjunction with the Jewish Agency and the different streams of Judaism. While the first issue was partially resolved together with the Rabbinical Council of America, on the second issue the government declined to become involved to defend its own program; the RCA, also associated with the program did not waiver in its support, despite its earlier skirmish with the Chief Rabbinate. The status of tens of thousands of Russian immigrants and their non-Jewish dependents as Israeli citizens and part of Israeli and Jewish society still hangs in the balance;
- In a continual but gradual change, Pre-nuptial agreements that comply with Halachah, while condemned by Hareidi institutions, have the explicit or tacit approval of many religious organizations and rabbis, and are processed by dayanim in divorce cases, although still lacking the formal sanction of the religious establishment;
- Civil marriage and single sex marriage were not instated in Israel, but single sex unions were recognized; property division, parental registration, adoption, and fertility treatment are now all recognized rights, following a series of Supreme Court rulings over the past decade;
- There was little or no progress over IDF or National Service for all Israeli citizens - and the IDF was downsizing, prior to the Second Lebanon War:
- Most of the Arab parties objected and the few national service volunteers in the Arab and Druze sector of northern Israel were subjected to antagonistic treatment;
- In the hareidi Yeshiva world, participation in Hareidi Nahal IDF service all but disappeared – on the other hand, a growing number of religious youth in regular IDF service opted for the Hareidi Nahal as a suitable framework in lieu of Hesder;
- Many Hesder yeshivot were in flux following Disengagement and IDF threats to disband large combat units composed of Hesder soldiers. While Hesder recruits continue to be lead in many combat units, a growing constituency in their newer intake appears to be opting to defer active service and remain in yeshiva, until they become eligible for minimum service.
Q6: What is the meaning of the different numerical sequence for the Knesset and the Israeli government?
A6: There may be more than one government during a Knesset term, if a coalition government disintegrates but if a new coalition is formed and approved by a Knesset majority, it becomes a new government, i.e. without going to elections. Thus the 31st Government of Israel served throughout the (incomplete) term of the 17th Knesset.
Q7: What were the major goals of the 31st Israel government and how far did it succeed in achieving them?
A7: There were a number of areas in the different party manifestos and platforms, combined into the foundation document of the government in 2006. Here are a few:
a. Peace Process
The stated goals of the government included a "realignment", i.e. territorial concessions as part of the Peace Process: it appeared that these would include concessions on Jerusalem, possibly the Golan Heights, and territorial exchange. With the rise to power of Hamas and the Hamas takeover in the Gaza Strip, the isolated Palestinian government was unable to speak on behalf of the PA as a whole, although it achieved some concessions on security issues in areas under its control. The attacks from Gaza on mainland Israel within recognized international borders proved a major obstacle to progress. In the first year, the main factor in halting progress was the Second Lebanon War and the realization that Israel was under attack, to significant depth, from beyond two of its frontiers, leaving the border with Jordan its only secure frontier: were Hizbullah technology and know-how to migrate further inwards to endanger all of Israel's heartland from all sides, Israel would be under siege.
b. Economy and Social Welfare
Israel started out this period in steady economic expansion and it was expected that there would be continued growth and improved distribution of wealth to improve the situation in the lower socio-economic sectors and create employment, but as part of a liberal economy. Despite some concessions to the Gil Pensioners' Party and the Labor Party on benefits, and the introduction of compulsory pension regulations, and the negative income tax pilot program for full-time employees who were low earners, no benefits reached the lowest decile; the remaining Holocaust survivors received a very small payout after lengthy filibustering by the Finance Ministry. The Poverty Index showed rising numbers of working families, and especially children, living under the bread-line.
There were no viable employment creation programs, even as the dollar's devaluation and recession hit the country, making thousands redundant. As the shockwaves of the world financial crisis hit Israeli hi-tech, R&D, exports and civil society, including philanthropy, the political parties refused to work together to sustain the government and Israel went into new elections under a passive caretaker government.
c. Clean government
Despite intentions to enhance government transparency, the government was badly damaged by corruption and fraud investigations inside the Knesset, in personal financial dealings and in party primaries; Israel's presidency was constitutionally endangered by the Katsav case, although it regained status with the election of Shimon Peres.
Israel continued to fall behind developed countries in the international ranking tables for: Mathematics, Science, Comprehension and language skills, which compromised its chances for increased economic prosperity and the overall potential of the workforce.
- Despite legislation that guaranteed state education from pre-kindergarten, the Dovrat Report on school education and the set timetable for reduction of university fees under the earlier Winograd Report, there was no major investment in free, comprehensive, quality education for all, and independent ultra-orthodox schools were exempted from implementing the core curriculum, thus excluding them from the process of change.
- Instead of increasing budget allocations to education end-users, cutbacks to finance educational change were to be implemented from planned redundancies in the schools themselves, rather than bureaucracy - while teachers' basic salaries would increase only if they bought into the new system, with greatly increased contact hours. This led to a 12 week strike in autumn 2007, after which minor salary increases were implemented.
Q8: What is the degree of transparency and accountability to the electorate: e.g.: when MKs vote on a policy issue?
A8: In many respects, there is little difference in principle from other democracies; in practice, however, voting can be a complex matter of whether a coalition stands or falls, especially on the budget, ministerial appointments, and security.
- Knesset voting on legislation used to be by a show of hands, later by individual roll calls. In recent years, voting buttons were introduced, so that it would be easier to register how an MK voted on any issue*.
- The government or opposition can call a Party whip to keep their members in line on major issues, and even dismiss dissenting members from their positions: these Whips can be called not only on matters of platform and policy, but also on matters where there is a coalition agreement to protect.
- Theoretically, as all these votes are recorded, the data is available internally and to the public; however, the only protocols currently online are those of the open Committee proceedings – naturally, a little behind.
- However, Knesset TV films and broadcasts all Knesset debates. While its capture is not total, it has been invaluable in exposing dishonesty: investigations are currently proceeding into double voting by some MKs.
So the answer is that government voting is potentially but not totally transparent; on the other hand, parties are not strictly accountable to its electorate on every issue.
*NB: On various issues, there are provisions for secret ballot on legislation.
Q9: What about Sderot, Ashkelon and Israel's Gaza border communities?
A9: Sderot has been under constant and continually escalating bombardment since the Second Intifada (October 2000), but was not singled out for particular analysis or news while Jerusalem, Netanya, and Israel's highways were under also threat from suicide bombers and snipers. Hindsight is 20-20: With the Security Fence in place in many hazardous locations and reduced terrorist mobility since the Disengagement, there can be no doubt that the pressure increased within the Gaza Strip - as terrorist technology improved and since Hamas took control: Israel is very vulnerable to terrorist mortar and missile attacks, as proved by the Second Lebanon War.
The internationally brokered six-month (and incomplete) "cease-fire" agreement in 2008 was a stop-gap that allowed Hamas to consolidate and even industrialize the leasing of its tunnel-based smuggling of arms and more sophisticated weaponry under the Egyptian border at Rafiah, alongside necessary civilian supplies: food, livestock, appliances, fuel, building materials, etc. With 6,000 rockets on Israel's South, and an escalating attack in a widening radius after the truce was not renewed, the Israeli govenrment put into motion an Operation entitled, Cast Lead.
The case needs to be reframed:
- While it is abundantly clear that no major western government would tolerate hostility from a state or non-state entity on its borders with similar restraint, ground incursion and massive retaliation have not been viable options for Israel: they would not produce a change in either the terror structure or its support network; nor would they be dipomatically acceptable - because Gaza is not defined as a hostile entity and because of the risk to its civilian population. It is an ironic, but sad fact that Israel's civilian population did not receive the same consideration...
- No-one wants a mini-Afghanistan or mini-Saddam Hussein on their own doorstep - while no-one wants another conflict flaring up in the region. Israel limited itself to targeted response and security measures to protect its communities for several years, until the Egyptian-brokered "ceasefire" in Spring 2008, which was not properly enforced but lasted almost six months. In late December 2008, when the Islamic Jihad and Hamas cells began an intensive bombardment of Israel's southern cities and kibbutzim to a depth of 40 km , Israel responded with firm action, targeting terrorist strongholds and stockpiles from the air in an operation called "Oferet Yetzukah" (= cast lead).
- In reality, little has changed since the induction of a corrupt and corrupting Yassir Arafat as PA Chairman: it has only deteriorated with worsening realities: the Peace Process is in a rut because there is no move on terror, or incentive to do so, while Israel has no guarantee of security for its civilian population. To break the vicious circle, across-the-board western international and major Arab player cooperation is desperately needed to engage and build a more law-compliant regime and hold it to its commitments.
- Israel additional goal is to continue canvassing international support for its anti-terror policies and protection of civilian life, against the backdrop of an uphill, battle with hostile international media.
A secure stand-down of escalating attacks from the Gaza strip, together with measures to rein in terror and cut off its supply lines, would both guarantee the security of Israel's entirely civilian border and inner communities and allow the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip to go about their lives peacefully: this formula is a long cry from the Saudi initiative and its anticedents and far closer to the intentions of the original Road Map.
Q10: What about Gilad Shalit?
A10: Corporal Gilad Shalit was kidnapped on sovereign Israeli soil, which is a crime. He has been incarcerated and held incommunicado since then, under constant threat and psychological threat. Suffice to say that Hizbullah's Hassan Nasrallah has often made threatening remarks about his safety, to understand the implications of this situation.
Had Israel been able to engage in a prisoner exchange that would satisfy without reinforcing Hamas in Gaza, as part of the "ceasefire" agreement brokered in Spring 2008, it would have done so. Israel's leverage was insufficient to do so at the time.
Once again, this is a matter best dealt with through international pressure, at different levels. If every major city in France carries banners proclaiming, "Free Gilad Shalit", there is no reason why every major city in France has not protested to the Red Cross about visitation to ensure Gilad's good health and safety, as well as other rights.
While this would not resolve the return of Gilad immediately, it could break the conspiracy of silence that the Red Cross and UNWRA are protecting, and reset the rules.
Q11: What external events were of most concern to the 31st Israel government?
A11: There were many external events, both diplomatic and historical, as Israel reached 60 years of independence.
- The French and US Presidential elections were two major events that created a change in the diplomatic balance in the wider arena, as did the election of German Chancellor Merkel; the proliferation of nuclear strategic power against related terrorist expansion were far more sinister events at a more regional level.
- The major external process of concern to the 31st Israel government was the domino-like financial collapse of collateral capital and securities markets in the US and UK, with its devastating effect on the already deepening world recession that had led to massive devaluation of the US dollar. Worst hit were the elderly, children, the unemployed, the infirm and those partly employed or employed in poverty. However, despite some response to the devolving dollar, the Israeli government did not manage to stay afloat and resolved on minimal intervention as it went into new elections.
Q12: Why did Israel go to early elections?
A12: This is a classic "chicken or the egg" question!
- From its initial days, the government coalition was marginal and insecure, unable to ally with the center-left or center-right, formulate cohesive policy, or legislate to pursue its initial goals. At the same time, it could not gain support through social legislation outside its manifesto.
- The Winograd Commission Inquiry into the Second Lebanon War revealed numerous strategic and tactical errors in decision-making in this complex coalition and was costly in both human and financial terms, diverting much-needed resources from the civilian economy.
- The resulting unpopularity of the Israeli leadership involved in the war pulled the carpet from under the government during the recession and financial tsunami of 2007-2008.
- The real issues of education, security, poverty, the peace process, etc., had little direct relation to the fall of the government, although right-wing opposition to the government was vociferous on the evacuation of settlements and territorial compromise.
- The replacement of Olmert by Livni as Kadima leader was too little, too late to save the government in the latter part of 2008.
Q13: Why do Israeli party political campaigns focus on personalities - rather than issues and policies?
A13: One needs to make some distinctions here:
The small and the peripheral parties do campaign on and about the issues, although they might also challenge leaders or figures in other parties, with or without mudslinging.
On the whole, they are canvassing the electorate so that they will be large enough to have parliamentary leverage and possibly be included in the next coalition government, in order to introduce their more radical policies, forestall the radical policies of other parties from the opposition benches, or work on parliamentary committees to promote their policies through government and independent legislation in the parliamentary process.
The three main parties, Kadima, Labor and Likud - which do have substantially different platforms on specific issues like the peace process and socio-economic policy – are competing for government. While it looks like the Likud will win back a lot of its lost votes from Kadima and Gil, and while Labor might also lose many of its seats to the new left movement, this election is about which person is capable of leading a new coalition government and the public is debating qualities of leadership in the wider sense.
- Kadima is facing political accounts with its electorate and possibly even "relegation" to a lower league. Primarily, Livni is seeking to both dissociate the party from Olmert and to establish her character and competence by highlighting the country's bitter experiences with both previous Prime Ministers as party leaders and government ministers – particularly Netanyahu. She is also promoting her own "reel politik": Israel cannot pursue policies in isolation from the world.
- If the Likud can make its peace with Netanyahu, it hopes that the public will also buy into his new image as an experienced political figure who can work together with a team of military experts. Certainly, he is also trying to base a leadership that might form a coalition alliance with the new, consolidating or reforming right wing blocs.
- The Labor party is also trying to reestablish its lost electoral basis from Kadima/Gil and facing a new, united left wing bloc. It considers that its main electoral asset is its experienced military and diplomatic leader, Ehud Barak, although it also wields a support group of popular, senior politicians and two former journalists. This would also position Labor as a potential partner for a centrist government or an active opposition leader to a right-wing government.
Q14: Wouldn't it improve the chances of governmental stability to have larger parties? Some seem to have similar views - such as: Meretz and Hadash, the various Arab parties, UTJ and Shas, Ichud Leumi/Habayit Heyehudi and Yisrael Beitenu, the Greens and the Green Movement?
A14: The answer is theoretically, it might do so - but under the present system of proportional representation, and even with a 2.5% threshold vote to enter the Knesset, parties and sectors that are essentially the products of a central list (whatever their constituency) or a nominating group are not going to relinquish their independence. On the rare occasion that they do, it is usually short-lived as new factions split off on a regular basis and new parties are formed, to sink or float in relation to others.
Parties in Israel are about national, sectoral constitutencies and, to a certain extent, nuance.
- Meretz came from the socialist Labor-left; Hadash may have a similar platform on many issues, but it is a former communist and Marxist party. Their constituencies are also different: they live and work in them daily and they are almost exclusive to each other.
- The Arab parties split and reform, merge and split in a similar way, but some of them are clearly distinct. They may be Islamic, or socialist; some are based on local Hamullah (extended families) that hold power in local government.
- Hadash has a largely - but not entirely - Arab constituency; many Arabs actually vote for the larger parties - so there is no one monolithic body of opinion or vote and they remain under-represented in the Knesset, as well as having almost no women MKs.
- Raam-Ta'al is the second most established Arab party in Israel (in various regenerations) and the attempt to disqualify the party for the Elections to the 18th Knesset poses serious questions about defining the borders of legitimate political behaviour on both left and right in Israeli democracy - which were put to the Israel Supreme Court for resolution: the Supreme Court overturned the Elections Committee ruling. The parallel (overturned) disqualification of Balad would have been minor on its own: the party succeeds as a political anomaly in a democracy and has been walking a tightrope between its manifesto and its escalating political messages (it was founded and headed by a former leading political associate of Yassir Arafat).
- UTJ is a tense merger of the Hassidic and Lithuanian (Mitnagdim) parties from which Shas formed in the 1980s to represent its own constituency, after the disappearance of other Sephardi parties. While the two parties might ally strategically on issues of major importance to themselves, in recent years they have not sat in government together for any length of time.
- Ichud Leumi (Moledet, Tekuma) & the NRP allied for the 2006 election and formally merged, but their constitutencies are not identical. Since forming Habayit Hayehudi for the 2009 election, there have been further splits from their central caucus, as Moledet were excluded from its leadership and eventually the union split into three: Achi, HaBayit Hayehudi-New Mafdal (NRP), Ichud Leumi-Moledet: Achi aligned with the Likud. Moledet remained with Ichud Leumi . In the past, Moledet attracted a partially non-religious constituency, but most of the further right-wing that is not religious voted for Yisrael Beitenu in 2006 and today might prefer to choose between YB and the Likud.
- Yisrael Beitenu appeals to a large Russian-speaking constituency on the right wing, and there is therefore a major difference of platform on religious status policy, as well as significant distinctions on socio-economic issues.
- The Greens are an established party composed of progressive intellectuals and with a successful record in local government but have not reached parliamentary status (as distinct from various European countries); not only that, but several Knesset parties have built their own green platforms... The Green Movement is a newer, grass roots movement and wants to appeal to younger constituents. Meimad, split from the Labor Party, aligned with the Green Movement for the 2009 Election.
- The only alliance so far has been between two non-parliamentary parties aiming at the cross-generational vote: Green Leaf and the Holocaust Survivors' party.
Prepared by: Gila Ansell Brauner