A Road Map of the Israeli Political System

Political parties

Among Israel’s political parties we find representatives of a plethora of perspectives, spanning hawks and doves, religious and secular, communalists and individualists, socialists and capitalists, all reflecting the many compromises and clashes in the arena of party politics. The institutional order manages these conflicts, allowing the opposing sides to debate – harshly at times, but still within the democratic rules of the game in the electoral, party and legislative arenas.

The Knesset – Israel’s parliament – often plays host to a multitude of parties at the same time, sometimes even more than a dozen. However, most of them belong to one of a handful of “camps,” which overlap or correspond with long- established societal cleavages. Belonging to these camps reflects a party’s ideology and, in many cases, a social identity. Most Israeli voters will not stray from their camp, but they do swing from one party to another within a camp, especially when one party is more likely to be in the coalition that will be formed after the elections. The parties represented in the Knesset are classified into the following five political camps, based on the main social cleavages in Israeli society: dovish-left, hawkish-right, socioeconomic-center, religious, and Arab.

The most prominent member of the dovish or left camp was, and continues to be, Labor (and its predecessor Mapai), which dominated pre-state and state politics until 1977. The left includes parties with socialist and social-democratic ideologies and/ or parties with dovish perceptions (especially since 1967). After the 2013 and 2015 elections, the parties in this camp were the Labor/Zionist Union and the smaller, more left-wing Meretz.

The right includes parties that rejected the dominant socialist ideology (before 1967) and also parties that hold hawkish stands (mainly since 1967). Prominent in this camp is the Likud, which has established itself as the leading force in Israeli politics since 1977. In the last two elections this camp included Yisrael Beitenu, an extremely hawkish yet secular party whose support is largely concentrated amongst Russian immigrant voters, and the Jewish Home, a religious, significantly hawkish party that was recently abandoned by its two leaders, who established the New Right party. In the upcoming elections the Jewish Home is running together with Otzma Yehudit, which is considered the successor of Kach – a party that was disqualified from running in the 1988 elections due to its racist platform and later on was outlawed.

The electoral base of the center changed dramatically in the aftermath of the 2011 social protests. Previously, the center used to be defined as a “third way” between the dovish and the hawkish camps. Since 2011, the center has largely been defined by its focus on domestic socioeconomic policies, in response to the shifting concerns of its core voters. In 2013, the new Yesh Atid party was the primary centrist party, and in 2015 a new centrist party, Kulanu, competed with Yesh Atid for the centrist vote. In the 2019 elections Yesh Atid is running together with a new party just entered the game – Chosen Le’Yisrael, led by three former IDF Chiefs of staff. Though this joint list characterizes itself as centrist, some will argue that it is moderate right while others will label it as center-left, even left.  

The religious camp includes those parties that represent ultra-orthodox identities and interests. In the past, these parties positioned themselves in the middle of the party spectrum, but since 1977 they have leaned further to the right and prefer both to support and join right-wing governments. However, when the left has achieved the necessary majority to create a government, the ultra-orthodox have readily joined the coalition, in exchange for promoting their particular interests. The two ultra-orthodox parties are distinguished by their cultural background – Shas purports to represent the Mizrahi (Sephardi) religious community and United Torah Judaism (UTJ) is overwhelmingly Ashkenazi in demographic composition.

The Arab camp is primarily composed of political parties whose voters and representatives are largely Israeli Arabs. Since the 1980s, these include different ideological and cultural streams, such as Arab-nationalist and Muslim. All the primary Arab parties hold non-Zionist, and even anti-Zionist stances, and as a result none of their members have ever participated in any Israeli government. In 2013 there were three small Arab parties represented in the Knesset – Hadash, Balad, and Ra’am/Ta’al – but in the 2015 elections these parties united, under the label of the Joint List. Lately, the joint list was split again into two lists – Ta’al-Hadash and Balad-Ra’am.  

None of the five camps described above has a majority in the population or in politics. If the Arabs are added to the dovish parties, the two groups continue to lack a majority. The same is usually true for the ultra-orthodox and the hawkish party groups, ensuring that cross-party cooperation has to include multiple parties, across divergent and sometimes opposing ideological groups.

 

The electoral system

Israel has free, fair, and open democratic elections, in which every citizen has the right both to elect and to be elected. Yet, Israel does pose a few limitations on the right to be elected, as do other democracies. For instance a party, as well as a single candidate, cannot run if its actions, expressly or by implication, include the negation of the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, incitement to racism, or support of violent struggle against the state. Other than that, Israeli democracy allow many voices to be heard.

The 120 members of the Knesset are elected through a closed-list (parties present ordered lists of candidates and voters can choose only between parties), proportional representation system (parties win a share of seats relative to their share of the vote) in a single, nation-wide constituency (Israel has one district; it is not divided into electoral constituencies). The legal threshold is moderate at 3.25 percent, so that in the 2015 elections approximately 137,000 votes were needed to pass the threshold, and the “price” of each seat was slightly more than 35,000 votes.

The Israeli electoral system is, therefore, highly representative, allowing for authentic expressions of the various social interests, ideologies, and identities that compose the mosaic of Israeli society. Simultaneously, the electoral system has been criticized for allowing an excess number of political parties to enter the Knesset, making the governing process more difficult. It is also described as “hyper-representative” (Shugart 2001) and has been accused of being too party-centered: a closed- list countrywide system, in which voters cast only a party ballot for a list of candidates, does not result in sufficient accountability of the elected representatives to the voters. This is why electoral reform has always been, and continues to be, a salient issue in Israeli politics. In 1996, a major electoral reform was implemented, creating a separately and directly elected prime minister, but its goals of strengthening the main parties were not met and it was abolished by the 2003 elections (Hazan 1996; Kenig et al. 2005).

Systematic studies of voter behavior based on surveys are available for Israel since 1969. These studies stress the importance of the politics of social identity in Israeli voting behavior. National, communal, and religious factors significantly explain voting patterns in Israeli elections: Arabs are likely to vote for the non- Zionist parties, Jews for the Zionist ones; Ashkenazi Jews are more likely to vote for the left, Mizrahi Jews for the right; new immigrants from Russia lean to the secular right, secular veteran Jews to the left; religious Jews almost exclusively vote for the right and the religious parties.

Conclusion

The contemporary Israeli party system is composed of old parties, with roots going back to the pre-state era of the British Mandate of Palestine, and (relatively) new parties, continuously being established since the foundation of the state. Both party types still represent the Israeli “tribes” or cleavages quite well, contributing to the legitimacy of the political system. Some, however, argue that the parties represent Israeli society too well, nourishing socio- political sub-cultures that with the passing of time now have less rather than more in common.

 

The column is base on the chapter “Parliamentary Politics and Israeli Political Parties”, written by Chen Friedberg and Reuven Y. Hazan. The chapter was included in the book: Understanding Israel: Political, Social and Security Challenges, edited by Petres, Joel and Rob Pinfold and published in 2018 at Routledge.