Israeli Politics

How do Israeli politics work?

Part of: Alma's Guide to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Why are there so many political parties in Israel? Are all the parties Zionist? Who’s on the right, and who’s on the left? Has Benjamin Netanyahu always been in power?

The Israeli political spectrum is (surprise, surprise) complicated. But, let’s start with the basics.

Is Israel a democracy?

Israel is a liberal democracy, but does not have a written constitution. What it does have is a series of what are called Basic Laws that have a quasi-constitutional status and lay out the principles of the state.

How do Israeli politics function?

Israel operates under a proportional representation system. There are 120 seats in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, and to get representation in the parliament, a party needs to win only 3.25% of the vote (as of 2015). Whoever gets a majority of the Knesset (61 seats) gets control of the government. However, there are a ton of political parties in Israel, and no party has ever won the 61 seats necessary for majority control. This results in something called a “fragmented legislature” — when there are a bunch of smaller parties, and no dominant one. It also allows for fringe politicians to get elected more easily.

Knesset, August 1966 (National Photo Collection of Israel)

So, basically all governments in Israel are led by coalitions between several political parties. Still with us?

So have there been a ton of parties in control of Israel?

No, actually!

Only three parties have ever led Israeli governments: Mapai/Alignment/Labor, Likud, and Kadima. But really, it’s pretty much just Labor and Likud — Kadima only won a single election when its leader broke off from Likud. However, just simplifying down to two parties isn’t super accurate — unlike the U.S., Israel is not a two-party system. These just happen to be the two biggest ones, historically. Smaller groups, like the religious parties, still have a lot of influence on coalitions and policy.

And there’s been a realignment recently. Labor, which used to tower over Israeli politics, is now a minor party with just a handful of Knesset seats. The main opposition to Likud is now a centrist party called Blue and White that was founded in 2019.

What do the different parties believe?

Since 1948, politics in Israel have mostly centered on the Israeli-Arab and Israeli-Palestinian conflict; questions of security, diplomacy, and borders are all major. But the political parties also argue over the role of religion, the role of the government in the economy, and settlements. Shall we dive in?

Likud

FOUNDED 1973
IDEOLOGY: center RIGHT

Likud was formed as a secular party, combining five right-wing parties, the largest of which was Herut. (Quick explainer on Herut: In 1948, the Irgun, a Zionist paramilitary organization, was subsumed into the Israel Defense Forces. Shortly after its dissolution, Menachem Begin — the Irgun’s commander — formed the Herut (“Freedom”) Party with members of the Irgun.)

Platform:
  • Greater Israel (i.e. the “whole Land of Israel”)
  • Preservation of Jewish tradition & culture
  • Free market economy
  • In favor of settlements
  • Opposes a Palestinian state

Blue and White

founded: 2019
IDEOLOGY: CENTRIST, lEANING RIGHT
bluewhite

Blue and White is a merger of two relatively new parties: Yesh Atid, a centrist party founded in 2012, and Israel Resilience, founded in 2018. It was formed specifically as a party that could potentially beat Likud Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — though it fell short of that goal in the 2019 elections.

PLATFORM:
  • Anti-corruption
  • Hawkish on security
  • In favor of peace negotiations
  • Ambiguous on a Palestinian state
  • Ending the Orthodox monopoly on Israel’s state religion

Labor

FOUNDED: 1968
IDEOLOGY: CENTER-LEFT

Labor (Avoda) was formed as the successor to the Mapai party. Mapai, or the Worker’s Party, was established in 1930, 18 years before the state of Israel. From 1930 until 1977, Mapai, and later Labor, was the most dominant political force in Israel. The first four prime ministers of Israel were from Mapai. It was also known as “Alignment” from 1969 to 1986. It’s been weaker in recent decades, and hasn’t won an election since 1999.

PLAtFORM:
  • Social democratic
  • Peace process / two-state solution / “land for peace”
  • Social welfare
  • Increases in minimum wage
  • Freedom of religion

Rightist & Ultra-Orthodox Parties

  • Yisrael Beitenu, which is super hawkish, revisionist Zionist, calls for loyalty tests for Israeli Arabs, and finds its base from secular, Russian-speaking Israelis.
  • Right-Wing Union primarily represents Modern Orthodox Jews and supporters of the settlements. Pro-settlement, against two-state solution, supports Orthodox control of Israeli state religion, opposed to same-sex marriage. Led by Naftali Bennett until 2018.
  • Kulanu is a center-right party that emphasizes liberal economic reform. It doesn’t take strong positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
  • Shas is the party of Sephardi ultra-Orthodox Jews, but also tries to appeal to the larger Mizrahi (Middle Eastern Jewish) population of Israel. Supports Orthodox control of Israeli state religion, is hawkish on security and settlements, and populist on economics.
  • United Torah Judaism is the ultra-Orthodox party for Ashkenazi Jews. It supports Orthodox control of Jewish ceremonies in Israel, opposes drafting ultra-Orthodox men into the army, and pushes for subsidies for Orthodox schools.

Leftist & Arab-Israeli Parties

  • Meretz is a left-wing Zionist party. Emphasizes two-state solution, separation of religion and state, social justice, and environmental justice.
  • Hadash-Ta’al, a largely Arab party, supports the creation of a fully independent Palestinian State and equal rights for Israeli Arabs. Hadash, one half of the party, has communist roots. It advocates for worker rights, education, and health care.
  • Balad-Ra’am (founded in 1995), the Israeli-Arab party advocates for the rights of Israeli Arabs and for a Palestinian state. Ra’am’s base is Israel’s Bedouin population.

Note: In elections, often, the Arab parties will make and break coalitions with each other. In 2015, they all briefly merged together before breaking apart in 2018.

So, who has been in charge of Israel?

A grand total of 12 people! Shall we run through them?

David Ben-Gurion

1948 — 1954 / Mapai
David Ben-Gurion (center) reading Israel’s Declaration of Independence, May 14, 1948 (National Photo Collection of Israel)

Ben-Gurion is considered the founder of the State of Israel — he proclaimed the establishment of the state on May 14, 1948, led Israel in its war for independence, and helped thousands of Jews make aliyah to the newborn state. One notable thing he did during his Prime Ministership was make a deal with the West German government for reparations, which helped establish Israel’s economy.

Moshe Sharett

1954 — 1955 / MAPAI

Succeeded Ben-Gurion after he retired from politics (which ended up being temporary), but resigned because of the Lavon Affair.

Ben-Gurion (again)

1955 — 1963 / MAPAI

He un-retired from political life and oversaw Israel during the Suez Crisis. He re-retired from political office in 1970, living on a kibbutz in the Negev called Sde Boker until he passed away three years later.

Levi Eshkol

1963 — 1969 / MAPAI, ALIGNMENT
levi eshkol
Levi Eshkol (center) with Menachem Begin (center right) and IDF soldiers in the Sinai, June 13, 1967 (National Photo Collection of Israel)

Eshkol was the first Israeli leader invited to the White House, and he led the government during the Six-Day War. He died in office from a heart attack.

Yigal Allon (acting)

1969

Prime Minister for 19 days! Mainly known for his role in the military.

Golda Meir

1969 — 1974 / ALIGNMENT
Golda Meir, 1974 (National Photo Collection of Israel)

The world’s fourth woman to be elected head of state, Meir transformed Mapai into the Alignment, winning 56 seats in the 1969 elections (the closest any party has come to winning the majority 61). She was PM during the Munich Olympics and the Yom Kippur War; she resigned following the latter.

Yitzhak Rabin

1974 — 1977 / ALIGNMENT

Rabin transitioned from ambassador to the U.S. to Prime Minister after Meir stepped down, then resigning in 1977 in the wake of a financial scandal. His second term is more important (hint: peace process).

Shimon Peres (briefly, acting)

1977

Menachem Begin

1977 — 1983 / LIKUD
begin, carter, sadat
L-R: Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, U.S. President Jimmy Carter, and Menachem Begin signing a framework for peace, 1978 (CIA/Wikimedia Commons)

Begin came to power in something called the “Upheaval,” when right-wing parties won a majority for the first time. He was the commander of the Irgun in Mandatory Palestine. He signed the Camp David Accords in 1979 and oversaw Israel’s withdraw from the Sinai as well as the bombing of Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981 and Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982. He resigned in 1983 following the death of his wife.

Yitzhak Shamir

1983 — 1984 / LIKUD

Shamir, like Begin, was the leader of a paramilitary group in Mandatory Palestine. He served in the Mossad after Israel’s founding. He was known as a “hard-liner.”

Shimon Peres

1984 — 1986 / Aligment, labor
shimon peres and yitzhak shamir
Yitzhak Shamir (left) and Shimon Peres (right) in the Knesset, November 1985 (National Photo Collection of Israel)

In the 1984 elections, Labor and Likud agreed to a unity election — Peres would be PM, Shamir would be Foreign Minister, then they would swap. Peres oversaw Ethiopian Jewish immigration to Israel.

Shamir (again)

1986 — 1992 / LIKUD

Oversaw a wave of Soviet Jewish and (more) Ethiopian Jewish immigration; established diplomatic relations with numerous countries; opposed the Madrid Peace Talks.

Rabin (again)

1992 — 1995 / LABOR
L-R: Yitzhak Rabin, President Bill Clinton, and PLO Chairman Yasser Araft during the Oslo Accords, September 1993 (Vince Musi/The White House)

In this term Rabin emphasized the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. As PM, he signed the historic Oslo Accords and won the Nobel Peace Prize alongside Peres and Yasser Arafat. He was assassinated by a right-wing extremist in 1995 for signing the accords.

Peres (again)

1995 — 1996 / LABOR

After Rabin’s assassination, he served as acting Prime Minister until he called early elections hoping to maintain the peace process momentum. He was voted out. He held the position of president from 2007 to 2014, largely ceremonial.

Benjamin Netanyahu

1996 — 1999 / LIKUD
Benajamin Netanyhu, July 1996 (Wikimedia Commons)

Benjamin Netanyahu, also known as Bibi, became Israel’s youngest-ever Prime Minister, defeating Peres and coming to power on a position of being tough on security. He slowed down, but did not stop, the peace process.

Ehud Barak

1999 — 2001 / LABOR

Campaigned on ending Israeli occupation of Southern Lebanon, resuming peace negotiations (Camp David 2000 summit, which failed). Second Intifada broke out in fall 2000; deadly suicide bombings swept through Israel. Barak resigned, and new elections were held in 2001.

Ariel Sharon

2001 — 2006 / LIKUD, KADIMA
Ariel Sharon (U.S. Department of Defense)

Came to power during Second Intifada on promises of security and an uncompromising line against Palestinian terror. Sharon spearheaded unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. Left office after a stroke in 2006.

Ehud Olmert

2006 — 2009 / KADIMA

Oversaw the 2006 Lebanon War (his popularity plummeted) and reignited peace talks in 2007 and 2008, which failed. Oversaw the 2008-2009 Gaza war. Stepped down as head of Kadima in 2008, was indicted for bribery, and eventually sentenced to eight months in prison.

Netanyahu (again)

2009 — PRESENT / LIKUD

Bibi, in his latest tenure, has ended up prime minister four elections in a row. Over time, he’s come to oppose a Palestinian state, and has waged two wars against the Hamas militant group in Gaza (2012 and 2014). He also favors privatizing Israel’s economy.