Many readings of the Israeli elections, their results and repercussions tend to extrapolate the current Israeli political environment, its partisan components, symbols and traditional divisions (right–left–religious…); without understanding the particularity of the Israeli political and party system, and this would consequently result in wrong analyses and conclusions. In this article, we will, briefly, extrapolate the characteristics of the Israeli party life, which is based on a Zionist ideology, without delving into the analysis of the latest elections, and without involving the Arab parties and forces.
The following are six characteristics of the Israeli party system:
First: The Multiplicity of Parties and the Successive Emergence of New Ones
In the last elections, forty party lists participated, some of them were a coalition of two parties or more. Usually 25–40 lists participate in the elections.
The Kadima party, established by Ariel Sharon in 2005, was able—a few months after its establishment—to win the elections, despite the fact that its leader went into a coma from which he did not wake up. It ruled the country when Ehud Olmert was a prime minister in the 2006–2009 period. As for the Blue and White party, which was established two months before the latest elections and headed by Benny Gantz, it saw a rocket rise by winning 35 seats, and came neck and neck with the strongest Israeli party (Likud). Consistent with this phenomenon is the emergence of the Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party headed by Yair Lapid, which won 19 seats in the 2013 elections; Also, the emergence of the Kulanu party headed by Moshe Kahlon, which won 10 seats in the 2015 elections.
The multiplicity of parties reflects the abundance of the internal disparities, religious, political and economic differences, and the variations of the national, social and cultural backgrounds. However, the Zionist project is still capable to absorb these differences and make use of them, in addition to the fact that they reflect the political vitality in the Israeli system.
Second: The Frequent Splits and Mergers Among The Parties
This is a renewed old phenomenon, where you find yourself as if in front of Lego bricks. Some may split to form a new party, then they would ally with their former comrades or opponents, or perhaps they would even return to merge again, all according to the election “stock markets.” Noteworthy to say that the partnership and merger cases are usually among movements or schools of thought that are similar to some extent (labor–right–religious), and the examples for such cases are plenty.
The Labor party, for example, was established in 1968, by a merger of Mapai, Ahdut HaAvoda and Rafi, putting in mind that the latter two had split from Mapai. As for the Likud, it was established in 1973, by the merger of Herut, the Liberal Party, the Free Centre, the National List, and the Movement for Greater Israel. For example, David Levy (who was a foreign minister in the Yitzhak Shamir government) split off from the Likud and established Gesher movement, then he returned to Likud to forge an alliance, after that he made an alliance with the Labor party from which he later withdrew!! The Likud itself lost most of its cadres and almost 70% of its voters when its leader Ariel Sharon split off from it. Its Knesset seats decreased from 38 in 2003 to 12 in 2006, but recovered again when it became led by Netanyahu.
Similarly Tzipi Livni, who was one of the most prominent Likud leaders, then she split from it to join Kadima and become the foreign minister in the Yehud Olmert government, after that she became the head of Kadima. Then, she left Kadima to establish the Hatnuah (The Movement) party and joined the Likud in the Netanyahu-led government in 2013. Then, in the 2015 elections, she struck a partnership with the Labor party forming the “Zionist Camp,” which became the second party force in the Knesset. In the latest Israeli elections, she withdrew from the elections leaving empty handed.
Third: The Prominent Military and Security Role in the Political Life
Both the military and security establishments play an essential role in the Israeli political decision-making. The military is much respected in the Zionist realm. For Israel is the other term of an “army with a state,” whose establishment is based on the notions of power, security and imposing facts on the ground.
Members of the military cast their votes within a special system, while as soon as military leaders retire, they become active political leaders in the party life. One of the most prominent examples of this is Moshe Dayan, who was the chief of the general staff, then the minister of agriculture, minister of defense and after that the minister of foreign afairs. Yitzhak Rabin, who was the chief of the general staff, became the chairperson of the Labor party and a prime minister, while Major General Ariel Sharon who was the minister of defense, agriculture and infrastructure, became the head of the Likud and then head of the Kadima. Similarly, Ehud Barak, the former chief of the general staff, became the head of the Labor party.
One of the most prominent examples in the recent elections was the Blue and White party, which emerged as a “generals” party, for it was led by three former chiefs of the general staff: Benny Gantz, Gabi Ashkenazi and Moshe Ya‘alon.
Fourth: Most of the Old and Major Parties Are Not Just Political Ones, Rather They Lead Extensive Social, Economic, Educational and Health Activities
This is due to their former roles in immigration and settlement before the establishment of Israel, and when these parties reach governmental positions, they do not hesitate to provide support and services to their institutions, such as the allocation of funds to the Israeli General Federation of Labor “Histadrut.” Furthermore, the religious parties stipulate that their governmental participation be conditional on the funds provided to their educational and religious institutions.
Fifth: The Parties Ability to Coexist and Reach Compromises and Consensus
This depends on the relative weights of the parties, and their exploitation of the large parties’ need to form a parliamentary majority in order to form a government. The need of small parties to make gains is also exploited by the large parties. Noteworthy to say that, since the establishment of Israel, no party—no matter how powerful it is—has been able to win more than half of the seats; thus any large party is forced to enter into alliances and settlements.
Sixth: The Zionist ideology is the basic tenet of the Israeli political party infrastructure. It is as if the Israeli (Zionist Jewish) parties are trends or schools in the “mother party,” which is the Zionist movement. This organization has proven to be flexible enough to include other seemingly contradictory trends. Zionist movements (left, right, religious and cultural) have proven, despite their differences, their ability to co-exist and share in the government. While the political thoughts (Socialism, liberalism, secularism…) remained intellectual intents added to the structure of Zionist ideology, which—when needed—can be wholly or partly omitted or eliminated, without the infrastructure being affected.
Therefore, the classifications of parties into left, right and religious were not associated with the usual conventional terminology and thoughts in political literature; they are, almost, based on the position on three issues: the fate of the 1967 occupied land, the religion-state relation, and the economic system. Hence, there is consensus among the Zionist parties on the “right of Israel” to exist, and on what is related to that, including: immigration, settlement, dominance and Jewish majority. These parties, whatever their differences are, agree on refusing the return of Palestinian refugees, keeping (the united) Jerusalem the capital of Israel, and keeping the settlement blocs in the West Bank…but they might differ concerning the details of the extent of what could be “given” to the Palestinians in the peace process, albeit under the mentioned ceiling.
Based on the above, the Mapai (Labor) and the Mapam are categorized/ classified as left-wing socialist parties, nonetheless, they allied with the US and the West, supported the US intervention in Vietnam, and approved the private foreign investments in Israel.
Finally, a reading in the characteristics of the Israeli parties indicate that they adopt the “Synthetic Zionism” doctrine, which include all movements and employ them to serve the Zionist project. Consequently, all those who follow the latest developments in the Israeli scene, must take attention not to bet on the Israeli political developments in the elections, because these will remain under a certain limited ceiling, in an environment that only understand the language of force and the imposition of facts on the ground.