Because of the diversity of parties, it is highly unlikely any one party can win enough seats to control the Knesset. So, coalitions are formed between parties in order to create a ruling body. Technically, the prime minister, who serves as leader of the coalition, does not have to be from the largest party in the Knesset, and that role has even rotated in the past.
The coalition system can result in unlikely allies, such as the ultra-Orthodox Shas party and the left-leaning Labor party being in the same government. In addition, it also makes the government less stable. The Knesset has multiple ways a government can be brought down ahead of schedule and force early elections, which is why elections this time are taking place a year ahead of time.
Major Issues on the Table
1. Peace Negotiations with the Palestinians
Perhaps the most consistently discussed issue in Israeli politics over the last couple years, if not the last two decades, is the ongoing land-for-peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. There is a growing consensus that the status quo of Palestinians living in Israeli-controlled land and in economic difficulty cannot continue, but the methods and degrees of compromise needed to solve the quandary vary.
The most internationally recognized method, and the one endorsed by the Israeli left and center, is the two-state solution—creating a Palestinian state on land currently controlled by Israel. The degree to which this is implemented is also a point of debate. Ehud Olmert, whose time as prime minister has come to an end, has openly called for painful Israeli land transfer concessions in the so-called West Bank (Judea and Samaria) and East Jerusalem. Others are supportive of the general outline but advocate maintaining Israeli sovereignty over all of Jerusalem.
Another discussion point is economic development in the Palestinian regions. This grassroots-focused approach does not always replace land-for-peace, but it tends to at least delay it until the Palestinian people are more amicable towards Israel—goodwill developed through economic improvement or Israeli-sponsored benefits. In some cases, this is intended to entirely replace the land-for-peace concept, with the goal to placate the Palestinians without making land concessions.
2.The Syrian Track
Peace talks with Syria have gone on for about the same time length as peace negotiations with the Palestinians, with fewer complicating issues. However, a deal has yet to be achieved. Some current major roadblocks include Syrian support for terror organizations and their connections to Iran. Israel demands these ties end; Syria doesn’t agree.
The peace talks were frozen for years before being restarted under Turkish mediation. Syria demands the Golan Heights, taken by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War, be given back to them. However, the Golan has been settled by over 17,000 Israelis, and in addition to potentially withdrawing from homes, Israel would also give up a section of mountainous terrain key to her national defense. Syria’s willingness to follow through on a deal has been questioned, and the situation is further complicated by Syria’s interest in using the talks to receive recognition from the West.
3.Iran’s Nuclear Situation
Aside from Palestinian peace talks, this is perhaps the most often mentioned issue by Israeli politicians. Iran’s continued defiance of Western demands that they halt uranium enrichment, evidence of a nuclear weapons program as recently as 2003, and public statements wanting to wipe Israel off the map have made this the top security concern for the Jewish state.
Most, if not all, Israeli politicians are hopeful that diplomacy will settle the issue, although the degree of rhetoric threatening a military response varies.
Israel tends to have one of the most dire intelligence estimates as to when Iran could have a nuclear weapon, with some saying it could come as soon as the end of 2009.
Party loyalties appear to be mostly out-the-window on this topic. Netanyahu has offered to work with the coalition on the issue to prepare an adequate response. Israel is fairly stable in their banking system, but an export-heavy economy is expected to take a hit as Western nations stop buying as much. The stock market tumbled hard in the couple months after the 2008 global crisis hit.
This has dramatically affected buying power, which has decreased by some 30%, while requests for help to charity organizations have increased by as much as 40%. In December, it was reported that Israel’s poverty level was the highest in the Western world, with one out of every four Israelis living below the poverty line. That is 2½ times greater than the rest of the developed world. (See Signs of the Times)
The Key Parties
The present Knesset consists of 13 political parties. The larger parties that are expected to play more significant roles are listed here, showing the current number of Knesset seats each holds and some of their key views.
The major opposition party and, most likely, challenger to wrest the government from Kadima. Headed by former PM Benjamin Netanyahu, who has right-leanings but can compromise on occasion. Vaguely open to peace talks with the Palestinians, but uncompromising on the status of a Jewish Jerusalem. Believes Palestinians need to recognize Israel’s right to exist before a deal can be made and thus proposes an “economic peace,” driven by a better Palestinian daily life before a political solution can be reached. Militarily hawkish and supports a free-market–capitalism economic view. Netanyahu looks to be heading more centrist, but some of the highest ranking party members are more right-wing. Platform: Strong national defense. Conditioned peace talks with Palestinians. No compromise on Jerusalem. Center-Right.
Shas—12 The party representing the Sephardic (Jews primarily with Spanish, Portuguese, and Arab/Persian background) ultra-Orthodox community, Shas enjoyed the benefits of being the key piece in the last coalition. Was a major cause for bringing down the government over welfare demands and unwillingness to negotiate about Jerusalem. More concerned with Orthodox issues than national issues. Likely to be important in the next government as well. Platform: Child welfare, combating poverty. Technically opposed to negotiating Jerusalem, but practically more open to the idea. Center.
Yisrael Beitenu—11 Translated “Israel Our Home,” this immigrant-influenced party tends to take a hawkish security stance and share opinions with the religious parties. Pulled out of the current coalition last winter over core issue negotiations with the Palestinians. Wants to see primarily Arab areas under Palestinian control. Platform: Strong security, immigrant issues, maintaining Jewish identity of Israel. Supports a Palestinian state, but tends to take a hard-line view on borders. Right.
Habayit Hayehudi (formerly National Union/ National Religious Party NU/NRP)—9
The brand new “The Jewish Home” party is a right-wing, religious-tending party that attempts to formalize the temporary joining of the NU and NRP parties. Assuming it follows with that agenda, Habayit Hayehudi is opposed to the standard peace negotiations with the Palestinians, preferring a solution that maintains Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank and Jerusalem. Party appears to be on the decline. Platform: Opposes land-for-peace. Zionist, primarily religious. Right.
United Torah Judaism—6
The UTJ represents the ultra-Orthodox population not in the Shas party. UTJ has been in talks with Kadima in the past over joining the prior coalition, but did not. Platform: Ultra-Orthodox agenda. Center.
The rising left-wing Meretz party, which pursues a land-for-peace agreement with the Palestinians, looks like it could steal the leftist camp from Labor. Meretz is said to have a social democratic agenda. It was expected to expand and evolve as a new group joined them and, as of press time, had yet to decide if it would change names. Platform: Strongly supports land-for-peace, peace negotiations with Syria. Secular agenda. Left.
Arab Parties (as a group)—10
There are several Arab parties, who collectively represent Israel’s Arab citizens. The Arab lists strongly pursue a two-state solution with the Palestinians and support talks with Syria. They also speak out against discrimination of Arabs. In some cases, their support for the Palestinians leads right-wingers to question the Arab Knesset Members’ loyalties. Platform: Better treatment for Israeli Arabs, peace talks with Palestinians and Syria. Left.
What the Next Government Could Look Like:
Headed by Likud
Likely parties: Likud, Shas, Yisrael Beitenu, Habayit Hayehudi, United Torah Judaism.
Implications: Likely ends realistic peace talks with Palestinians and Syrians. Likely sees increase in spending in Orthodox sector. Could be a narrow government majority, resulting in lots of compromises by Likud for other parties.
Headed by Kadima
Likely parties: Kadima, Labor, Meretz, Green Party, Arab parties.
Implications: Peace talks with Palestinians placed at the front of the agenda. Syrian talks likely to continue. Secular reforms in Israel possible.
Headed by Likud
Likely parties: Likud, Kadima, Yisrael Beitenu, Labor, Shas, UTJ
Implications: Peace talks with Palestinians and Syrians still an option, but Jerusalem likely non-negotiable. Economy, government stability, international relations, and maintaining some form of peace talks likely reasons for this government.
Headed by Kadima
Likely parties: Kadima, Shas, Labor, Meretz, UTJ, Green Party.
Implications: Virtual repeat of last government. Pursuit of peace talks with Palestinians, probably Syrians as well. Social agenda somewhat in line with Orthodox demands.
National Unity Coalition
Headed by Likud
Likely parties: All except Arab parties (although they could join).
Implications: A close finish between leading parties Kadima and Likud, or a national crisis could make it necessary. Could continue peace talks with Palestinians and Syrians. May be an option for pursuing a solution to economic crisis with diplomatic fronts on backburner.
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