Political power in Israel has been contested within the framework of multiparty competition. Parliamentary elections are held every four years, and, unlike many parliamentary systems, the electorate votes as a single national constituency. Power has revolved around the system of government by coalition led by one of the two major parties, or in partnership among them. From the establishment of Mapai in 1930 until the 1977 Knesset elections, Labor (and its predecessor, Mapai) was the dominant party. Labor's defeat in the 1977 Knesset election, however, transformed the dominant party system into a multiparty system dominated by two major parties, Labor and Likud, in which neither was capable of governing except in alliance with smaller parties or, as in 1984 and 1988, in alliance with each other.
Since 1920, when the first Elected Assembly was held, no party has been able to command a simple majority in any parliamentary election. Israel has always had a pluralistic political culture featuring at least three major polarizing social and political tendencies: secular left-of-center, secular right-of-center, and religious right-of-center. No single tendency was dominant in the 1980s. Political fragmentation, as marked by the proliferation of parties, is a long-standing feature of Israeli society. For example, in the prestate period, between 1920 and 1944, from twelve to twenty-six party lists were represented in the Elected Assembly. In the first Knesset election in 1949, twenty-four political parties and groups competed. Since then the number has fluctuated as a result of occasional splits, realignments, and mergers. However, dominance by two major parties and a multiplicity of smaller parties remained deeply embedded in Israeli political culture (for details of individual political parties, see Appendix B).
In addition to political operations, party functions during the prestate period included "democratic integration," that is, the provision of social, economic, military, and cultural services for party members and supporters. During the postindependence period, party politics, in particular regarding competition between Labor and Likud and their respective allies, continued to be vigorous. Many analysts saw signs of a political crisis looming with the emergence of extremist minor parties and extraparliamentary protest movements (e.g., Kach and Gush Emunim). These groups challenged the traditional parties on such issues as the roles of the state and religion and the future territorial boundaries of the Jewish state.
Israel's major parties originated from the East European and Central European branches of the WZO, founded by Theodor Herzl in 1897, and from political and religious groups in the Mandate period. For example, a faction called the Democratic Zionists, including among its members Chaim Weizmann, Israel's first president, was active in 1900; Mizrahi (Spiritual Center), an Orthodox religious movement, was founded in 1902; and the non-Marxist Labor Zionist HaPoel HaTzair (The Young Worker), was established in 1905. Aaron David Gordon, the latter group's spiritual leader, was instrumental in founding the first kibbutz and moshav soon after the party's establishment. Moreover, in 1906 the Marxist Poalei Tziyyon (Workers of Zion--see Appendix B) was created to initiate a socialist-inspired class struggle in Palestine. Ber Borochov was its ideological mentor, and Ben-Gurion and Ben-Zvi were among its founding leaders. Vladimir Jabotinsky founded the right-wing Revisionist Party in 1925 to oppose what he considered the WZO executive's conciliatory policy toward the British mandatory government and toward the pace of overall Zionist settlement activity in Palestine.
These early, formative experiences in political activity produced three major alignments. All were Zionist, but they had varying shades of secularism and religious orthodoxy. Two of the alignments were secular but ideologically opposed. The first consisted of leftist or socialist labor parties of which Mapai, founded in 1930, was the dominant party. The second consisted of centrist-rightist parties; Herut (Freedom Movement--see Appendix B), founded in 1949, the Revisionist Party's successor and the present Likud's mainstay, dominated that alignment. Herut, which had become part of Likud, eventually won a mandate to govern in 1977 under Begin. The third major political alignment consisted of Orthodox religious Zionists. A fourth category of minor Zionist parties also emerged, traditionally allied with one of the two major alignments; non-Zionist communist Arab or nationalist Arab parties constituted the fifth grouping.
In the late 1980s, the stated values of Israeli political parties, including religious, communist, Arab nationalist, and mainstream parties, could not properly be placed on the left-right or liberal-conservative spectrum except, perhaps, on the issue of the future of the occupied territories. The positions advocated by Labor, Likud, Orthodox religious parties, and the constellation of smaller parties allied to them have varied greatly. On the extreme left, the most anti-Western element in Israeli politics was Rakah (New Communist List--see Appendix B), a Moscow-oriented group with a contingent of former Sephardic Black Panther activists that appealed to Palestinian Arab nationalist sentiment. Of the long-established minor parties, the moderate left-of-center Mapam (formally Mifleget Poalin Meuchedet, United Workers' Party--see Appendix B), which from 1969 to 1984 constituted a faction in the electoral alignment with Labor, the Citizens' Rights Movement, and Shinui (Change), were Labor's traditional satellites. Labor, in alignment with Mapam from 1969 until 1984, favored a negotiated settlement concerning the occupied territories involving the exchange of land for peace.
On the center-right of the political spectrum were Likud and its satellite parties, Tehiya, Tsomet, and Moledet. On the fringe right was Kach, which the Knesset outlawed in 1988 because of its racist platform that wished to expel all Arabs from the occupied territories. Likud, especially its Herut component, favored retaining much of the occupied territories to regain what it considered to be the ancient boundaries of Eretz Yisrael. The positions of the religious parties--the National Religious Party (NRP--see Appendix B), Agudat Israel, Shas (Sephardic Torah Guardians--see Appendix B), and Degel HaTorah (Torah Flag--see Appendix B)--generally coincided with the right-of-center parties, although the NRP trade-union component has continued its alliance with Labor in the Histadrut.
Israeli parties have engaged in many activities even in nonelection years. Indoctrination of young people has been important, although in the case of the Labor Party it had markedly lessened in the 1980s in comparison to the prestate period. Political parties retained much of their early character as mutual aid societies. Consequently, voters have tended to support the country's political parties as a civic duty. Membership in a registered party has not been a requirement for voting, but formal party membership was high and party members have accounted for 25 to 50 percent of the vote.
Except for small Arab and communist groups, Israeli political parties have been basically Zionist in their orientation. Given the shades of interpretation inherent in Zionism, parties drew their support from adherents who might be secular, religious, or antireligious, adherents of social welfare policies or free enterprise (the distinction was not always clear because Mapai/Labor in fact created Israel's capitalist economy), advocates of territorial compromise or territorial expansion. In general, attempts to organize parties on the basis of ethnic origin--for example, in the cases of Yemeni, Iraqi, or Moroccan Jews--had been unsuccessful until the early 1980s, when the Sephardi-based Tami (Traditional Movement of Israel--see Appendix B) and Shas were formed.
With the exception of religious parties, Israeli parties possessed national constituencies but also engaged in politics based on territorial subdivisions and local interests. Increasingly during the late 1980s, local party branches enjoyed greater independence in selecting local personalities in internal party nominations for mayoral, municipal council, Histadrut, and Knesset elections, as well as their own parties' central committees and conventions. This independence resulted in part from the growing tendency to vote on the basis of individual merit--mayoral elections, for example, reflected an emerging pattern of split-ticket voting--rather than traditional party loyalty. This trend, if sustained, is likely to lead to the decentralization of party control, if only to ensure that voters will support the same party in national as well as local elections.
|Country Studies main page | Israel Country Studies main page|