The first big election of 2009 will take place on 10 February when Israelis go to the polls to elect a new Knesset. The election was triggered in late 2008 following the resignation of Ehud Olmert as leader of the governing Kadima party. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was elected Kadima leader but failed to get the agreement of all coalition parties, which has resulted in an election being called a year early.
Israeli politics is one of the most fragmented and confusing political systems in the West. This is derived both from the ultra-proportional electoral system and the impact of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on domestic politics. Israelis vote for a 120-member Knesset on a pure party list system. No MKs represent local electoral districts, rather all are elected to represent the entire country. Parties must receive at least 2% of the vote to gain representation in Parliament.
This system is primarily responsible for the large number of parties. Twelve parties won representation at the 2006 election, with five of them winning at least 10 seats. Israeli politics is also dominated by issues of security and the approach to the peace process. The left-right spectrum more reflects attitudes towards relationships with Palestinians, with parties like Meretz on the left-wing end of the spectrum more amenable to working with the Palestinians, and parties on the far right being the most opposed to cooperation.
Israeli politics for most of the last 35 years was dominated by Labor, the main centre-left party, and Likud, the dominant conservative party. Yet neither party has held a majority government, except for a short period in the late 1960s. Likud Prime Minister Ariel Sharon left Likud in late 2005, joining with fellow defectors from both Likud and Labor to form the centrist Kadima party, due to divisions in Likud regarding Sharon’s disengagement plans. Sharon suffered a devastating stroke in early January 2006, and has remained in a coma ever since. His deputy Ehud Olmert led Kadima into the election, which he won.
In addition to the three major parties, there are also a number of right-wing religious parties, including Shas and United Torah Judaism, who both represent different Ultra-Orthodox communities, and National Union-National Religious Party, a generally nationalist and zionist right-wing party.
There is also Meretz, a social democratic party. The neoliberal party Shinui has also previously had representation in the Knesset, a split before the 2006 election saw the creation of the Hetz party, and both were knocked out of the Knesset. Some polls have also suggested that the Greens may finally break through the 2% threshold after polling 1.5% in 2006.
Yisrael Beiteinu, a party representing Russian immigrants, and Gil, a party standing for pensioner rights, also have representation. There are also three Arab parties representing Israeli Arabs. Due to their anti-zionist policies, the option of including Arab parties in coalition governments is a non-starter, making it even harder to form a 61-seat majority.
As of the 2006 election, the numbers were:
- Kadima – 29
- Labor – 19
- Likud – 12
- Shas – 12
- Yisrael Beiteinu – 11
- National Union-National Religious Party – 9
- Gil – 7
- United Torah Judaism – 6
- Meretz – 5
- United Arab List – 4 (Arab)
- Hadash – 3 (Arab)
- Balad – 3 (Arab)
After the 2006 election, a coalition was formed with Kadima, Labor, Shas and Gil, for 67 seats. Yisrael Beiteinu has also participated in the government.
Despite the poor performance of Likud in 2006, the party has recovered under the leadership of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Polls since October have put Likud ahead of Kadima, while Labor lingers far behind. Kadima will be led into the election by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, while Defence Minister Ehud Barak, who was Prime Minister from 1999-2001, will lead Labor.
According to the latest Dialog poll of December 31, Kadima would lose two seats, Labor three, and Likud would gain twenty. If you group the smaller parties, you come up with:
- Likud – 32
- Kadima – 27
- Labor – 16
- Yisrael Beiteinu – 11
- Arab parties – 10
- Meretz – 7
- Right-wing religious parties – 17
If you assumed the right-wing religious parties went with Likud, while Meretz and Labor went with Kadima (not necessarily the case), you would have Likud 49, Kadima 50, with Yisrael Beiteinu in the balance of power. This clearly indicates that the race could go either way at the moment between Netanyahu and Livni, although the numbers would suggest that Kadima is slightly stronger, as you would think that, with 10 Arab MKs, and 50 if Labor and Meretz go with Kadima, it is extremely difficult for Likud to gain a majority.
The biggest factor in this campaign has clearly been the conflict in Gaza, and how that plays out over the next month could very much influence the campaign. In particular, it appears that Livni and Barak, as the key figures in the government during the campaign, are hoping to gain support amongst right-wing Israelis and dent Netanyahu’s support. How Gaza plays out over the next month will likely determine the next Israeli Prime Minister. In particular, the campaign appears to have greatly assisted the Labor Party’s campaign, with an increase in campaign workers volunteering for the party.