Guide to Israel's political parties

There are 34 political parties running in the Israeli general election on 22 January for 120 seats in the Knesset or parliament.

LIKUD

Likud finished in second place in the 2009 general election, with 27 seats, one behind Kadima. Yet it went on to lead the government because Mr Netanyahu was able to draw on the support of several key parties including Yisrael Beitenu and small religious factions to build a coalition.

For the 2013 election, Likud and Yisrael Beitenu (Israel is our Home), the party led by Avigdor Lieberman have formed a joint party list, though they have maintained separate political platforms.

Benjamin Netanyahu
  • Leader: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
  • Founded: September 1973
  • Politics: Conservative and nationalist
  • Number of members in 18th Knesset: 27

Likud was originally set up in 1973 to challenge the Labour party, the latest in a series of centre-left parties which had governed Israel since its creation in 1948. It was inspired by the ideology of the revisionist Zionist leader, Zev Jabotinsky. Likud first came to power in 1977 and for decades afterwards it alternated in government with Labour. In the 2003 elections, it won convincingly with 38 seats, but then underwent a damaging split in 2005. As Prime Minister Ariel Sharon oversaw Israel's disengagement from the Gaza Strip, he lost support of many Likud members. He then left to form the centrist party, Kadima, taking prominent moderates with him. This resulted in Likud falling to fourth place in the election in 2006 with only 12 seats.

Ideologically, Likud is right-wing and nationalist. It opposed the 1993 Oslo Accord between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation. However, in 2009, under pressure from the United States, Mr Netanyahu affirmed his support for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict with conditions attached. He said: "If we get a guarantee of demilitarisation and if the Palestinians recognise Israel as the Jewish state, we are ready to agree to a real peace agreement".

During the last government, headed by Likud, US-led talks with the Palestinians stalled over the issue of expanding Jewish settlements. Israeli policies in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank were a constant source of tension with the Obama administration and European allies. In this election campaign, support for the settlements has remained an important issue for right-wing voters.

The Likud election campaign is also relying heavily on the image of Mr Netanyahu as a strong prime minister. In terms of foreign policy, he has asked the world to draw "a clear red line" over Iran's nuclear programme. In terms of domestic policy, Likud is promising changes to the political system, a law for equality in national military service, economic reforms and a continued focus on security.

YISRAEL BEITENU

This political party was formed by Moldova-born Avigdor Lieberman in 1999, and draws wide support from Israel's million-strong immigrant community from the former Soviet Union. Like Likud, Yisrael Beitenu claims to be "a national movement with the clear vision to follow in the brave path of [Zionist leader] Zev Jabotinsky [which] fulfils the three cardinal principles of Zionism: Aliyah (Jewish immigration to Israel), settlement and security movements".

Avigdor Leiberman
  • Leader: Avigdor Lieberman
  • Founded: 1999
  • Politics: Right-wing, secular, Zionist
  • Number of members in 18th Knesset: 15

It has often taken controversial positions relating to the Israeli-Arab population and opposed steps in the peace process with the Palestinians. Mr Lieberman lives in a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank.

Uncertainty surrounding the political future of Mr Lieberman has hung over this election campaign. He is standing, despite having had to step down as foreign minister in December to fight charges of fraud and breach of trust. If he manages to face down the criminal allegations he is expected to secure a top cabinet post.

In the last parliament, Yisrael Beitenu was instrumental in pushing legislation that targeted Israel's Arab minority and leftist groups. This included the so-called Nakba law, which stopped public funding for groups involved in activities that denied Israel's existence as a Jewish state and a commission of inquiry to examine the funding of certain non-governmental organisations.

Mr Lieberman has insisted that he backs the creation of "a viable Palestinian state" and has outlined a plan to transfer certain areas with large Arab populations to future Palestinian sovereignty. His party also calls for political reforms and has pressed for a new law that would change the rules on conversions to Judaism. This is a pressing issue for over 300,000 Israeli citizens, mostly Soviet immigrants, who are not Jewish according to strict interpretations of religious law so cannot marry or be buried as Jews in Israel. Yisrael Beitenu proposes that municipal rabbis, who are part of the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate, be allowed to establish conversion courts. However reform and conservative Jewish communities were strongly opposed to its bill and attempts to pass it divided the government.

KADIMA

Formed in November 2005 by then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Kadima (Forward) was intended as a centrist alternative to existing parties. Mr Sharon had broken away from Likud after his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip meant he lost the support of its members. Israeli politicians from across the political spectrum joined him in Kadima, including Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni from Likud and Shimon Peres from Labour. At the time the new party filled a political vacuum - the Israeli left had been weakened by the failure of the Camp David peace talks and the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, and Likud did not accept the international consensus around a two-state solution. The Kadima platform promised to combine a Zionist ideology with bold moves to solve the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

Shaul Mofaz
  • Leader: Shaul Mofaz
  • Founded: 2005
  • Politics: centrist Zionist
  • Number of members in 18th Knesset: 21
  • Website: http://www.kadima.org.il/

At the end of 2005, Mr Olmert took over Kadima after Mr Sharon suffered a series of strokes that left him in a permanent coma. It went on to win the 2006 election with 29 of 120 Knesset seats. However many speculated it could have won more if Mr Sharon, a powerful personality, had been able to stay at the helm. During his time in office Mr Olmert was criticised for the failures of the 2006 Lebanon War and 2008-9 Gaza war. However he pushed peace negotiations with the Palestinians, with Tzipi Livni acting as chief negotiator, and later claimed that he went further than any other Israeli leader in a deal that he offered. Mr Olmert stepped down as leader of Kadima in late 2008 amid accusations of corruption. Ms Livni replaced him.

In early general elections in February 2009, Kadima won the greatest number of seats - one more than Likud - but Ms Livni proved unable to form a new coalition government. Benjamin Netanyahu went on to head the next coalition.

While she had been one of Israel's most popular politicians, Ms Livni faced heavy criticism for what was seen as her ineffective term as opposition leader. In March 2012, Kadima members voted to replace her with the former defence minister and army chief of staff, Shaul Mofaz. Meanwhile Mr Mofaz took the surprising decision to join the Likud-led government in May only to leave two months afterwards in a dispute over military conscription for ultra-Orthodox Jews. Heading into this poll, the party appears relatively weak, trailing around the 2% threshold, and has seen several well-known members leave its ranks.

SHAS

The ultra-Orthodox religious Shas party remains highly influential in Israeli politics. The party's name is an acronym for the Hebrew for Sephardic Guards. It has been described as a kingmaker, having given its support to coalition governments led by both Labour and Likud since it was founded in 1984. In the current parliament it controls 10 seats and holds four cabinet positions including the interior and housing ministers. Its strongest showing was in 1999 when it took 17 seats.

Shas election poster
  • Leaders: Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Eli Yishai, Aryeh Deri
  • Founded: 1984
  • Politics: Sephardic Ultra-Orthodox religious party
  • Number of members in 18th Knesset: 10

Shas comes under the spiritual leadership of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, a former Israeli Sephardi chief rabbi, who heads the Council of Torah Sages. Now 92, he was recently briefly hospitalised after suffering a minor stroke.

The party was set up in 1984 to increase the representation of Sephardic Jews in the Knesset. The Shas slogan is "to return the crown to its ancient glory", meaning to lead Sephardic Jews back to religious observance and the cultural heritage of their forefathers. It works to end prejudice against the Sephardic community and highlights economic issues and social justice. During the election, Shas has used the campaign slogan "we're for those who have not".

While the party has indicated it would join another government headed by current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, tensions remain high between Shas and Likud. A 2013 budget must involve austerity measures but Shas leaders have opposed cuts to welfare, education and health services without a reduction to the defence budget.

LABOUR PARTY

After a poor show in the last election when it was reduced to 13 seats, Israel's Labour party is undergoing a revival under new leader Shelly Yachimovich. She took over one year ago after the Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, left his post and the party to form Independence with four other MKs.

Labour
  • Leader: Shelly Yachimovich
  • Founded: 1968
  • Politics: social democratic Zionist ideology
  • Number of members in 18th Knesset: 8

Ms Yachimovich, a former journalist and talk-show host, has promised wide-scale social and economic reforms. The Labour list for the upcoming poll includes activists who rose to prominence during the mass economic protests that swept Israel in the summer of 2011, as well as party veterans. Labour says that in government it would end privatisation of public infrastructure and social services and increase the minimum wage. Concerning the Israel-Palestinian conflict, Labour says it will seek a stable peace agreement that would include withdrawal from some Jewish settlements in occupied territory.

The party said it would not join a Likud-led coalition after the next elections. Instead, during the campaign, Ms Yachimovich met the head of Hatenua, Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid to discuss a unified centre-left alternative to another Netanyahu-led government. The talks failed to yield results.

Labour was established in 1968 when three socialist labour parties joined together, including Mapai, which had controlled the Israeli government since the state was created in 1948. It went on to dominate Israeli politics until its rival, Likud, emerged on the scene and went on to lead its first coalition government in 1977. For decades the two parties alternated in power, although they were occasionally forced to join forces in 'unity governments'.

HATNUA

Livni
  • Leader: Tzipi Livni
  • Founded: November 2012
  • Politics: centrist
  • Number of members in 18th Knesset: 9
  • Website: http://www.hatnua.org.il/#!hatnua-english/ckla

The former Kadima leader, Tzipi Livni, established this new party in November after briefly leaving frontline politics. She had lost control of Kadima to Shaul Mofaz earlier in the year. Mrs Livni said she wanted "a Zionist party - a liberal, secular and democratic party".

The movement has promised to push for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Mrs Livni was formerly foreign minister and chief negotiator with the Palestinians. The party also advocates military conscription for the ultra-Orthodox and better opportunities for young people so they can "live in dignity". There are currently nine members of the Knesset who belong to the movement.

During campaigning, Mrs Livni repeatedly criticised Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and accused the Likud-Yisrael Beitenu list of right-wing "extremism", yet she did not rule out joining them in a coalition government.

JEWISH HOME

A series of recent polls suggest that in the next election this right-wing, religious party led by Naftali Bennett, could take seats from the Likud party of Benjamin Netanyahu whom he previously served as chief of staff. Mr Bennett, who is 40, was in an elite army unit and is a high-tech entrepreneur.

Naftali Bennett
  • Leader: Naftali Bennett
  • Founded: November 2008
  • Politics: religious Zionist, modern Orthodox Judaism
  • Number of members in 18th Knesset: 3

Jewish Home, or Habayit Hayehudi, strongly supports the settler movement and has several hard-line settlers on its list. It rejects the notion of an independent Palestinian state. Instead the party is running on a platform to annex 60% of the West Bank known as Area C, where all Jewish settlements are located and which currently falls under Israeli military control. It says Palestinians living there could take Israeli citizenship or move to the other Palestinian-governed 40% of the territory. Settlements are considered illegal under international law but Mr Bennett argues that criticism of them by Western powers is misguided.

Last month, Mr Bennett, who still acts as a reservist, generated controversy when he told Israel's Channel 2 that his "conscience" would not allow him to obey orders to evacuate settlements or outposts. Although he qualified his statement by saying he did not publicly call for disobeying orders, he later backtracked. At a rally he called for all political parties to sign a pledge never to evict Jews from their homes.

In his election campaign, Mr Bennett has complained about left-leaning media, condemned what he described as excessive activism of the courts in setting policy and pledged to stop illegal immigration. The party was originally formed by a merger of smaller religious parties and has since seen various divisions and shifts in alliances.

YESH ATID

This new political party was set up by the former television news anchor, Yair Lapid, when he left his job last year. His father was also a journalist who headed the Shinui Party, which no longer exists. Mr Lapid claims to represent the secular centre in Israel and opposes the power wielded by religious parties in government.

Yair Lapid
  • Leader: Yair Lapid
  • Founded: 2012
  • Politics: secular centrist
  • Number of members in 18th Knesset: none

In particular, Mr Lapid argues that ultra-Orthodox Jews, who make up about 10% of the Israeli population, should share the social burden. They currently enjoy exemptions from military service and welfare benefits that enable men to devote themselves to religious study.

The Yesh Atid (There is a Future) leader also insists that the prime minister should hold substantive peace talks with the Palestinians. Negotiations stalled over two years ago because of the issue of Jewish settlements on occupied land. Mr Lapid backs a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict that would involve almost a complete withdrawal from the West Bank so that only the main settlement blocs would be retained. However he opposes any division of Jerusalem, which both Israel and the Palestinians claim as their capital.

UNITED TORAH JUDAISM

Two smaller Israeli ultra-Orthodox parties, Degel Hatorah (Flag of the Torah) and Agudat Israel (Union of Israel) formed an alliance to create United Torah Judaism in 1992. It took five seats in the 2009 elections. The faction is non-Zionist and on principle only accepts deputy minister positions in government. Its leader, Yaakov Litzman is deputy health minister. United Torah Judaism works for the interests of the ultra-Orthodox in education and social welfare as well as on specific issues such as national military service.

HADASH

Hadash, a Hebrew acronym for The Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, is a Jewish and Arab socialist grouping that was set up in 1977. It took four seats in the last Knesset. The party supports a two-state solution, increases in the minimum wage and benefits and ending privatisation of government companies. Led by Mohammad Barakeh, it also promotes cooperation between Jews and Arabs and the rights of women, minorities and workers.

Balad

Balad means nation in Arabic and is also an acronym in Hebrew for the National Democratic Assembly. A leftist, anti-Zionist party that promotes Arab nationalism, Balad had three seats in the previous parliament. It was set up in 1995. The Balad MK Hanin Zoabi stirred up controversy by joining activists on the Mavi Marmara trying to break Israel's naval blockade on the Gaza Strip. After Israel's Central Election Committee barred Ms Zoabi from running in this vote she appealed to the Supreme Court, which overturned the decision. The party is led by Jamal Zahalka.

Meretz

Meretz, meaning energy, was created from an alliance between three left-wing parties - Mapam, Shinui and Ratz in 1992. Its ideology is Zionist and it advocates Israeli withdrawal from the occupied West Bank and a comprehensive new peace agreement. The party also has demands of social justice, environmentalism and greater religious freedom in Israel. It is led by Zahava Gal-On and has three seats in the current Knesset.

Raam Taal

A joint list for Raam, the United Arab List, and Taal, the Arab Movement for Renewal. The parties merged to try to increase the representation of Arab-Israelis in parliament. The party was formed in 2006, is led by Ibrahim Sarsour and Ahmed Tibi and has four seats in the current Knesset.

OTHER PARTIES:

  • Ichud Leumi
  • Otzma Leyisrael
  • Arab Democratic Party

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