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Israel - Politics

The majority of Israeli voters skew to the right, whether nationalists, settlers or the ultra-Orthodox. For them, issues of security, support for settlements and protection of their interests are more important than economic concerns. Israelis are by nature critical observers who tend to focus on their failings rather than their successes. In Israeli politics, the integrity and leadership abilities of the candidate attract more votes than any given political platform.

Israel largely stays true to its democratic principles, but questions of equality and fairness of treatment for local minorities continues to plague the society. The Arab-Israeli population, religious minorities, as well as recent immigrants from countries like Ethiopia, do not fare as well as native-born Jewish Israelis on many scales - education, earned income, and political representation.

Israel's some one-million Arab population, which makes up about 20 percent of Israel's population, includes about 550,000-600,000 eligible voters, a relatively low proportion that is due to the Arab sector's large youth population. Those Israeli-Arab voters constitute only about 12 percent of Israel's total of approximately five million eligible voters.

Presumably, equalizing factors, such as the spread of internet access and technology to these underserved populations, will facilitate their engagement in Israeli politics. The question will be what a stronger voice for these minorities portends for the Israeli political system. There has been a rise in already existing tensions between those wanting to see Israel as a liberal and democratic state with equal citizenship for all, and those who want to give priority to Israel's Zionist identity as a fundamentally Jewish state.

Israel’s elections are confusing. They’re generally not much of a contest. No party has ever won an outright majority in the country’s 67-year history. No party was expected to win more than one-fourth of the seats. As a result, the focus was on whether right-wing groups or left-wing parties can win enough votes to form the next coalition government.

From the founding of Israel in 1948 until the election of May 1977, Israel was ruled by successive coalition governments led by the Labor alignment or its constituent parties. From 1967-70, the coalition government included all of Israel's parties except the communist party. After the 1977 election, the Likud bloc, then composed of Herut, the Liberals, and the smaller La'am Party, came to power forming a coalition with the National Religious Party, Agudat Israel, and others. As head of Likud, Menachem Begin became Prime Minister. The Likud retained power in the succeeding election in June 1981, and Begin remained Prime Minister. In the summer of 1983, Begin resigned and was succeeded by his Foreign Minister, Yitzhak Shamir.

After Prime Minister Shamir lost a Knesset vote of confidence early in 1984, new elections in July provided no clear winner, with both Labor and Likud considerably short of a Knesset majority and unable to form even narrow coalitions. After several weeks of difficult negotiations, they agreed on a government of national unity, including the rotation of the office of Prime Minister and the combined office of Vice Prime Minister and Foreign Minister midway through the government's 50-month term.

During the first 25 months of unity government rule, Labor's Shimon Peres served as Prime Minister, while Likud's Shamir held the posts of Vice Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, until they switched positions in October 1986. In November 1988 elections, Likud edged Labor out by one seat but was unable to form a coalition, producing another national unity government in January 1989.

Yitzhak Shamir became Prime Minister, and Shimon Peres became Vice Prime Minister and Finance Minister. This government fell in March 1990, however, in a vote of no confidence precipitated by disagreement over the government's response to U.S. Secretary of State Baker's initiative in the peace process. Labor Party leader Peres was unable to attract sufficient support among the religious parties to form a government. Yitzhak Shamir then formed a Likud-led coalition government, including members from religious and right-wing parties.

Shamir's government took office in June 1990, and held power for 2 years. In the June 1992 national elections, the Labor Party reversed its electoral fortunes, taking 44 seats. Labor Party leader Yitzhak Rabin formed a coalition with Meretz (a group of three leftist parties) and Shas (an ultra-Orthodox religious party). The coalition included the support of two Arab-majority parties. Rabin became Prime Minister in July 1992, presiding over the signing of the Oslo accords with the Palestine Liberation Organization. However, Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing Jewish radical on November 4, 1995. Peres, then Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, once again became Prime Minister and immediately proceeded to carry forward the peace policies of the Rabin government and to implement Israel's Oslo commitments, including military redeployment in the West Bank and the holding of historic Palestinian elections on January 20, 1996.

Enjoying broad public support and anxious to secure his own mandate, Peres called for early elections after just 3 months in office. (They would have otherwise been held by the end of October 1996.) In late February and early March, a series of suicide bombing attacks by Palestinian terrorists took some 60 Israeli lives, seriously eroding public support for Peres and raising concerns about the peace process. Increased fighting in southern Lebanon, which also brought Katyusha rocket attacks against northern Israel, also raised tensions and weakened the government politically a month before the May 29 elections.

In those elections -- the first direct election of a Prime Minister in Israeli history -- Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu won by a narrow margin, having sharply criticized the government's peace policies for failing to protect Israeli security. Netanyahu subsequently formed a right-wing coalition government publicly committed to pursuing the peace process, but with an emphasis on security and reciprocity.

In 1999, with a shrunken coalition and facing increasing difficulty passing legislation and defeating no-confidence motions, Netanyahu dissolved parliament and called for new elections. This time, the Labor candidate--Ehud Barak--was victorious. Barak formed a mixed coalition government of secular and religious parties, with Likud in the opposition. In May 2000, Barak fulfilled one of his major campaign promises by withdrawing Israeli forces from Southern Lebanon. However, by mid-autumn, with the breakdown of the Camp David talks and the worsening security situation caused by the new intifada, Barak's coalition was in jeopardy. In December, he resigned as Prime Minister, precipitating a new prime ministerial election.

In a special election on February 6, 2001, after a campaign stressing security and the maintenance of Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem, Likud leader Ariel Sharon defeated Barak by over 20 percentage points. As he had promised in his campaign, Sharon formed a broad unity government that included the Labor and Likud parties, the far-right parties, some smaller secular parties, and several religious parties. The unity government collapsed in late 2002, and new elections were held in January 2003. Sharon again won, and formed a new government consisting of his own Likud party, the right-wing National Religious Party and National Union party, and centrist Shinui.

The summer of 2004 saw renewed instability in the government, as disagreement over the Gaza disengagement plan resulted in Sharon's firing two ministers of the National Union Party and accepting the resignation of a third from the National Religious Party in order to secure cabinet approval of the plan (it was endorsed on June 6, 2004). Continuing divisions within the Likud on next steps then prompted Ariel Sharon to leave the party in November 2005 to form the Kadima ("Forward") party and call new elections for March 2006. However, Sharon was unexpectedly incapacitated in January 2006 due to a severe stroke and leadership of Kadima shifted to Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Olmert led the Kadima party to its first electoral victory on March 28, and was able to form a coalition with Labor and several smaller parties. The new government was sworn in on May 4, 2006.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert brushed off demands to resign after an American Jewish businessman said he gave him envelopes stuffed with cash to support a lavish lifestyle. Prosecutors suspected money laundering and bribery; but Mr. Olmert said he was innocent until proven guilty, and like other scandals that have dogged him, nothing would come of it. His defense minister, Ehud Barak, demanded that he step down over the corruption allegations. Barak threatened to pull his Labor Party out of the coalition government and force early elections if the Prime Minister did not comply. Following the attorney general opening a series of corruption investigations, Olmert resigned on 21 September 2008.

In October 2008, President Peres asked deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni to form a new government. When Livni was unable to secure a governing majority, President Peres called for new elections to occur in February 2009. Netanyahu was sworn in as Prime Minister for the second time on 31 March 2009.

On 09 October 2012 Netanyahu called for early elections, capitalizing on a wave of popularity for his Likud Party. Netanyahu's Likud party won a narrow victory after a surprisingly strong showing by centrists. Netanyahu's hard-line Likud-Beitenu group led with 31 seats - 11 fewer than the combined 42 spots in the previous parliament.

On 18 March 2015 Likud captured 30 of the 120 seats in parliament, compared with 24 seats for its main challenger, the Zionist Union, led by Isaac Herzog. Exit polls had projected a tight race, with the two sides at 24 seats apiece. This was a situation where many people wanted to replace him but there was no one whom they wanted to replace him with. Especially in the last few days of the campaign – when Israeli opinion polls were suggesting Netanyahu would not win a fourth term – the prime minister portrayed himself both as a strongman bent on protecting Israeli security and a victim of opposition news media and some foreign leaders, including Obama.

The campaign exposed a rift that some thought had subsided: the deep-seated schism between Jews of European and Middle Eastern descent. Mizrahi, or Middle Eastern, Jews heavily backed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party, while Ashkenazi, or European, Jews mostly identified with the opposition Zionist Union. The sides exchanged insults, with Mizrahi voters called primitive and Ashkenazi voters viewed as elitist.

Netanyahu’s win meant security trumped domestic issues. Moderate Israelis had hoped that public frustration with Netanyahu's six straight years in office would bring voters to pull Israel away from what they perceived as its rightward march toward international isolation, economic inequality and a dead end for peace with the Palestinians. After the election, columnist Ben Caspit wrote in Maariv "Israel is split - between left and right, between Bibi and anti-Bibi, between aspirations for normalcy and aspirations for territory... Two states, two styles, two world views, split once again."

On 06 May 2015 Israel's prime minister convinced Naftali Bennett of the the far-right Jewish Home party to join his coalition just before the deadline to form a new government. Netanyahu's Likud party, together with its coalition partners, the orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism and now the far-right Jewish Home, can now achieve a majority of 61 seats in Tel Aviv's 120-member Knesset.

The pro-settler Jewish Home was the only alternative left for Netanyahu after Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the anti-Arab Yisrael Beiteinu and foreign minister in Netanyahu's outgoing government, refused to join the Likud's coalition. Netanyahu's bloc did not "reflect the positions of the nationalist camp," Lieberman said, after Likud offered his party two positions in the coalition government.

The Knesset plenum approved the 34th Israeli government on 14 May 2015. The newly-appointed cabinet is represented mainly by the members of the ultra-Orthodox parties and the right camp who support further occupation of the Palestinian territories. The coalition of five parties won a parliamentary majority by a narrow margin with 61 MPs against 59 in the ranks of the opposition that criticizes Netanyahu for the stagnation of the peace process with Palestine, attempts to disrupt the nuclear deal with Iran and complicate relations with the US and Europe. The ruling coalition voted entirely in support of the Cabinet, while the whole opposition voted against.

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