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Israel - Politics

At the weekly Cabinet meeting Sunday, 3 February 2013, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made the following remarks: "Last night, I called upon the Knesset factions to join me in as broad a national unity government as possible that would unite the public at a decisive time in our history. The supreme mission that a national unity government will face is stopping Iran from arming itself with nuclear weapons. This is all the more complicated because Iran has equipped itself with new centrifuges that shorten the enrichment time. We cannot countenance this process."

Iran will be capable to create nuclear weapons in six to seven months [that is, March or April 2013], Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in an interview with the NBC channel on 16 September 2012. "They're in the last 20 yards. And you can't let them cross that goal line," Netanyahu said. "Because that would have unbelievable consequences." Iran is guided by a leadership with an unbelievable fanaticism, "It's the same fanaticism that you see storming your embassies today, Netanyahu said referring to a string of riots across the globe sparked by the U.S.-made short film titled "Innocence of Muslims." The Israeli prime minister also said he disagrees with the statements that Irans nuclear weapons would stabilize the situation in the Middle East calling this approach a new standard for human stupidity.

On 14 March 2013 Israeli political parties reached a coalition agreement, with Benjamin Netanyahu taking nearly six weeks to form a new government. For the first time in years, ultra-Orthodox parties are out of the government, with the new governing coalition having an agenda that includes ending military draft exemptions and stipends for the ultra-Orthodox. Israeli military action against Iran would get broad support from the Israeli public and most of the Israeli political system, including within his own coalition.

Netanyahu's right-wing Likud-Beitenu ticket won 31 seats in an election on January 22, more than any other party, but far short of a majority in the 120-member parliament. A month after the election, Netanyahu had reached a deal with just one other party, the centrist Hatnuah led by former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, which brings six seats to his coalition. Netanyahu had until early March to find enough partners to form a government, but can ask for a single, two-week extension. If he still had not secured a majority after that, Peres could hand the job to another party leader, but if no government emerged, Israelis would have to go to the polls again. The slow pace of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition building, held up by disputes over state benefits for ultra-Orthodox Jews, raised speculation that Israel may be forced into a new election.

Netanyahu returned to power in a 2009 election after serving a three-year term as prime minister in the late 1990s. He has presided over a relatively stable coalition in a country whose fractious parliaments rarely complete their four-year terms. The ultranationalist Yisrael Beitenu (Israel Our Home) party, led by Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, is the second largest party in the outgoing government, holding 15 seats. The Ultra-Orthodox Shas (Sfarad's Guards of the Torah) religious party, founded by Sephardi Jews of Middle Eastern origin, holds 11 seats in the outgoing Likud-led government. Atzmaut (Independence), the center-left party founded by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, split from Labor in 2011 and joined Netanyahu's government as a separate faction with 5 seats. Other coalition members include United Torah Judaism with five seats and Habayit Hayehudi [New National Religious Party] with three seats.

Kadima was the largest party in the outgoing Knesset, with 28 seats, but polls suggest the Kadima will fare poorly in the next election - falling from 28 seats to only four - due to Mofaz's reputation for changing positions. The Labor Party, led by former journalist Shelly Yachimovich, held only 8 seats in the outgoing Knesset, but polls suggest it will rebound to become the second largest faction, and was expected to take around 19 seats. Yesh Atid (There is a Future) a new centrist, secular party established in 2012 by popular TV personality Yair Lapid, is epected to win at least several seats in the Knesset.

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 does not comply.

On 18 September 2008 Israel's Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni, won a narrow victory in the ruling centrist Kadima party's primary election, putting her on track to become Israel's first female Prime Minister in more than three decades. A day after she was elected leader of Israel's ruling Kadima party, Livni reminded Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that he had promised to step down. "We have a country to run," Livni told party members, "and we don't have a lot of time to fool around." Olmert had promised to resign over a corruption scandal as soon as Kadima chose a new leader. But unless he takes a leave of absence, Israeli law required him to stay on as caretaker prime minister until Livni forms a new government. Livni also faced unrest in her Kadima party because she defeated hawkish former army chief Shaul Mofaz by just one percentage point. Both had pledged to be tough on security issues, saying they will not tolerate a nuclear Iran or militants in the Palestinian territories.

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. Even though Kadima, led by Tzippi Livni won more seats than any other single party, right-of-center parties, both religious and secular, had the largest overall gains in the new Knesset. Left-wing parties - Labor and Meretz - which had lost votes to Kadima, declined to support Livni because they were concerned she would form a coalition with Avigdor Liberman's Yisrael Beiteinu. A bloc of several religious and right-wing parties made it much easier for Netanyahu to form a coalition. President Peres asked Likud-leader Netanyahu to form a government. Netanyahu was sworn in as Prime Minister for the second time on 31 March 2009.

If the political system had worked properly, Netanyahu would be leading a moderate right-wing party, while Tzipi Livni would be heading a moderate left-wing party and Ehud Barak a centrist party. After a brief election campaign, the leaders would have brought all three parties into a single sane Zionist government. But Netanyahu was trapped in the hands of the Likud's extremists, Livni was trapped by Kadima's Likudniks, and Barak was trapped in a party that loved him just as much as he loved it. All three were unable to implement their true political worldviews. None of them could offer a clear way or decisive solutions. An irrelevant Likud, a Labor that has lost its way, and a crumbling Kadima are causing the national leadership to remain stagnant.

After refusing offers from Netanyahu to form a national unity coalition, Livni became opposition leader, but her refusal to compromise with Netanyahu left her unpopular in Kadima. Shaul Mofaz defeated Tzipi Livni in the party primary on 27 March 2012 by a wide margin. In a low turnout of 40 percent of Kadima's 95,000 members, Mofaz trounced Livni, taking 61.7 percent of votes. After Mofaz defeated Livni in the party primary, the latter quit politics.

Kadima replaced Tzipi Livni as leader with ex-defence minister Shaul Mofaz, but he failed to inspire the public. The political talents of Mofaz are shadowed by his military ability when he was IDF Chief of Staff. Israeli opposition leader Shaul Mofaz of the Kadima Party has accused Netanyahu of leading Israel toward an irresponsible, unilateral war with Iran. But in a Jerusalem Post interview in April 2012, Iranian-born Mofaz had said that allowing Iran to obtain even a civilian nuclear capability would change the balance of power in the Middle East, adding that Israel cannot accept this. He also said that if Israel sees Iran getting closer to a military nuclear capability and the United States failing to stop such progress, he will be the first to support Israel taking action against Iranian nuclear sites.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on May 05, 2012 called for the dissolution of his coalition government more than a year before scheduled elections and told cheering members of his Likud party that he would like elections to be held in September 2012. Netanyahu's political coalition had split over a controversial law that exempted ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arab Israelis from military or civilian service. Nationalist-secular parties in the ruling coalition said all Israelis should serve. Highly religious parties rejected this.

Two days later Netanyahu struck a surprise deal with the opposition Kadima party to form a unity government, effectively canceling an early election. Former Israeli opposition leader Shaul Mofazs surprise entry into Israels ruling coalition in May 2012 prompted speculation in Israel that Netanyahu might be positioning his country for a military strike against Iran, which Israel accuses of seeking to build nuclear weapons. The leader of Israels centrist Kadima party was sworn in as Israeli vice premier after agreeing to join Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahus nationalist coalition in a unity government. Israels parliament, the Knesset, approved the unity deal between Mofazs Kadima and Netanyahus Likud party on Wednesday by a vote of 71 to 23.

But the prime minister did not live up to his promises for a universal draft. Mofaz realized he could not be influential in such government, and he refused to join the coalition just ten weeks later. Party chairman Shaul Mofaz announced 17 July 2012 that the party faction had voted 24-3 to pull out of the coalition because of what he said was Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahus failure to live up a supposed agreement on changes in the military service law.

On July 10, 2012 an Israeli court acquitted former prime minister Ehud Olmert of two major corruption charges, while convicting him of a lesser offense. The court said Olmert was guilty of breach of trust in connection with aiding a friend while serving as Israel's trade and industry minister. He was also facing allegations of illegally accepting funds from an American businessman and double-billing Jewish groups for trips abroad. Olmert denied any wrongdoing, but resigned as prime minister after being indicted in 2008. He still faced trial in connection with a bribery scandal during his time as Jerusalem's mayor.

On 09 October 2012 Netanyahu called for early elections, capitalizing on a wave of popularity for his Likud Party. He said he was forced to form a new government because the current coalition was not able to agree on a budget for 2013. Netanyahu said "We are on the threshold of an election year, and to my regret, in an election year it is difficult for parties to place the national interest ahead of the party interest.... my obligation as Prime Minister is to put the national interest above everything and therefore, I have decided that the good of the State of Israel requires going to elections now, as soon as possible. The State of Israel would prefer a short election campaign of three months over what, in effect, would be a long election campaign that would continue for an entire year."

The elections for the 120 seats in Israel's single-chamber national assembly, the Knesset, took place on 22 January 2013, about eight months ahead of schedule, moved up from October 2013. Exit polls in Israel showed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party winning a narrow victory after a surprisingly strong showing by centrists. Prime Minister Netanyahu offered to form a broad coalition with centrist Yesh Atid as its main coalition partner, along with the Likud party's natural right-wing partners. Israeli Netanyahu was expected to win a mandate for a tougher stance on Iran's nuclear program. But Netanyahu's Likud party, running in combination with the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu group, wound up with fewer seats than in the previous parliament. Netanyahu's hard-line Likud-Beitenu group led with 31 seats - 11 fewer than the combined 42 spots in the previous parliament.

The biggest surprise came from the secular centrist Yesh Atid party, founded by former journalist Yair Lapid in 2012, which won 19 seats. This beat out the Labor Party's 17 seats and the 12 seats won by the far-right religious nationalist Jewish Home party. Israeli media describe centrist Yesh Atid's showing as the biggest surprise of the day, with the party finishing well above pre-election predictions.

With more than 99 percent of the vote counted, each side had 60 seats in the 120-member Knesset, with Likud in alliance with the Yisrael Beitenu party. The economy was a major priority for voters. The campaign tended to be dominated by social and economic issues: jobs, the high cost of housing, and domestic issues such as the fact that ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arabs are exempted from the military draft, which some secular Israelis feel is unfair.

A new ultra-nationalist party, Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home), was likely to get 12 seats. The party, led by millionaire Naftali Bennett, advocates annexing large parts of the occupied West Bank and rejects the idea of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Hatnua, the party of former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni who is a proponent of direct peace talks with Palestinians, and Meretz, a longtime left-wing party, each gained six seats. According to political experts, Netanyahu is expected to form an alliance with Habayit Hayehudi and ultra-conservative religious parties to counter the rising popularity and influence of center-left parties.

Netanyahu claimed victory and vowed to form as broad a coalition as possible. He told cheering supporters "the first challenge was and remains preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons." Netanyahu has said he will not let Tehran enrich enough uranium to make a single nuclear bomb - a threshold Israeli experts said could arrive as early as mid-2013.

On June 10, 2014 Israel elected as its next president a conservative lawmaker who is opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state. Reuven Rivlin, 74, is a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party. He is said to have a frosty personal relationship with Netanyahu. Rivlin, who has a reputation for political independence, would replace the dovish Shimon Peres in the largely ceremonial, yet influential post. A former speaker of parliament, Rivlin defeated Meir Sheetrit of the moderate Hatnuah party by a vote of 63-53 in a run-off in the legislature, after none of the original five candidates won an outright victory in a first round ballot.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said 01 December 2014 he would call an early national election unless some ministers stopped attacking government policies. The coalition, dominated by the right-wing, is split on the 2015 budget, living costs and policy toward the Palestinians. Critics also said that a Jewish nation-state bill discriminated against Israels Arab minority. I have not enjoyed the fulfillment of even the most fundamental obligation the loyalty and responsibility of ministers to the government in which they serve, Netanyahu told members of his Likud party. An election would not normally be scheduled until 2017.

On 02 December 2014, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu called for early elections; this after dismissing key centrist ministers Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni over an array of policy disputes. Cracks in Netanyahu's right-leaning coalition emerged over the 2015 budget and a contentious bill aimed at enshrining Israel's status as the Jewish state in law, a move critics say could harm its Arab minority. Internal dissent also had focussed on next year's budget, taxation policy and the high cost of living. Netanyahu said he would dissolve the current parliament 'as soon as possible.' The coalition was likely to support the proposal, under which elections could be held as early as March 2015. The next poll had theoretically been due in November 2017.

A poll published on 01 December 2014 by the Haaretz daily found that Labor would drop three seats, Hatnua would win just four seats, and Kadima would not make it past the minimum threshold. The survey predicted that the Likud would score 24 seats out of the 120 seats in the Knesset, six more than its current tally.

Labor party leader Isaac Herzog and Hatnua leader Tzipi Livni announced a merger on 10 December 2014 to establish a large center-left political bloc for the 17 March 2015 elections. Under the union agreement, the two will share the prime ministership on rotation, with Herzog as prime minister the first two years and Livni the last two years, should they win the upcoming elections.

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