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Government, Political Parties

Ehud Barak, direct election, Middle East peace, Golan Heights, Likud

Despite a wide range of secular and religious political parties, two parties with origins in the prestate period dominate contemporary Israeli politics. The Israel Labor Party, formed in 1968 when three previous labor parties merged, supports Zionist and socialist policies such as continued Jewish immigration, a social welfare state, and a primarily state-planned and regulated economy. The Labor Party also supports separation of religion and state, equality for minorities, and negotiated settlement between Israel and the Arab states concerning the land seized in the 1967 Six-Day War, known collectively as the Occupied Territories. The other major party, Likud, emerged in 1973 from an alliance of several right-of-center parties. It has focused on retaining the Occupied Territories and privatizing the economy, and it remains strongly nationalist and assertive in foreign and security matters. Whereas neither party has achieved an absolute majority in the Knesset since independence, the Israel Labor Party and its predecessors predominated until 1977, when Likud became the largest party. Labor again won the most seats in 1992. Although Labor won two more seats than Likud in the 1996 elections, Benjamin Netanyahu won Israel’s first direct election for prime minister and put together a Likud-dominated coalition government. Labor regained control in 1999, leading a coalition called One Israel, which won the most seats in parliamentary elections. The party’s leader, Ehud Barak, defeated Netanyahu in elections for prime minister. In February 2001 Likud leader Ariel Sharon defeated Barak in elections for prime minister.

Various other political parties play significant roles and are sometimes pivotal in sustaining or opposing the government in power. Meretz was formed in 1992 as a coalition of leftist groups. Formed in 1995, the Third Way supports a centrist alternative to Likud and Labor, combining a willingness to compromise over the Occupied Territories with an insistence on keeping areas deemed vital to Israel’s security (especially the Golan Heights) and preserving Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Yisrael Ba’aliya was founded in 1996 to encourage Jewish immigration from the former Soviet Union and promote the needs of new immigrants.

Arab political parties have been involved in Israeli politics since independence. The Progressive List for Peace (PLP), an Arab-Jewish party formed in 1984, advocates Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and the creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. The Arab Democratic Party (ADP), made up entirely of Arab candidates, formed in 1988 to support moderate policies more acceptable to Zionists in order to exert influence within the political system. Many Arabs support communist parties, often more as a form of dissent against the establishment than from ideological commitment.

Religious parties generally play a crucial role in forming and maintaining governments. Shas, a party of Orthodox Sephardic Jews stressing ethnic pride and traditional values, maintains a conciliatory position on Middle East peace. United Torah Judaism, a party of Orthodox Ashkenazi Jews, seeks to enhance the role of religion in the state and opposes all forms of secularism. The National Religious Party (NRP) advocates legislation based on Judaic religious law. It promotes rapid Jewish settlement of Israeli-occupied territories based on divine right to inhabit biblical lands.

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