Printer Frendly Version

The Multiparty System: Country Studies - Israel

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2010: 1 Political Rights, 2 Civil Liberties (Free)


Israel was founded in May 1948, about six months after the United Nations endorsed a plan to divide Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state. Israel's landmass, excluding land occupied in a 1967 war, is 20,800 square kilometers, making it the 153rd-largest country or major territory in the world. Following periods of large-scale Jewish emigration from Europe, the former Soviet Union, the Middle East, and North Africa, Israel's population has grown from less than one million to over seven million today, roughly 16 percent of whom are Arab Israelis.

In modern Israel, the Jewish population is commonly grouped under the labels Ashkenazim (those of European origin) and Sephardim (those of Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, or simply non-European origin). Several hundred thousand Palestinians regularly travel to Israel for jobs, although on a reduced scale since 2000, when a renewed Palestinian intifada, or uprising, prompted tighter security measures. Despite its small size and population, Israel's economy, specializing in such areas as agriculture, trade, and technology, ranked 44th in the world in nominal gross domestic product (GDP) in 2006, at $123 billion. Its gross national income (GNI) per capita was ranked 46th at $18,580; the purchasing power parity (PPP) version of GNI per capita, which is adjusted for price differences to obtain a better picture of living standards, placed Israel at 38th in the world, with $25,480.


Establishment of the State of Israel

The founding of Israel was the fulfillment of the Zionist movement, which, beginning in the 19th century, sought to establish an autonomous Jewish community or state in the Jews' ancient homeland, partly to avoid growing anti-Semitism in Europe. Jewish immigration to Palestine, known as aliyah (ascent), increased after the British took control of the area in World War I and issued the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which expressed British support for a Jewish national home there. Great Britain continued to administer the territory under a League of Nations mandate during the 1920s and 1930s, as approximately 350,000 Jews arrived to escape persecution in Europe. The Holocaust, in which Nazi Germany murdered some six million European Jews—one-third of the world's Jews—during World War II, led to a renewed push for the establishment of a Jewish state. As violence involving Jewish militias, Arab groups, and British forces mounted, the UN General Assembly in November 1947 approved a plan to divide Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, with Jerusalem as an international zone. Jewish leaders declared the state of Israel on May 14, 1948, and Great Britain formally ended the mandate the next day.

Survivors of the Holocaust in the Buchenwald Concentration Camp
Military, Economic, and Diplomatic Struggles

Arab countries and Palestinian Arab leaders rejected the UN partition plan, setting the stage for ongoing conflict. There have been four short, intense wars (1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973) between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and although outside arms suppliers sometimes helped to fuel the conflicts, the intervention of the United Nations and the danger of a wider confrontation involving the United States and the Soviet Union often served to limit the scope of the fighting. In the first war, five Arab states invaded immediately after Israel's declaration of statehood. However, Israeli forces, having already defeated Palestinian militias and caused many civilians to flee, repelled the Arab armies and secured an armistice in January 1949. At war's end, Israel had increased its size from the original partition area, Transjordan (now Jordan) held and later annexed the territory known as the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and Egypt held the Gaza Strip. Most of the fleeing Palestinian population ended up in what became permanent refugee camps across the region, and low-level fighting along Israel's borders continued over the subsequent years. In 1956, Israel attacked an increasingly bellicose Egypt as part of a secret agreement with France and Great Britain; the two colonial powers used the opportunity to reclaim the Suez Canal, which the Egyptian government had recently nationalized. However, the United States strongly objected to the scheme, and French, British, and Israeli troops were forced to withdraw from Egyptian territory. In the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel again launched a preemptive strike in response to threats from Egypt, seizing the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip. Then, taking the offensive to Egypt's allies Jordan and Syria, Israel occupied the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights along Syria's border before a cease-fire was concluded. In 1973, Arab countries launched a surprise attack on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, aiming to regain lost territories. Israel suffered serious defeats, but eventually recovered and turned the tide, leading to a cease-fire with little change to the borders. During the conflict, U.S. and Soviet airlifts provided supplies to the Israeli and Arab armies, respectively.

In addition to open warfare, Arab governments have used economic and diplomatic means to show their opposition to Israel and its territorial expansion.

In addition to open warfare, Arab governments have used economic and diplomatic means to show their opposition to Israel and its territorial expansion. In 1945, the newly formed League of Arab States endorsed a boycott on goods and services from the Jewish territories. After the establishment of Israel, the boycott grew to include the new state and any foreign companies that traded with it. Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority formally withdrew from the effort following their respective peace agreements with Israel (see below). Some countries never strictly enforced the boycott, and others have been discouraged by active U.S. opposition, including a ban on compliance by U.S. companies. Still, the boycott is formally sustained by a number of countries and coordinated by an Arab League office in Syria.

On the diplomatic front, the Arab states have made frequent attempts to isolate Israel, including sponsorship of UN resolutions that condemn the country for unauthorized annexations, military actions, or other alleged violations. Among the most contentious of these efforts was the 1975 passage of UN General Assembly Resolution 3379, which declared Zionism to be "a form of racism." That finding, which undermined the rationale for Israel's founding, was eventually reversed by the General Assembly in 1991.

The Peace Process and Peace Accords

In 1977, Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat traveled to Jerusalem to meet with the leaders of Israel. His stunning peace initiative led to the signing of the Camp David accords in 1979, the first peace treaty between Israel and one of its Arab neighbors. As part of the treaty, the Sinai, captured in 1967, was returned to Egypt. Around this time, Israel was becoming increasingly embroiled in clashes with Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) guerrillas based in southern Lebanon. Israeli forces invaded the country in 1982, attempting to root out the guerrilla bases, and maintained a reduced presence there amid an ongoing civil war. Israel finally withdrew completely in 2000, and southern Lebanon was left largely in the control of Hezbollah, an Islamist, anti-Israel militia drawing support from Iran, Syria, and Lebanon's Shiite Muslim community.

In the wake of a Palestinian intifada that began in late 1987 in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, the PLO began peace negotiations with Israel. The talks produced the 1993 Oslo peace accords, which provided for PLO recognition of Israel and renunciation of terrorism in exchange for phased Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and Palestinian autonomy under a PLO-led Palestinian Authority. The agreement envisioned the eventual establishment of a Palestinian state. It also led King Hussein of Jordan to sign a bilateral peace treaty with Israel in 1994. However, Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995 by a Jewish extremist, and a right-wing prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was elected the following year. Meanwhile, terrorist violence and Israeli counterterrorism operations continued, the implementation of the 1993 accords stalled, and frustration grew on both sides.

A New Kind of War

Negotiations for a comprehensive settlement brokered by outgoing U.S. president Bill Clinton fell apart in late 2000, with Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat and Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak failing to reach a compromise. New violence, dubbed the second intifada, broke out that year after the leader of Israel's right-wing Likud party, Ariel Sharon, made a provocative visit to the Jerusalem holy site revered by both Jews and Muslims—the Temple Mount, or Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary). The Palestinian militant groups Islamic Jihad and Hamas, and elements of the PLO, launched terrorist and guerrilla attacks on Israelis, and the Israeli military responded in force, reoccupying areas previously yielded to the Palestinian Authority. The fighting had subsided significantly by 2005. Arafat died in 2004 and was replaced by Mahmoud Abbas, raising hopes for renewed negotiations, while Israel began constructing a controversial security barrier on the Palestinian side of the West Bank border that was designed to reduce terrorist infiltration into Israel.

Yitzhak Rabin

In 2005, Sharon, although originally elected as prime minister in 2001 on a hard-line platform, unilaterally withdrew Israeli forces and Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip. The move, along with the West Bank security barrier, was part of his new strategy of providing security through physical disengagement, regardless of the progress of peace negotiations. However, Sharon was forced from office by a stroke in January 2006, and his successor, Ehud Olmert, lacked the political strength to fully implement the strategy. Progress was also thwarted by ongoing shelling of Israel from Gaza and the success of Hamas, which rejected the existing Israeli-Palestinian peace agreements, in Palestinian parliamentary elections in early 2006.

In the summer of 2006, after Hezbollah staged one of its intermittent attacks near the Lebanese border and abducted two Israeli soldiers, Israel launched a major aerial bombardment of Hezbollah positions and facilities across Lebanon. The targets came to include Lebanese infrastructure and buildings in urban areas, causing numerous civilian casualties. An Israeli ground incursion in the southern border area followed, but was slowed by Hezbollah guerrillas. Hezbollah also fired thousands of poorly guided rockets toward Israeli population centers, killing relatively few civilians but causing widespread fear and economic dislocation. An armistice was negotiated in August, and withdrawing Israeli troops were replaced along the Lebanese side of the border with a UN peacekeeping force and Lebanese government troops.

Multiparty System

Throughout all of its security crises, and despite its tactics in dealing with the Palestinians, Israel has remained a vibrant example of multiparty democracy in a region dominated by varying degrees of authoritarian rule.

Israel is a parliamentary republic with a 120-seat, unicameral legislature called the Knesset. The president, a largely ceremonial head of state, is elected by the Knesset for a seven-year term. Executive power is exercised by the prime minister and cabinet, who must be collectively approved by the Knesset. A government can be brought down by a no-confidence vote in the legislature. The prime minister, usually the leader of the majority party or coalition in the Knesset, is nominated by the president. However, between 1996 and 2001, the prime minister was chosen in a direct popular vote.

Members of the Knesset are elected to four-year terms, but the prime minister may call new elections before the end of a term. In elections, voters choose among national party lists according to a strict proportional representation system. In recent years, the minimum vote threshold for a party to enter the Knesset has been gradually increased, to the current 2 percent. Nevertheless, a dozen or more parties continue to be represented in the body.

Elections from Independence to 2001

From Israel's founding in 1948 until the elections of May 1977, Israel was ruled by a succession of coalition governments led by the social democratic Labor Party or its earlier incarnations.

The Likud bloc, led by Menachem Begin, came to power after the 1977 elections, forming a coalition government with the National Religious Party. In contrast with Labor, Likud emerged from a right-wing Zionist tradition that stressed the Jewish right to settle in all of biblical Israel, including the West Bank and Gaza Strip. However, Begin welcomed Sadat's peace initiative and helped negotiate the Camp David accords with Egypt in 1979. Likud retained power in elections in June 1981 but was forced into another vote in 1984, before the four-year term was up. After the new elections resulted in a split among numerous parties, Labor and Likud decided to form a government of national unity, which continued after similar results in 1988 elections. In the 1990s, power alternated between Labor- and Likud-led coalitions. After the diplomatic failures and crises of 2000, Prime Minister Barak resigned and sought a fresh mandate in direct prime ministerial elections in early 2001; Knesset elections were not held at that time. Likud's Ariel Sharon won with 62 percent of the vote, and he formed a unity government with Labor and a number of smaller parties.

Elections in the 21st Century

Sharon and Likud won the 2003 elections, but his new government did not include Labor. Sharon also faced serious challenges to his leadership within Likud over his plan to withdraw all Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank. This led him in late 2005 to create a new party, Kadima (Forward), to which members of both Likud and Labor defected. Among those who joined was longtime Labor chief Shimon Peres, who had just lost the party leadership to Amir Peretz. Before Sharon could take Kadima into elections in early 2006, however, he was felled by the stroke and succeeded by his deputy, Ehud Olmert. Likud is now led by former prime minister Netanyahu, who opposed the Gaza pullout.

Kadima won a plurality in the 2006 elections, taking 22 percent of the vote and 29 Knesset seats, while Labor placed second, with 15 percent of the vote and 19 seats. Kadima formed a coalition government with Labor, the religious party Shas, the pensioners' party Gil, and most recently Israel Beytenu (Israel Our Home), a right-wing party (see below). Likud suffered a major defeat in the elections, garnering just 9 percent and 12 seats.

Israel's military action against Hezbollah in 2006 was seen by the public as an unnecessary military and diplomatic failure. A number of official inquiries were mounted to examine the campaign. The most significant of these, known as the Winograd Commission, presented especially severe and specific criticism of the prime minister, the defense minister, and the chief of staff of the armed forces. The chief of staff resigned in January 2007, and the defense minister, Amir Peretz, was subsequently replaced in his cabinet role and as Labor Party leader by Ehud Barak, the former prime minister.

Israel's Power Brokers

Today, even though two of Israel's largest parties are united in a governing coalition, politics is often dictated by the Knesset's smaller parties. Kadima and Labor together have only 48 seats, well short of a majority, meaning they rely on smaller factions in their coalition to remain in power. The goals and ideologies of these parties often bring them into conflict with the larger groups or one another, adding a certain degree of instability to the political system.

The most significant smaller parties in the past have been the religious blocs, which have gained specific concessions (funding for Orthodox schools or maintaining Sabbath laws) in exchange for participation in government. The largest in the Knesset elected in 2006 is Shas, a strict Zionist Orthodox religious party that won 10 percent of the vote and 12 seats. The other main religious blocs are the National Union–National Religious Party (6 percent and 7 seats) and United Torah Judaism (5 percent and 6 seats).

The most significant smaller parties in the past have been the religious blocs, which have gained specific concessions … in exchange for participation in government.

Israel Beytenu, led by former Likud member Avigdor Lieberman, is a right-wing nationalist party that advocates the removal of a substantial portion of the Arab population from Israel through territorial exchanges with the West Bank. It won 9 percent of the vote and 11 seats in 2006. The newly established Gil pensioners' party won a surprising 6 percent and 7 seats based on a protest vote.

Other factions in the Knesset include the social democratic party Meretz-Yachad, which won 4 percent of the vote and 5 seats in 2006, and three parties that mainly represent the Arab Israeli community: United Arab List–Arab Movement for Renewal (3 percent and 4 seats), the leftist Hadash party (3 percent and 3 seats), and the National Democratic Assembly, or Balad (2 percent and 3 seats). In January 2007, Labor Party member Raleb Majadele was appointed to the cabinet, making him the first Muslim Arab minister in an Israeli government. An Arab had served as a minister previously, but he had been a member of the Druze sect. Druze Israelis enjoy the same rights and privileges as Jews in the Israeli state. The small parties that cater specifically to Arab Israelis generally do not join governing coalitions.


Since the early 1980s, the many different parties, blocs, and coalitions of Israel's political landscape have made the country difficult to govern and policy initiatives difficult to implement. For example, while the Israeli public broadly approved Ariel Sharon's move to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, opponents in the Knesset made it impossible for him to maintain a stable government. At the same time, Israel's parliamentary system enables the political representation of Israel's ethnically, religiously, and ideologically diverse society.

Some have advocated major reforms to the political system. In exchange for joining Prime Minister Olmert's coalition government in late 2006, Israel Beytenu gained an agreement to consider its proposal to change Israel from a parliamentary to a presidential republic, with the goal of greater political stability. It is unclear whether such a change would be beneficial.