Why was the Israeli parliament called the Knesset?


Benjamin Neuberger

To person

Benyamin Neuberger is a political scientist at the Open University of Tel Aviv. His main research interests include the state, religion and politics of Israel.

The party landscape in Israel is complex and is divided into several political camps: the "doves" and "hawks", as well as the Orthodox and Arab camps. Benyamin Neuberger gives an overview.

The Knesset has 120 members, divided into 17 parties and 12 parliamentary groups since the 2006 elections. (& copy AP)

In the Israeli Knesset there has never been fewer than ten parliamentary groups since the state was founded; since the elections in January 2006 there have been twelve parliamentary groups there, consisting of 17 parties. One reason for the large number of parties in parliament is the low threshold clause, which is two percent. More important, however, are the criss-crossing social divisions in society that are represented by the parties. For a better overview, the complex party landscape can be classified into four groups - the "doves", "hawks", "orthodox" and "Arab" camps. There are also the middle parties that do not belong to any of these groups. In each of the camps there are several parliamentary groups, which sometimes consist of loose alliances between two or three parties.

"Pigeons" and "falcons"

The most important dividing line between the political blocs and parties since the Six Day War (1967) is that between "pigeons" and "hawks". "Doves" are those who support the principle of "land for peace". This means the readiness for a permanent peace with the Palestinians (with regard to the West Bank and Gaza Strip) and with the Syrians (with regard to the Golan Heights). The prerequisite for this is the return of all or a large part of the territories occupied by Israel in the Six Day War. The "doves" advocate the establishment of a Palestinian state and the division of Jerusalem between Israel and Palestine.

The parties that oppose the "land for peace" formula are called "hawks" parties. Their catchphrase "peace for peace" disguises the intention to keep all or almost all occupied territories and annex them in the long term. The term "moderate hawks" means those who are willing to return little land (around 40 percent of the West Bank) for peace. In doing so, they know that this offer is unacceptable to the Palestinians.

"Falcon" and "dove" parties also differ in their attitude towards the more than one million Arab population of Israel (excluding the occupied territories). "Deaf" parties favor a liberal-egalitarian policy with the aim of integrating these people. In contrast, the "Falcon" parties pursue a policy that tries to keep the Arab Israelis away from the center of Israeli society, from business and politics. The distinction between "hawks" and "pigeons" is often understood in Israel as the contrast between "left" (pigeons) and "right" (hawks), although the original historical differentiation between left and right - in Europe as in Israel - is socio-economic Definition was.

The leading party of the "deaf" camp is the social democratic Labor Party, which is moderately left in the socio-economic sense (Hebrew: Mifleget ha-Avodah ha-Jisraelit, Israeli Labor Party). It takes moderate positions in foreign policy, is non-Orthodox on the religious issue (but willing to compromise with the religious) and relies largely on an Ashkenazi electorate.

Known under the name Mapai until 1968, it was formed in 1930 as an amalgamation of several Zionist-socialist groups. In the past it was located in the working class, whereas today it has the strongest support among the educated middle class. The Prime Ministers David Ben Gurion (1949-1953, 1955-1963), Moshe Scharett (1954-1955), Levi Eschkol (1963-1969), Golda Meir (1969-1974), Jizchak Rabin (1974-1976, 1992-1995) , Shimon Peres (1984-1986, 1995-1996) and Ehud Barak (1999-2001) belonged or belong to the Labor Party. It is currently chaired by Ehud Barak, the former prime minister and current (mid-2008) defense minister. Allied with the Labor Party is the moderately orthodox Meimad party, which is closely related to the "deaf" (abbreviation for Medina Jehudit, Medina Demokratit - Jewish state, democratic state).

Merez, the second faction of the "Tauben" camp, is strongly committed to concessions in the peace process, for a liberal-secular state and for civil rights. She is close to the extra-parliamentary movement Peace Now. Merez was formed in 1992 from an electoral alliance, including the left-wing socialist Mapam (abbr. F. Mifleget ha-Poalim ha-Me'uchedet, United Workers' Party) and the radical-liberal "Movement for Civil Rights and Peace" (Raz) that emerged in the 1970s . The Merez faction also includes the "Russian" Democratic Election, which split off after the 1999 elections from Yisrael ba-Alijah, which was founded and ruled by Russian immigrants. Chaim Oron has headed Merez since March 2008.

In the "falcon" camp, the Likud (Hebrew; unification), which is moderately right in the economic sense, represents "falcon" positions towards the Palestinians. He is friendly to the Orthodox and religious, draws mainly from a Sephardic electorate, and is decidedly Zionist. The Likud has deep roots in the Zionist movement before the state was founded. The dominant historical core of the Likud is the nationalist Cherut (Hebrew; freedom) party, whose roots go back to the anti-British terrorist group Ezel and the Revisionist Party (founded in 1925). Another historical component of today's Likud are the "Liberals" (before 1961 "General Zionists") - a socio-economically conservative party of the middle class and the upper bourgeoisie. The Likud provided the Prime Ministers Menachem Begin (1977-1983), Yizchak Shamir (1986-1992), Benjamin Netanyahu (1996-1999) and most recently Ariel Sharon (2001-2005). All Likud prime ministers belonged to the party's former Cherut wing.

A hawk party to the right of Likud is the Ichud Leumi (IL - National Unity). The IL consists of an amalgamation of various ultra-nationalist groups such as the nationalist-religious Tekumah (Hebrew; resurrection) and the nationalist, more secular Moledet (home). All groups of the IL oppose any return of occupied territories (West Bank, Golan Heights and even Gaza Strip), support their annexation and advocate tough action against Arabs and Palestinians in the occupied territories and within Israel. Moledet even supports the expulsion of the Israeli-Arab minority and the Palestinian population from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Since the 2006 elections, the IL has been allied with the National Religious Party (NRP). The vast majority of settlers in the West Bank belong to the parties of the IL-NRP alliance.

Another hawk party is Yisrael Beitenu (Hebrew; Israel is our house) - an originally Russian immigrant party from the 1990s. Until 2003 she belonged to the Ichud Leumi. Over time, JB developed into a nationalist party that represents the views of the majority of Russian immigrants (around 20 percent of the Jewish population). Unlike the other parties of the falcon camp (Likud, National Unity - NRP), which are close to the Orthodox camp, JB represents a nationalist-secular ideology. The chairman is Avigdor Lieberman, former bureau chief in the office of Prime Minister Netanyahu and Minister for Strategic Planning in the Olmert government until January 2008.

Orthodox and ultra-orthodox parties

The orthodox and ultra-orthodox parties define themselves mainly through religious questions. The National Religious Party (NRP) (Heb .: Miflagah Datit Le'umit, abbreviated Mafdal) is a party of the national religious population (around 20 percent). The national religious want a Jewish state in the religious sense. They see the hand of God in the establishment of Israel and the beginning of redemption in the founding of the state. Gradually, according to their national religious worldview, a religious state is to emerge with the Halacha as the constitution and law of the country. You support the adoption of more and more religious laws by the Knesset. They only accept non-religious laws as long as they do not oppose the Halacha.

Like other Zionist currents, the national religious have advocated the establishment of a state, criticize the diaspora as Galut (Hebrew; exile) and strive for the "return home" of all Jews. Today most national religious support the conception of an Israel within its biblical borders and are therefore strongly represented among the settlers in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

The National Religious Party, led by Zvulun Orlev, was founded in 1956 from an amalgamation of the bourgeois Zionist-Orthodox Misrachi (Hebrew: spiritual center, founded in 1902) and the Zionist-Orthodox Workers' Party (Hebrew: Ha-Poel Hamisrachi, founded in 1922). Your voters are a balanced mix of Ashkenazim and Sepharadim. In contrast to the ultra-orthodox United Torah Judaism (Hebrew: Jahadut ha-Torah ha-Meuchedet) and Shas, the Mafdal is more moderate in its clerical-theocratic positions, but more extreme in foreign policy. The two major ultra-Orthodox factions are the United Torah Judaism - an alliance of two parties - and the Shas.

The ultra-Orthodox (Hebrew: Charedim), about ten percent of the population, are the most extreme religious group. They do not see a Jewish state in Israel and were also against its establishment by the Zionist movement. In their opinion, only God and the Messiah and not the Zionist "heretics" had the task of reestablishing the Jewish state.

Most of the ultra-Orthodox still vote in elections and are represented in the Knesset by parties that even belong to government coalitions. For pragmatic reasons they accept the state, which they reject ideologically at the same time. Because they need state money to finance their non-state schools. In addition, they can only prevent their sons from being conscripted into the army by exerting political influence. According to the official reading, the ultra-Orthodox reject military service because they have to devote themselves to the study of the Torah. In fact, this attitude is based on the rejection of the "Zionist" state and the fear that their sons might end up in a "sinful" secular environment.

The ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism (VTJ) faction consists of two parties, Agudat Yisrael (founded in 1912) and Degel Hatorah (Hebrew; the flag of the Torah, founded in 1988). Its voters are Ashkenazim, while Shas (Hebrew for Hitachdut Spharadim Schomrei Torah - Association of Sephardic Torah Guardians) is a Sephardic party in terms of its self-image and program. Although the voters of both ultra-Orthodox parties are extremely nationalistic and xenophobic, their religious and political leadership is moderate (and in crisis situations, obedience to the decisions of the religious leadership is an iron rule). In relation to the VTY, Schas is also more moderate in religious questions and in its ideological opposition to the dominantly secular Zionism.

Arab parties

Over 20 percent of the Israeli population are Arabs - Muslims (81.5 percent), Christians (approx. Ten percent) and Druze (8.2 percent), although some of the Arabic-speaking Druze do not define themselves as Arabs. In the most recent elections (2006), more than 75 percent of the Arab population voted for "their" parties, which represent Palestinian-Arab nationalism.

The Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (DFFG), consisting essentially of the Israeli Communist Party (IKP), sees itself ideologically as a Jewish-Arab party. More than 90 percent of it is elected by the Arab minority because it represents their national concerns. The party stands for a relatively moderate Arab nationalism, is considered a radical "deaf" party and is socialist and secular.

The Communist Party, too, has its origins in the period before the founding of the state, when there were both Jewish-Communist (the Palestinian Communist Party, founded in 1921) and Arab-Communist (the League for National Liberation, founded in 1943) groupings that became part of the Israeli community in 1948 Communist Party united. Since 1948, and especially after the Six Day War (1967), the party has represented the formula "two states for two peoples" (one Jewish and one Palestinian state), which in 2008 was also supported by a majority of Jewish Israelis .

The national-Arab and Islamic-conservative parties have only emerged in the last 20 years, because the Israeli security establishment had previously not allowed national-Arab or Islamic parties to be set up. The Arab Movement of Renewal (ABE) under the charismatic medic, Dr. Ahmed Tibi, and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) are nationalist, secular parties. Like the ABE, the NDA is led by a well-known Arab intellectual - the philosopher Azmi Bischara. In 2007, Bishara left the country when he was suspected of espionage for Hezbollah during the second Lebanon war in July-August 2006.

The more conservative, religious-Islamic Arab Israelis are represented in parliament by the United Arab List (VAL) - an alliance of the pragmatic "southern" wing of the Islamic Movement (IB) and the Arab Democratic Party (ADP). The United Arab List stands for the same positions in foreign policy as the other Arab parties, but is Islamic and conservative in social matters (for example on the question of women's rights). Since 2006, the VAL has been linked to the nationalist ABE in a parliamentary group.

Parties of the center

Center parties have always existed in Israel - the General Zionists in the 1950s (doves but capitalists), RAFI in the 1960s (workers party but hawks), the Democratic Movement for Change in the 1970s (a mix of doves and hawks, socialists and capitalists who wanted to change the "system" - suffrage, depoliticization and professionalisation of the bureaucracy), Schinui (Hebrew; change) in the years 1999-2006 (anti-clerical, but capitalist).

In the 2006 elections, a new center party, Kadima (Hebrew; forward), became the strongest party for the first time. It arose from a split in Likud between supporters and opponents of the unilateral evacuation of the Gaza Strip (2005). The wing that voted for the eviction was led by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and was considered the pragmatic part of Likud. At the head of the other wing that refused to be evicted was former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Sharon wing included leading Likud ministers (such as Olmert, Hanegbi, Ezra, Shitrit), part of the Likud faction, and a significant portion of the Likud electorate. (Likud, which won 38 seats in 2003, lost more than two thirds of its voters in the 2006 elections). Sections of the Labor faction that were dissatisfied with the new leadership of trade union leader Amir Perez also joined Kadima. Among them were the former Prime Minister (and current President) Shimon Peres, the Minister (and current Speaker of Parliament) Dalia Itzik and the former Justice Minister Haim Ramon. In this way, Kadima became a true party of the center both in foreign and security policy and in economic and social policy. On the religious question, the more liberal, secular Kadima pursues a pragmatic policy of compromise, which the Labor Party has also pursued since the state was founded.

Another center party that appeared on the stage in 2006 is the Gimlaim Party (GIL, Hebrew for retirees; all of its MPs are over 70), which immediately won seven seats. The party represents the concerns of retirees and retirees, but also received many votes from young protest voters. GIL stands for middle positions in all basic political issues and is an important component of the Olmert government.

Coalition governments

The fragmented Israeli party system has meant that a party never received an absolute majority. Since the founding of the state, all governments have been coalition governments, with eight to ten parties often participating in the coalition. For example, the coalition of Prime Minister Olmert (since 2005) today (mid-2008) consists of four parliamentary groups consisting of five parties.

The government of Prime Minister Yitzchak Shamir (1990 to 1992) was made up of all parties from the "Falcon" camp as well as from the Orthodox camp. They all joined the parliamentary opposition from 1992 to 1996 (with the exception of Schas, who joined the "deaf" coalition from 1992 to 1994).The governments under Rabin and Peres (1992 to 1996) came from the "pigeon" camp (Labor Party and Merez) and were dependent on the support of the Arab camp in parliament. The Netanyahu government (1996 to 1999) consisted of the parties of the "Falcons", the Orthodox camp and the center. The Barak government (1999-2001) was initially based on the parties of the "doves", the Orthodox camp and the parties of the center, while the first Sharon government (2001-2002) was based on a grand coalition of Likud, Labor, the Orthodox parties and the extreme national unity based. The second Sharon government (2003 to 2005) was based on an alliance of the "falcon" parties (Likud, National Unity, NRP) and Shinui, the liberal-capitalist party of the center. Since the Likud split in 2005, the Kadima party (first under Sharon and then under Olmert) has led the coalition together with the Labor Party, the "Pensioners' Party" (in the Knesset since 2006), Shas and the "Russian" falcon party Yisrael Beitenu . In January 2008, however, the latter left the coalition because of the peace talks between Ehud Olmert and Mahmud Abbas.

This very heterogeneous government coalition faces a polarized opposition - the Arab parties, the radical Merez dove party, the Likud falcons, the extreme nationalist National Unity and the ultra-orthodox Jahadut ha-Torah and, since the beginning of 2008, Yisrael Beitenu. This heterogeneity of the opposition and of course the rule of the constructive vote of no confidence explains the survival of the coalition after the second Lebanon war, which in the eyes of many Israelis, rightly or wrongly, was considered a catastrophe.

Extract from: Information on Political Education (Issue 278) Israel, revised new edition 2008.