On Tuesday, Israeli voters are choosing a new government in an election expected to return the right wing to power. The 2009 elections come three years after the last ones that saw Ehud Olmert assume the reins as head of the newly-formed centrist Kadima party after his mentor Ariel Sharon slipped into a coma, where he remains to this day. Following are brief portraits of the major parties competing for seats in Israel's 18th Knesset, or parliament. The next Israeli government is expected to face increased pressure from new US President Barack Obama to push along the stalled Middle East peace talks.
Formed in 1973 when four right-wing parties united under Menachem Begin who later became premier, Likud suffered its worst ever election result in the March 2006 vote when it only won 12 seats. But fanned by three years of voter disappointment with Kadima rule, Likud is now expected to win between 25 and 27 seats on Tuesday, thus marking a triumphant return for current party head and former premier Benjamin Netanyahu. The media-savvy hawk, who says peace talks will take place only after the improvement of the Palestinians' economic conditions, said he aims at creating a broad coalition of national unity.
Stance on Peace:
- "The Palestinians are not ready for an ideological compromise of historical dimensions to end the conflict."
- Israel will focus its efforts on assisting Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to improve the West Bank economy.
- The economic plan "will not end the conflict in itself, but will create a positive atmosphere that will significantly improve the chances of a peace process."
- No return of Palestinian refugees to Israel. "Israel will not assume any moral responsibility over the refugees."
- Jerusalem will remain Israel's undivided capital.
- No mention of a Palestinian state.
Created by Ariel Sharon in November 2005, barely six weeks before he suffered a massive stroke and slipped into a coma, the centrist party will be heading into its second election. Under Ehud Olmert, the party went through three tumultuous years marked by two wars, a slew of corruption probes, and a hobbled peace process. Currently led by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Kadima—meaning "Forward" in Hebrew—is projected by the latest opinion polls to garner between 23 and 25 seats in the 120-member parliament. However even if Kadima emerges with the majority of seats, analysts believe that Livni will not be able to cobble together a coalition.
Stance on Peace:
- Supports the creation of a Palestinian state in most of the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip: "Israel's interest as a Jewish state obliges the acceptance of the principle that the end of the conflict will be based on two nation states."
- Advocates continuing the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks revived under US stewardship in November 2007 and which have reportedly made little progress since.
- The future Palestinian state will be demilitarized.
- Judaism's holy sites in occupied east Jerusalem will remain under Israeli control. Jerusalem is Israel's "undivided capital."
- Large Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank will remain under Israeli rule.
- No Palestinian refugees will be allowed to return to Israel.
Opinion polls predict that the staunchly secular far-right party, led by the Moldovan-born Avigdor Lieberman, could almost double its representation in parliament to 18 or 19 seats. Lieberman, a far-right former minister, gained much of the support he now enjoys after the Gaza war. His hard line stance against Israeli Arabs—often branded as racist by critics—found fertile ground among voters with security fears.
The party, whose name means "Israel Our Home," distinguishes itself from ultra-right rivals by its readiness to exchange Arab-populated territory within Israel for Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank as part of a final deal with the Palestinians.
Stance on Peace:
- Israel will hold negotiations with the Palestinian Authority only on the future of the West Bank. The Jewish state will seal its borders with the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and completely cut itself off from the territory.
- Supports a "maximal separation" of Jewish and Arab population based on a regional solution to the conflict which will involve Egypt and Jordan.
- Wants to keep major Israeli settlement blocs in the West Bank in return for giving to Palestinian control the so-called "triangle," an area in Israel's Lower Galilee region that's adjacent to the West Bank and has a high concentration of Israeli Arabs.
- Mentions a Palestinian "autonomy" but not a state.
- Jerusalem is Israel's "undivided and eternal capital."
For years, the centre-left movement was seen as Israel's natural party of government, supplying seven out of 12 premiers. But it suffered its worst defeat in 2003 when then party leader Amram Mitzna won only 19 seats. The result stayed the same in March 2006 under Moroccan-born Amir Peretz, who assumed chairmanship of the party by ousting octogenarian Shimon Peres in a leadership contest. Former premier Ehud Barak reassumed the helm in June 2007, coming out of the political retirement he took after the breakdown of Middle East peace talks at Camp David in 2000. Traditionally the main left-wing party, Labour's leadership was previously drawn exclusively from the relatively well-off ranks of European Jews. Before the Gaza war, Labour languished at the single-digit end of opinion polls. After supporting the war, it is expected to get between 14 to 17 seats, still be a new low for the veteran party.
Stance on Peace:
- Supports "a rapid conclusion of the negotiations with the Palestinian Authority" that will lead to the creation of a Palestinian state in most of the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
- The exact borders of the future Palestinian state are subject to talks.
- Large Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank will remain under Israeli rule. Other settlements will be evacuated.
- "Jerusalem, including all its Jewish neighborhoods, is Israel's eternal capital and will remain so." The Holy City's sacred sites will come under a "special status" and Judaism's holy sites will remain under Israeli control.
- Rejects the right of return of Palestinian refugees. The issue will be resolved as part of a regional peace plan Labour wishes to achieve within two years.
SHAS/UNITED TORAH JUDAISM
The two ultra-Orthodox parties have a total of 18 seats between them in the current parliament, with Shas boasting 12 MPs. Apart from seeking the promotion of the Torah in society, both parties focus on campaigning for more benefits for ultra-Orthodox groups and citizens.
JEWISH HOME MAFDAL/ICHUD LEUMI
The settlers' party opposes any form of territorial compromise or the creation of a Palestinian state and currently has seven seats.
A left-wing party advocating civil rights, it calls for the creation of a Palestinian state and peace treaties with Syria and Lebanon. It currently has five seats.
Three parties have 10 seats between them representing Arab citizens who make up nearly 20 percent of Israel's population. Hadash and Balad are supported mainly by secular Israeli Arabs while the United Arab List (Raam Taal) is backed by Muslim Israeli Arabs and Bedouins.