The Emergence of New Political Parties in Israel

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A survey of the creation of new political parties in Israel, from the state's founding through 1992, which was originally published in Hebrew in Parliament, IDI's online journal.

The 2006 elections were marked primarily by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s departure from the Likud and founding of the Kadima party. The so-called “Big Bang,” during which Knesset members on the Right and Left switched over to the new party, is the most striking example to date of the Israeli political phenomenon of creating new political parties.

From the State’s Founding to the 1965 Elections

During this period, the party system was a carryover from the time of the Yishuv (pre-state Palestine), with Mapai playing a pivotal role as the dominant party. The principal changes were the merging of the parties with a civil agenda (the Liberal party, which ran in the 1961 elections, was formed by the union of the Progressive Party and the General Zionists) and the splits and unions in the religious camp that led to the founding of the National Religious Party and the emergence of the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties.

The 1960s
These years signaled the changing of the old order in favor of new parties that now took their place. The decade was marked by the end of David Ben-Gurion’s reign, the fading of Mapai’s dominance, and the exacerbation of the rift between hawks and doves following the Six Day War in 1967. These events shook up the party system and led to a new party lineup for the 1967 elections. The campaign was distinguished by multiple mergers and break-ups at all points along the political spectrum (the union of Mapai with Ahdut Ha’avoda; the merger of the Liberal party and Herut; the breakway of the more moderate faction of the Liberal party and the formation of the Independent Liberals, and the splitting of the Communist party into the Jewish Maki party and the Arab Rakah). This period also saw the emergence of two new parties: Rafi and Ha’olam Hazeh-Koah Hadash. After his request to establish a commission of inquiry into the Lavon affair was rejected, Ben-Gurion left Mapai and founded Rafi (a Hebrew acronym for Israeli Workers’ List) which attempted to gain a pivotal position at the expense of Mapai. Ha’olam Hazeh-Koah Hadash by contrast was founded by Uri Avnery, editor of the Ha’olam Hazeh newspaper, as an anti-establishment party fighting for the right to free expression. 

The two new parties were not long-lived. They soon split up, and in the 1973 elections no longer ran independently. Rafi merged with Hama’arah (Labor Alignment) in 1968, and Ha’olam Hazeh-Koah Hadash broke apart.

Elections for the 7th Knesset 
Two new parties on the center-right of the political map were elected: the Free Center party led by Shmuel Tamir, a breakaway from Gahal (two seats), and the State List headed by Ben-Gurion (four seats). In the next elections, both these parties joined the Likud list and did not run independently." 

The 1970s

These years saw the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War and the political “upset” in which the Likud party led by Menachem Begin beat Hama’arah for the first time. During this period, six new parties were founded: Ratz (the Movement for Civil Rights and Peace), Moked, Flatto-Sharon, Dash, Shlomzion and Sheli.

The waning of the Labor party’s dominance was already becoming apparent in the elections for the 8th Knesset following the Yom Kippur War in 1973. While the Alignment party (an amalgamation of the Labor and Mapam parties) won 51 seats, the Likud (made up of Gahal along with the State List and the Free Center) captured a total of 39. Disappointment with the Alignment was also reflected in the formation of two new parties on the left: Ratz and Moked.

The 8th Knesset
The Moked party, a joint list of the Maki party and the Blue-Red movement, captured one seat. In the following election, it formed the Sheli party (a Hebrew acronym for Peace for Israel or Equality in Israel), together with others on the political left (such as the Black Panthers and Uri Avnery). The party won two seats, but did not manage to cross the electoral threshold in 1981. Also running in the 1973 elections was the Ratz party led by Shulamit Aloni, who broke away from the Labor party after she was not given a realistic slot on the party list; she won three seats. Ratz remained on the political scene and in 1992 joined in forming the Meretz party.  

The 1977 Elections
These elections are remembered largely for “the upset”—the rise to power of the Right under Menachem Begin, and the Labor party’s plunge from 61 seats to only 32. But they are also known for the breakthrough of the new parties, which rose to a total of 21 seats. For the most part, the voters disappointed in the ruling party did not migrate to the Likud but went over to a new party that tried to establish itself at the center of the political map, Dash – the Democratic Movement for Change. This party, led by Yigael Yadin, was made up of several movements, among them Shinui, headed by Amnon Rubinstein, and the Free Center, led by Shmuel Tamir. It won 15 seats—the largest number won by a new party running for the first time (until Kadima’s performance in the 2006 elections); however, the party quickly broke up in the wake of internal disputes and did not run again independently. Shinui ran on its own in the 1981 and subsequent elections until joining Meretz in 1992.

The 1977 elections also signaled Sharon’s first independent run outside of the Likud. After he was unsuccessful at finding a place in the larger party frameworks, Sharon founded the Shlomzion party, which won two seats, and joined the Likud shortly after the elections.

Unlike most of the new parties, Shas managed to solidify its place in the party system and gradually boosted its strength to a height of 17 seats in the 1999 elections.

The 1980s (in Particular the 1981 Elections) 

This period was marked by a close race between the two major parties—Labor and the Likud—which won a majority of seats in the Knesset and created a two-bloc political system. Despite this arrangement many new parties situated at various points on the political spectrum won seats in the parliament.

The new parties saw their power shrink following the collapse of Dash, but other parties attempted to take its place at the center of the political map: Shinui won two seats and Moshe Dayan’s new party, Telem, also won two mandates (but broke up after Dayan’s death).

The national religious movement, for its part, was split along ethnic lines, leading to an independent run by the Tami party (Movement for the Heritage of Israel) led by Aharon Abuhatzeira, which won three seats in 1981 and a single seat in the 1984 elections. Opponents of the Camp David accords formed a party to the right of the Likud, Tehiya (Land of Israel Loyalists’ Alliance), headed by Prof. Yuval Ne’eman, which won three seats. Tehiya held steady during the 1980s, even reaching five seats in the elections for the 11th Knesset; however, in the 1992 elections, it did not cross the electoral threshold, which had been raised to 1.5 percent.

The 1984 Elections
These elections saw the continuation of the two-bloc race and a further rise in the number of new parties. Following the failure of Telem, and the leftward tilt of Shinui, there was competition for the political center, leading to the rise of two new parties: Yahad and Ometz. Yahad, led by Ezer Weizman, wanted to be the party that tipped the scales, but after receiving only three seats, it joined the Labor party. Ometz, under the leadership of Yigal Horowitz, garnered a single seat and was absorbed into the Likud.

But the central event of this election was the founding of the Shas party in 1984. Running as a Mizrahi-Haredi party, Shas won four seats in the election, and, unlike most new parties (with the exception of Ratz), managed to consolidate its place in the party system and gradually increase its power to a peak of 17 seats in the 1999 elections. Shas, which won 12 seats in the last election, became (along with Meretz) the most stable new party. New parties were elected at both ends of the political spectrum: the Progressive List for Peace on the left (which won two seats in the 1984 elections, a single seat in the 1988 elections, and did not pass the electoral threshold in the 1992 elections), and Kach and Morasha on the right (Morasha, which won two seats, broke apart in 1986 and did not run again as an independent party; Kach, which won a lone seat, was disqualified by the Knesset).

The 1988 and 1992 Elections

In these elections, there was a drop in the number of new parties that ran and gained representation in the Knesset. In the 1988 elections, two new right-wing parties were elected, both of them centered around former IDF commanders: Moledet, led by Rehavam Ze’evi, and Tzomet, headed by Rafael Eitan (each of which won two seats). In the 1992 vote, Moledet rose to three seats and Tzomet, to eight. Tzomet subsequently split off into various factions and did not pass the electoral threshold. In 1988, a new Haredi party known as Degel Hatorah was also established, following a split between the Lithuanian (non-hassidic) arm and Agudat Yisrael; but by the 1992 elections, the Haredi factions were already running on a joint list known as Yahadut Hatorah.

Two left-wing parties broke away from the Labor party in the 1988 elections: the Arab Democratic Party, which won one seat that year and two seats in the 1992 elections, later joining the United Arab List of the Islamic movement, and the old-time Mapam party, which ran independently and won three seats. In the elections for the 13th Knesset, Mapam joined with Shinui and Ratz to found the Meretz party, which won 12 seats.