All for One and One for All or Every Party for Itself? Cooperation among Israeli Political Parties

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An analysis of the different patterns of alliances, unions, and mergers between political parties in Israel, which was originally published in Hebrew in IDI's online "Parliament" journal.

The recent election campaign (2009), like previous ones, was preceded by alliances between parties. This time Meimad ran with the Greens, the New Left Movement with Meretz, Ahi (a breakoff from the National Union) with the Likud, and the stillborn attempt to establish a new party, Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) by combining the National Religious Party (Mafdal) and the National Union.

But party alliances of various sorts are neither unique to the present campaign nor peculiar to the Israeli system. This article examines the different patterns of party alliances, unions, and mergers, and notes some of the main motives behind them.

Types of Party Alliances

There are three different ways in which Israeli parties can join forces to contest in elections:

  • An “alignment” of parties: Sometimes parties choose to run on a joint slate. Afterwards, they work in the Knesset as a single faction and are committed to a single platform. Nevertheless, the parties that make up such an alliance continue to maintain their separate identities, with their own party institutions, membership drives, fundraising, and treasuries. Each party is financed separately and selects its own representatives for the joint Knesset list.

    The most prominent examples of this have been the “Small Alignment,” (1965–1968), which comprised Mapai and Ahdut Ha’avoda; the “Large Alignment” (1969–1984) of the Labor Party and Mapam; Gahal, which ran for the Knesset between 1965 and 1973 and consisted of Herut and the Liberal Party; and the Likud, which began in 1973 as an alliance of Gahal, the Free Center, and the State List, and continued in 1977 as an alliance of Gahal, La’am, and Ahdut.
  • A union of parties. Parties may coalesce into a single party that merges their party institutions and may maintain joint local branches. Their Knesset candidates run on a single list and are committed to the same platform. Nevertheless, the parties maintain their separate identities, with each selecting its own candidates; after this, the joint list is assembled according to a party key. An example of this is the Labor Party, which from 1968 to 1974 was, in fact, a union of Mapai, Ahdut Ha’avoda, and Rafi.
  • A merged party. The parties merge fully and surrender their prior identities. They dissolve their separate institutions and no longer demand representation on the Knesset list and in party institutions according to a party key. This was the type of cooperation that characterized Mizrachi and HaPo’el Mizrachi when they formed the National Religious Party in 1956 (Neuberger 1991, 183–188).

The Motives for Alliances, Unions, and Mergers

The reasons why parties unite or merge are many and diverse. Each case is unique. The most common motive is the desire to increase the party’s electoral support and its prospects for representation in the Knesset or government. The institutional conditions in which parties compete may sometimes produce constraints that must be reckoned with and that push parties to run on joint lists or to form pre-election coalitions. In general, small parties pursue this route for different reasons than do big parties when they merge or swallow up smaller parties.

Increasing the Party’s Electoral Strength

With regard to increasing a party’s electoral strength, we must distinguish small parties from large parties. Small parties may wish to join up with large parties or form joint lists with other small parties. The goals sought by a party from augmenting its electoral strength may be classified as a function of the party’s realistic expectations:

  • Admission ticket. The desire for enhanced electoral strength may stem from a party’s modest desire simply to pass the electoral threshold and guarantee that it will be represented in the Knesset. Parties in this category include Meimad, which ran together with Labor, and Gesher, which ran with the Likud. Sometimes small parties join with each other to increase their chances of passing the threshold or to amplify their bargaining power. For example, in the elections for the 14th Knesset in 1996, Ta'al, the Arab Movement for Renewal, ran on its own and did not pass the electoral threshold. In the elections for the 15th Knesset (1999), it then ran on a joint list with Balad, in the elections for the 16th Knesset (2003) it ran on a joint list with Hadash, and in the elections for the 17th and 18th Knessets, it ran on a joint list with the United Arab List (Ra’am).
  • Bargaining power and the prospect of coalition membership. A more ambitious goal is not mere survival but creating a power center in the Knesset. In this case, the joint list aims not just at getting into the Knesset, but also at wielding real influence on national policy and legislation and using its enhanced bargaining power both during the formation of the coalition and during the term of the Knesset (for example, when the government needs support to pass the budget). If such a party finds itself in the winning camp after the election, it will seek more than influence in the Knesset and aim for a ministerial post. For example, the National Union, made up of Tekuma, Moledet, and Herut, was formed so that it would be a large rightwing party that could compete with the National Religious Party, attract some of its supporters, and have to be taken into account when the time came to set up a coalition. This was also the motive, behind the abortive attempt by the National Religious Party and the National Union to merge and form Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) in 2009. When this venture came apart and the two factions ran for the Knesset separately [with the National Religious Party taking on the name "Habayit Hayehudi"], their combined representation was less than the amount received by their joint list in the elections for the previous Knesset (seven seats, down from nine).
  • A viable candidate to form the Government. Even though, in theory, every party aspires to run the country, how this is expressed varies from party to party. Some parties want to win more seats not merely to receive a better deal for joining the coalition, but in order to be able to form the coalition themselves. In order to be a realistic candidate for forming a government, a party needs electoral power. In countries where coalition governments are the norm, parties may sometimes engage in negotiations even before the election, agree among themselves on the distribution of ministerial portfolios, and announce to the electorate that, if they win, they will band together to form a government after the elections. In this situation, the cooperating parties benefit by knowing what portfolios they will receive, the coalition benefits because each party’s campaign promotes not only itself but the entire coalition, and the public knows before Election Day what coalition will lead the country and can take this into account when deciding how to vote (Carroll and Cox 2007). In Israel, examples of this can be found in Gahal and later the Likud, as well as the Alignment and later Labor. The first (small) Alignment was formed in part to check the rise of the right wing by uniting all the forces of the left in a broader front (Neuberger 1991: 40).

History has shown that electoral cooperation between parties does not necessary benefit the new list on Election Day. In other words, it is not always the case that the whole exceeds the sum of the parts. The first time that Gahal ran as an alignment of Herut and the Liberal party (1965), it won 26 seats, whereas in the previous Knesset elections, in 1961, its two constituent parties had received 17 seats each (a total of 34). Similarly, the Alignment, which debuted in the elections for the Sixth Knesset (1965), won 45 seats, although Mapai had previously held 42 seats and Ahdut Ha’avoda eight (a total of 50). Thus the leftwing Alignment also wound up with fewer seats than its components had won in the previous elections when they ran separately.

These numbers, of course, must be examined with reservations; a handful of examples are not sufficient to demonstrate that it was the electoral alliance that cut into the parties’ vote. Still, the diminished electoral strength of alliances on both sides of the political spectrum does call the benefit of this maneuver into question. Note, though, that such unions may provide power that does not depend only on the number of Knesset seats won. Even if the joint list wins fewer seats than its constituent parties had held before, it may wield greater power because it acts as a united front and with a single voice. This may make it easier for it to establish a coalition, because it will have to court fewer other parties and make fewer promises both before and after setting up a government.

Dealing with Internal Party Tensions

Sometimes parties unite for internal reason. For example, one of the reasons for the establishment of the Alignment was the desire of the Old Guard in Mapai to co-opt Ahdut Ha’avoda in order to weaken the challenge of the younger generation in Mapai (Moshe Dayan and Shimon Peres), which was supported by Ben-Gurion. In fact, the young MKs were opposed to the establishment of the Alignment; when they found themselves unable to prevent it, they seceded and established Rafi (Neuberger, 1991: 40).

Internal party tensions and the need to deal with them may affect a party’s unity. According to Katz, when there is competition within the party and its leadership does not intervene to impose a decision, a preferential voting system makes it possible for the public to alleviate the inner tensions. In other words, if the institutional framework allows party members to vote not only for a list, but also for individual candidates, they can settle the internal party rivalry and lessen the tensions. By contrast, the party may split if the leadership takes responsibility for dealing with the tension and intervenes in the internal rivalry (Katz, 1997: 213–214). The latter case was that of Mapai: when the old leadership tried to parry the competition of the younger generation by setting up the Alignment, the tensions exploded to the point of secession and the establishment of Rafi.


Parties may set up a joint list in order to polish their image. The establishment of Gahal, comprising Herut and the Liberal Party, made it possible for Herut to expand its circle of support to the conservative bourgeoisie, the traditional base of the Liberal Party. By joining up with the Liberals, Herut presented a less extreme image than when it was on its own and acquired legitimacy in broader circles. What Herut’s image had going for it was that it had always seen itself as an alternative ruling party and not as a potential partner in a coalition led by Mapai (in fact, the slogan “without Herut and the Communists,” coined by Ben-Gurion, left it no good reason to expect it might be) (Neuberger, 1991, 84).

Economic Benefits

As noted, small parties may join large parties in order to increase their chances of survival. But what do the large parties gain from the deal? In the 2009 campaign, the economic benefits were obvious. For example, when Ahi seceded from the National Union and joined the Likud, it brought with it a dowry of 12 million shekel in public funding, allowing the Likud to increase its campaign budget from NIS 28 million to NIS 40 million (Mu’allem 2008).

Institutional Constraints

In various countries, there may also be institutional conditions that influence party leaderships, including the desire or need to combine lists. For example, in France there are multiple parties covering the entire ideological spectrum, but the electoral system requires an absolute majority: to win a constituency and return its candidate to the National Assembly, a party must win the support of at least 50% of the votes there. This often requires two rounds of balloting, with some parties dropping out of the race between the first and second rounds. This system encourages parties with ideological affinities to run on a joint list and ultimately tends towards a bipolar political system that pits two blocs against each other (Krapp 2004: 50–51).

In Israel, the institutional constraints are less severe, but they do exist. Thus the electoral threshold sets a major challenge for tiny or new parties, which are consequently apt to decide to run together with another party in order to exceed the threshold. Another institutional element that encourages parties to unite is the highly polarized multi-party system, in which the proliferation of options makes parties afraid of losing their voters.

Individual Success

The individual motive for schism or union is most prominent with regard to Knesset members who switch from one list to another in order to guarantee their political survival. In 1977, Ariel Sharon left the Likud and set up Shlomzion, which won two seats in the elections to the Ninth Knesset that year. His reasons were personal and based on his clash with the leaders of the Liberal party. After the elections, Shlomzion became a division in the Likud's alliance of parties and soon thereafter merged with Herut. Another example is that of David Tal, a Knesset member who began his political career in Shas. In 2004 he jumped to Am Ehad, and when that party joined the Labor party he established Noy, his own one-man faction. In this capacity, he supported the policies of Kadima and guaranteed himself a place on its list for the 17th Knesset.

Unions and Splits before the Elections for the 18th Knesset 

The most intriguing case of party unions and splits in of the period leading up to the elections for the 18th Knesset (2009) was the consolidation of the Religious Zionist parties into Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home), which broke apart even before the elections. The Jewish Home was supposed to be a new party, combining the National Religious Party and the National Union (the latter began as an alliance of three parties, Tekuma, Moledet, and New Religious Zionism [which morphed into Ahi]). The National Religious Party and the National Union had already run on a joint list in 2006; now they decided to go one step further and merge into a single party. The goal was to bolster the right-wing religious camp and make it a more attractive coalition partner or stronger parliamentary force whose positions would have to be taken into account.

From the very beginning, however, MK Arye Eldad of the National Union rejected the merger and established the Hatikva party, while MK Effi Eitam of the National Religious Party joined the Likud. A public committee drew up Habayit Hayehudi's list of candidates, but all factions of the National Union were dissatisfied with their representation on the list of the new party, and this eventually outweighed the advantages of the united party. Most members of the National Union seceded and set up a joint list with Hatikva, called the National Union–Moledet. Those who remained in the Habayit Hayehudi, most of them originally from the National Religious Party, regrouped as Habayit Hayehudi–The New National Religious Party. Not only did the attempt to boost the rightwing religious camp fail when the merger collapsed; the electoral results of the two parties separately (three seats for Habayit Hayehudi and four for the National Union) fell short of their performance in the previous elections (nine seats for the joint list of the National Religious Party and the National Union).

Other unions cobbled together for the 2009 elections that failed to bear the expected fruit were the joint list of Meimad and the Green Movement, which failed to pass the threshold, and the joint list of Meretz and the New Left Movement, which proved a great disappointment. Meretz had hoped that the New Left Movement would breathe new life into the party and attract voters; with this in mind, its veteran candidates agreed to give their places to new candidates representing the New Left Movement. But the small number of seats that the list won and the fact that key members of Meretz failed to enter the Knesset left the party leadership with grave retrospective doubts about the wisdom of this maneuver.


Political parties may have diverse motives for forming joint lists, and various ways of doing so—ranging from an alliance of parties to full merger. Famous unions in Israeli political history began as alliances of parties that, over a period of two decades coalesced into a single party. In addition to the unions that created viable and enduring parties, there have also been ad hoc alliances, unions of small parties that hitched a ride on the wagon of successful parties (e.g., Meimad, Zomet, and Ahi, which joined Labor and the Likud), and even a switch by a small party from one major list to its rival (Gesher). In these arrangements, political survival is more important than increasing the strength of the ideological camps. The various unions and mergers, along with the splits and secessions, have given Israel a fascinating and complex party map. Sometimes, however, such collaborations undermine public trust in the ideological consistency of parties and candidates or in the purity of their motives.

English Sources

Carroll, Royce and Gary W. Cox, 2007. 'The Logic of Gamson's Law: Pre- Elections and Portfolio Allocations', American Journal of Political Science 51 (2): 300-313.

Knapp, Andrew. 2004. 'Ephemeral Victories? France's Governing Parties, the Ecologists, and the Far Right', in: Peter Maier, Wolfgang C. Muller and Fritz Plasser (eds.), Political Parties and Electoral Change, London and New Delhi: Thousand Oaks and SAGE Publications, 2004.

Katz, Richard S., 1997. Democracy and Elections, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.