Jerusalem, 12 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Israelis go to the polls Monday (May 17) to elect a new parliament and prime minister as more parties vie for voters' allegiance than at any time in the country's history.
A record 33 political parties are competing for seats in the Knesset following the unexpected fall of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition government at the start of the year. The government's collapse amid disagreements over implementing the US-brokered Wye accord to revive the peace process forced parliament to call early elections.
The vote also pits five candidates against one another in what is only Israel's second experiment with directly electing a prime minister. So far, polls have shown that none of the three primary contenders is likely to receive the required 50 percent plus one vote required to win on Monday. That indicates the race for prime minister could go into a second round June 1.
Arye Carmon, a political analyst at the Israeli Democracy Institute, says the large number of contenders reflects both the divisiveness of the campaign issues and an increasing tendency in Israeli politics to form small parties around special interests. He blames the trend in part on a 1992 election law which gave Israelis for the first time the right to cast one ballot for the Knesset and another for prime minister
"The fact that we debated and argued ... before this [two-vote] system over national issues did have some integrative force. Because it wouldn't matter if you were right, left or center, the only issues were the well-being of the state, its security, its defense, its economy, etc. Now, with a split vote, with one vote you vote on national issues. With the second vote you vote for sectorial issues, so this encourages sectorialism and disintegration."
Carmon says that the three major blocs -- Likud, the Labor-led One Israel coalition and the new Centrist Party -- have focused their campaigns on the personality of Likud-leader Benjamin Netanyahu and the pace of the peace process. The smaller parties have campaigned primarily on socio-economic issues.
The leading opposition group -- One Israel -- has made a rallying point out of charges Netanyahu is unable to lead the country. Its candidate for prime minister, Ehud Barak, has repeatedly accused Netanyahu of expediently turning the peace process on and off in a bid to keep his coalition together despite the risk of alienating Israel's closest ally, the United States.
Netanyahu carried out some early withdrawals on the West Bank under the Oslo peace accords before the peace process froze when Palestinians accused Jews of building settlements on disputed land and the Israelis said Palestinians weren't cooperating on security. The government briefly resumed withdrawals under US pressure with the Wye accord in October before hard-liners balked and Netanyahu's coalition collapsed.
The prime minister's leadership style has also been the campaign target of the Centrist Party. Its leaders are mostly defectors from Likud's moderate wing, including the Centrist's candidate for prime minister Yitzhak Mordechai, whom Netanyahu fired as defense minister in January. Mordechai has sought to make ousting Netanyahu a common bond between more moderate Likud supporters and Labor backers, saying Barak is not popular enough to topple the Likud chief.
One of Mordechai's strengths is that, as an Iraqi-born Kurdish Jew, he is the first candidate for prime minister of Sephardic (or Middle Eastern) extraction. Supporters have said that would help him win Sephardic voters, who make up 35 percent of the electorate and traditionally vote Likud. But religious Sephardic parties, who see him as too secular, have proved hostile.
Mordechai's poll standings have slipped in recent weeks, prompting Labor to call for him to bow out in favor of Barak so as not to split the anti-Netanyahu vote. But Mordechai has said he will remain in the race through the first round.
Netanyahu has tried to shift the campaign debate from his own personality to the peace process, which won him election in 1996. He has continued to call for taking a tough stance with the Palestinians, charging that Barak and Mordechai would give away to much land and not demand strong enough security guarantees for Israel.
Two other candidates for prime minister are given no chance of surviving the first round. One, Benny Begin -- the son of late Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin -- broke with Likud to run on a platform to the right of Netanyahu. The other, Azmi Bishara, is the first Israeli-Arab politician to ever run for prime minister. He is seeking greater rights for Arabs as a minority making up 20 percent of Israel's population.
Analysts say many of the small parties in the Knesset races will not gain the minimum 1.5 percent of the vote they need to win a seat in parliament. But the largest of them -- those organized around particular communities or around religious platforms -- stand to win enough votes to be able to play key roles in the formation of the next government.
One ultra-orthodox party, Shas, appeals to Sephardic voters with traditional values. It is campaigning for more funding to operate its own religious schools and welfare organizations in poorer Sephardic neighborhoods and for stricter public observance of religious restrictions on work and transportation on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath.
Shas is the largest of a number of religious parties which sees their members as oppressed by Israel's secular majority. It took 10 seats in the 1996 election to become the country's third largest party and was a key member of Netanyahu's failed coalition government.
Russian immigrant-based parties are also trying to mobilize voters around socio-economic concerns. They appeal to the some 800,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union who have entered Israel in the past 10 years and now make up 14 percent of the country's electorate. Many feel at a disadvantage in Israeli society and complain, among other things, that police target them first when investigating crimes.
The largest Russian-immigrant party -- Ba'Aliya, led by Natan Scharansky -- has vowed to wrest control of the interior ministry from Shas politicians, who won it under the last government. Israel Ba'Aliya accuses the ministry of unfairly grilling Russian immigrants to determine if they qualify as Jewish under Shas' own strict interpretations of Jewish law.
The Sephardic and Russian voting blocs are likely to play important roles as swing votes in the general election. Netanyahu has courted both Shas and Israel Ba'Aliya in an effort to hold them within the coalition he formed in 1996, while Barak is seeking to lure the Russian party away. Shas appears certain to stay in Netanyahu's camp while the Russian vote has become difficult to predict.
Analysts say that the highly fractured nature of the Israeli electorate makes it hard to forecast which of the two major parties -- Likud and Labor -- will win or what kind of coalition government either might form.
Uzi Beniziman, a correspondent for the Israeli daily Haaretz, told RFE/RL that both parties would like to free themselves of alliances with the smaller parties they need to put together a government, particularly the highly demanding religious ones. That has given rise to some speculation that Labor and Likud might favor forming a national-unity government.
"The conventional wisdom is that after the election the big two blocks will combine together, combine forces, and establish a unified national government. This is because in order to tackle the Palestinian problem the general belief is that the issue is so traumatic, so sensitive, that only a unified government can cope with it."
But Benziman says the likelihood of a national unity government is slim. One reason is the same 1992 election law which has helped to fracture Israeli politics by allowing direct voting for prime minister.
In the past, he says, national unity governments have been based on the idea of rotating the premiership between the two parties halfway through the government's term in office. That practice is now impossible under the system of the public directly electing the prime minister, so any effort to form a national unity government would see tremendous fighting over sharing power.
Benziman predicts that the difficulties of forming a national unity government will lead whichever big block wins to once again try to form a coalition with smaller, narrow-interest parties. Even if, as he says, that brings the risk of the same kind of fragile political alliances that ultimately toppled the last government.
(This is the first of a three-part RFE/RL series looking ahead to the Israeli general elections on May 17, Monday. This part is an overview of the main candidates for prime minister and the issues. The second part looks at the growing culture war between secular and orthodox Jews and its impact on the election. The third part looks at the historic first race of an Israeli-Arab for prime minister.)