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Israel election update.

Single issue and ethnic parties have long been an established part of Israel's political landscape. In the forthcoming elections, they may be more successful than ever.

Israel's political system has always been fractious. Aided by the proportional representation voting system, countless small parties have emerged and gained seats in Israel's parliament, only to disappear soon afterwards. Others have managed to last for longer, such as the parties representing Israeli Arabs and Orthodox Jews. Many have acted as partners in the country's succession of coalition governments and used their positions to exert disproportionate influence, mostly to gain funding for their respective communities.

In Israel's forthcoming general election, which will be held this May, these small parties may gain even greater representation in the Knesset. "In the last election, Israelis voted directly for the prime minister in a separate poll for the first time. This allowed many to cast their vote in the Knesset ballot for a single issue party, rather than for the main Likud or Labour parties," explains one commentator. "The new system was devised to encourage stronger government but it has had the opposite effect, allowing small factions to gain even greater prominence," she adds. Indeed, in the forthcoming Knesset vote, some analysts are predicting that, for the first time in the history of the state, Labour and Likud will together account for less than half of the seats in the assembly.

As has always been the case, the small parties usually fall into one of two categories - those that represent a particular religious, political or ethnic grouping and those which are little more than the political vehicle of an individual politician with a large ego who has usually fallen out with the mainstream party he used to represent.

Numerous leading figures have set up their own factions in the past, including current President Ezer Weizmann, whose Yahad splinter - formed after he bolted from the Likud - won three seats in the 1984 election, only to merge with the Labour Party soon after. Incumbent Foreign Minister Arik Sharon also ran on his own ticket, back in 1977, when his Shlomzion faction secured two mandates and was absorbed into the Likud in the ensuing period.

When voters go to the polls, there may well be a plethora of one man bands, such as Gesher, (created by the former Likud foreign minister David Levy), Tsomet (a hardline nationalist party which is led by ex-chief of staff Raful Eitan, who serves as agriculture minister in the present government), Moledet (even more hardline and in the service of retired general Rehaman Ze'evi) and Atid (which was put together late last year by then Tel Aviv mayor Ronnie Milo as a vehicle for his prime ministerial ambitions).

Of course, none would admit that their parties are so transparent and each ostensibly has its own platform, such as Gesher's claim to represent Israeli Jews from Arab countries. Most voters see these claims as pretty shallow, however. Other parties can certainly be seen as more representative of particular groupings within Israeli society and opinion polls are predicting that some may do particularly well when voters go to the ballot box.

One group which has never previously managed to establish itself as a serious political force to be reckoned with is the women's movement. One of the founding ideals of Zionist ideology was the equality of men and women and, of course, Golda Meir served as the country's first and only female premier over a quarter of a century ago.

In spite of this, women have consistently remained under-represented in Israel's political arena, which has been dominated by men since that state was founded in 1948. Indeed, in the current Knesset, only nine of the 120 deputies are women and the only senior female politician in the government is Communications Minister Limor Livnat.

Now, a champion for the cause of Israeli women has emerged in the unlikely form of Penina Rosenblum, a model turned millionaire cosmetics tycoon. She is using some of her wealth to finance her Tnufa Party, which advocates women's rights and social reforms.

The party has an extensive platform and calls for equal pay, improvement in education, tax breaks for childcare, universal access to fertility treatment, tough penalties for wife beaters and the legalisation of brothels to reduce to health risks.

"The Israeli women's movement is perplexed by the Rosenblum phenomena," says commentator Matthew Kalman. "Feminists have long derided her pin-up career and dedication to cosmetics, but find it hard to argue with her politics."

Penina Rosenblum herself is adamant that Israel's politicians need to change. "They don't take me seriously in a political way because I'm a woman and because of the way I look," she explains.

"The people are fed up with the big parties. They want a change," claims Rosenblum. "Why are there more than 700,000 people living below the poverty line? Why are there more than 40 children in a school classroom? The time has come to deal with some of the real issues in Israeli society," she asserts, adding, "women are simply not treated as equals in Israel's chauvinist society."

According to one opinion poll published in late December, Tnufa has the backing of seven per cent of the electorate, which would translate into eight or nine seats in the Knesset. Small wonder that some members of the Likud and Labour have been sounding out the possibility of her joining with them. Rosenblum, not surprisingly, has spurned such advances.

Israel's large community of immigrants from the former Soviet Union voted in droves for the Yisrael B'Aliya Party in the 1996 general election. Headed by Natan Sharansky, the party successfully tapped into the feelings of alienation and disenchantment which were widespread amongst the Russian Jews, who now account for one sixth of the Israeli population.

In spite of gaining two key cabinet posts in the government of Binyamin Netanyahu, a number of commentators have recently claimed that many of the party's voters have become disillusioned with its lacklustre performance and began to predict its imminent demise.

However, Yisrael B'Aliya's performance in last autumn's nationwide local elections put paid to those claims, as the party secured over 100 seats in 46 councils around the country and a number of candidates were appointed deputy mayor in various coalitions.

The performance puts the party almost at the same level as the two leading religious parties, each of which won only a handful more seats. "Our victory is extraordinary, especially if you add in all the deputy mayoral positions. It refutes critics who accused us of 'not doing anything' for our constituents," enthuses deputy leader Yuli Edelstein. Adds party head Natan Sharansky "we're on the map."

Even though Russian immigrants are gradually being absorbed into Israeli society and are pulling themselves up the rungs of the economic ladder, many still feel alienated from mainstream society. Other less well-off sectors within Israeli society, such as Jews from Moroccan and Yemini backgrounds, are particularly resentful. Recently, this antagonism has even spilled over into violence, such as the murder of a soldier who had emigrated from Moldova by a Moroccan Israeli in the city of Ashkelon. The latter had apparently objected to hearing Russian spoken loudly. The killing sent shockwaves through the Russian community.

One challenge facing Yisrael B'Aliya is the threat from other Russian splinter parties, some of which did well in the local elections and may use this as a springboard for the national vote. One party which has already launched itself into the arena is Yisrael Beitanu - "Israel is our home" - which has been formed by Avigdor Lieberman. Lieberman previously served as director-general of the prime minister's office for Binyamin Netanyahu.

The launch of this new party caused ripples of consternation through the country as Lieberman used the opportunity to launch into a vitriolic barrage of abuse against Israel's establishment and its political elite. The tone and language used by Lieberman triggered widespread condemnation but were more warmly received by some of the more disenfranchised elements of the country's Russian community.

The question vexing some pundits is whether this is a truly independent venture or whether Binyamin Netanyahu is somehow involved. With Sharansky's Yisrael B'Aliya looking strong, some believe that Lieberman's new creation is little more than an attempt to split the Russian vote and provide a new natural ally for Netanyahu if he has the chance to form the next government.

One party which many expect to do very well in the forthcoming poll is Shas. Formed in the 1980s, Shas is an ultra-orthodox party for Israel's Sephardi Jews (ie those from Arab countries). For many years, the religious political parties were dominated by Ashkenazi (Western) Jews and Sephardi leaders were conspicuously excluded. Shas was formed in response to this and has gone from strength to strength since it was created. In the 1996 general election, the party established itself as the country's third largest and has a far stronger position than its Ashkenazi counterpart.

Shas has been brilliantly led by former interior minister Aryeh Deri. Under his tutelage, it has shown itself to be a fine exponent of pork-barrel politics, using its position in successive coalitions to garner ever larger amounts of public money to fund its own causes.

Shas has cleverly used these funds to establish a power base for itself. Money has been used to set up Shas schools, which have provided transport, extended hours and hot meals to its pupils. Such luxuries are usually not available within Israeli schools. A network of after-school clubs has also been set up, which attracts many pupils of non-Shas schools and so serves as a stepping stone into its own establishments.

Even continued scandals, such as Aryeh Deri's long running corruption trial, have failed to dent the party's popularity. On the contrary, it has strengthened its reputation as fighting for Sephardi Jews against the Ashkenazi establishment.

Political opinion polls have consistently failed to correctly estimate the level of support for Shas in previous elections. Given the party's efforts since the last national vote, some commentators believe it will emerge from May's ballot in an even better position than it has at present. If these predictions prove correct, that will leave the party in a very strong bargaining position in Israel's next coalition government.
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Title Annotation:general elections in May 1999
Comment:Analysts predict that the Knesset will be composed of less than 50% from the Labour and Likud parties after the Israeli general elections in May 1999.
Author:Album, Andrew
Publication:The Middle East
Geographic Code:7ISRA
Date:Apr 1, 1999
Previous Article:The 'Middle East' talks to Abdullah Ocalan.
Next Article:A chip off the old block.

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