The Multiparty System: Country Studies — Israel
Israel Country Study
Rankings in Freedom in the World 2016: Status: Free. Freedom Rating: 1.5; Political Rights: 1; Civil Liberties: 2.
Israel was established in May 1948, six months after the United Nations (UN) endorsed a partition plan to divide Palestine, then under British administration, into Jewish and Arab states. The rejection of the UN plan by Arab states led to a series of wars, military conflicts, and ongoing terrorist actions that posed serious threats to Israel’s existence and left the issue of Palestinian statehood and the fate of Palestinian refugees unresolved.
Israel is a stable multi-party parliamentary democracy. In all of Freedom House’s Surveys of Freedom in the World since 1973, Israel has been the only country in the Middle East categorized as “free” and has ranked highest in the region in all individual scores of political freedoms and civil liberties. At present, ten parties and coalition blocs are seated in the Knesset, Israel’s unicameral parliament. They represent a wide variety of political views and interests among the majority Jewish population and minority Arab and Druze populations (the Joint List coalition of Arab-Israeli parties won a record 10.5 percent of the vote in the 2015 parliamentary elections). A right-wing coalition led by the Likud Party formed the current government in power following elections in 2015.
Israel is a small country. Excluding territories occupied since 1967, it ranks 149th in size among 194 countries at just 20,800 square kilometers. Following periods of large-scale Jewish emigration from Europe, the former Soviet Union, the Middle East, and North Africa, Israel's population has grown from less than one million at its founding to eight million today, with roughly 75 percent being Jewish, 20 percent Arab, and 5 percent non-Arab Muslims, Christians, and Jewish immigrants not registered or not recognized as Jewish by the Interior Ministry. The Jewish population of Israel is commonly grouped under the labels Ashkenazim (those of European origin) and Sephardim (those of Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, or other non-European origin). Druze, a monotheistic, poly-confessional faith, is conflated with the Arab Israeli population but its members are subject to conscription in the army. Approximately 500,000 Jewish settlers reside in parts of the occupied territories. (No occupied territory or settlement is recognized as part of Israel by any other country or international institution.)
Despite its small size and population, Israel's economy, specializing in agriculture, trade, tourism, and technology, was ranked 37th in the world in 2014 in nominal gross domestic product (GDP), with $306 billion in total economic output, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In nominal GDP per capita, Israel ranked 22nd highest in the world at $37,200 in 2015 (IMF), slightly above the European Union average. It ranks 28th out of 176 countries in the world in Transparency International’s 2016 Corruption Survey index.
Establishment of the State of Israel
The founding of Israel fulfilled the long-held aims of the Zionist movement, which, beginning in the 19th century, sought to establish an autonomous Jewish community or state in the Jews' ancient homeland. After Britain took control of the area, then known as Palestine, during World War I, it issued the Balfour Declaration, which expressed support for a Jewish national homeland and encouraged Jewish immigration. Britain continued to administer the territory under a League of Nations mandate during the 1920s and 1930s during which time around 350,000 Jews escaping persecution in Europe emigrated to Palestine. The Holocaust — Nazi Germany’s systematic murder of six million European Jews during World War II — led to a renewed effort to establish a Jewish state, despite objections by Arab countries. As violence mounted in Palestine involving Jewish militias, Arab groups, and British forces, the UN General Assembly in November 1947 approved a plan to divide Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, with Jerusalem as an internationally administered zone. Jewish leaders agreed to the plan and declared the state of Israel on May 14, 1948. The United Kingdom, which had continued to administer Palestine under UN auspices, formally ended its mandate the next day.
Survivors of the Holocaust in the Buchenwald Concentration Camp
Military, Economic, and Diplomatic Struggles
Arab countries and Palestinian Arab leaders rejected the UN partition plan and the establishment of Israel, setting the stage for ongoing conflict. There have been four short, intense wars between Israel and its Arab neighbors (1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973). These were ended through UN and US diplomacy that sought to preclude a wider confrontation during the Cold War. In the first war, five Arab states invaded Israel immediately after its declaration of statehood. Israeli forces, having already defeated Palestinian militias, repelled the Arab armies and secured a UN-brokered armistice in January 1949 that slightly expanded Israel’s borders and left Egypt in control of the Gaza Strip and Sinai while Transjordan (renamed Jordan) had control of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the area the UN intended for a Palestinian state. Jordan annexed the territories it held in 1950. Most of the Palestinian population that fled Israel during the conflict ended up in permanent refugee camps across the region. In the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel launched a preemptive strike before a planned Egyptian attack and seized the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip. Jordan and Syria carried out their own attacks, at which point Israel occupied the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights along Syria's border before a cease-fire was concluded. In 1973, Arab countries launched a surprise attack on the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur. While Israel initially suffered serious defeats, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) recovered to rebuff the attack, leading to another US-brokered cease-fire with little change to the borders and Israel still in control of occupied territories from the 1967 war.
In addition to open warfare, Arab governments organized a boycott on goods and services from the Jewish territories starting in 1945 and then from Israel itself after 1948. At first, the boycott was widely observed but he United States imposed sanctions on countries and companies participating in it, which reduced participation. Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority withdrew from the Arab Boycott following their respective peace agreements with Israel (see below). Today, only Lebanon and Syria formally adhere to the boycott, but other countries still observe it. Arab states also made frequent attempts to isolate Israel diplomatically. The most notable case was in 1975, when the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 3379, which declared Zionism to be "a form of racism" and delegitimized the basis for Israel's founding. The resolution was eventually rescinded by the General Assembly in 1991.
|In addition to open warfare, Arab governments organized a boycott on goods and services from the Jewish territories . . . [and] made frequent attempts to isolate Israel diplomatically.|
The Camp David and Oslo Peace Accords
In 1977, Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat, now determined to end the state of war with Israel, traveled to Jerusalem to meet with Israeli leaders. His stunning peace initiative led to the signing of the Camp David accords in 1978, the first peace treaty between Israel and one of its Arab neighbors. As part of the treaty, Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula, captured in the 1967 war, to Egypt. Momentum for a region-wide peace ended, however, when Sadat was assassinated in 1979 by members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. Around this time, Israel increasingly clashed with Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) guerrillas striking both civilian and military targets from southern Lebanon. The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) invaded the country in 1982 in an attempt to root out guerrilla bases based in refugee camps and end ongoing terrorist attacks on Israel. The IDF maintained a reduced presence during Lebanon’s civil war. When Israel fully withdrew its forces in 2000, southern Lebanon was left largely in the control of Hezbollah, an Islamist, anti-Israel militia supported by much of Lebanon's Shiite Muslim community and backed militarily by Iran and Syria.
After four years of a failed Palestinian intifada (“uprising” in Arabic) in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, in 1991 the PLO agreed to peace negotiations with Israel under Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. These continued with his successor, Labor leader Yitzhak Rabin, resulting in the signing of the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords. The Accords provided for PLO recognition of Israel and its renunciation of terrorism in exchange for phased Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and establishment of Palestinian autonomy under a PLO-led Palestinian Authority. The terms also envisioned the eventual creation of a Palestinian state through further negotiations. The Oslo Accords led King Hussein of Jordan to sign a bilateral peace treaty with Israel in 1994.
Since Oslo: Two Failed Negotiations
Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995 by a Jewish extremist opposed to the Oslo agreement. The right-wing Likud party, which was increasingly skeptical of any peace process, won early elections. As a result of renewed terrorist violence by Palestinian militants, the Likud government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, stalled implementation of the 1993 Peace Accords. But Likud and Netanyahu were defeated decisively in 1999 elections for the Knesset and the office of prime minister as the Israel electorate supported Labor and others supporting a resumption of peace negotiations. In 2000, Labor Party leader Ehud Barak agreed to a comprehensive settlement, including establishment of a Palestinian state, in talks brokered by the US. But in a sudden turnabout, the agreement was rejected by Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat. A second intifada broke out that year that was led by the Palestinian militant groups Islamic Jihad and Hamas and joined by elements of the PLO. Over five years, terrorist attacks and suicide bombers killed nearly two thousand Israeli citizens. The Israeli military responded by reoccupying some areas previously yielded to the Palestinian Authority. The attacks continued but subsided after Israel carried out systematic anti-terror operations, imposed harsh new security measures and erected a controversial security barrier along the border.
After Arafat’s death in 2004, Mahmoud Abbas, considered a moderate, was elected president of the Palestinian Authority, raising renewed hopes for peace negotiations. In 2005, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon from the Likud Party unilaterally withdrew Israeli forces and Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip. Disagreements within Likud over the policy led Sharon to create a new party, Kadima, which won the 2005 election. After Sharon suffered a debilitating stroke, his successor Ehud Olmert undertook secret talks with Abbas in 2007-08 that Olmert later claimed also were near final settlement. But before they could be concluded, Olmert was forced to resign in 2008 due to corruption charges.
The Peace Process Stalls
With the holding of new elections in 2009, peace negotiations again stalled over preconditions set by incoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Among other issues, Israel demanded recognition of Israel “as a Jewish state”; the Palestinian Authority demanded a halt to all Israeli settlements on the West Bank. Through an initiative of US Secretary of State John Kerry, Israeli–Palestinian talks resumed in August 2013 without either side meeting the other’s preconditions, but with several concessions undertaken on both sides (Israel agreed to a series of releases of Palestinians in Israeli jails, including many convicted of terrorist attacks, while the Palestinian Authority agreed not to pursue further statehood recognition in international for a). The aim was to reach a comprehensive framework for final status negotiations in mid-2014, but talks again subsequently broke down (see Current Issues below).
If the negotiations resume, there remain significant disagreements over Palestinian demands for “a right to return” to displaced property in Israel, security commitments, the final status of Jerusalem, and the fate of Israeli settlements in West Bank territory, among other issues. The settlements are a significant issue for any peace agreement. After Israel occupied East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza Strip in 1967, Israel assumed administration of East Jerusalem and, without annexation, made Jerusalem its capital. The government also approved settlements by Israeli citizens of border areas for security reasons to bolster Israel's defenses in the Jordan rift valley. After 1977, Likud-led governments began placing settlements adjacent to Palestinian population centers in areas beyond the 1967 borders it considers to be part of biblical Israel. Likud-led governments generally expanded settlements to new areas while Labor and centrist party-led governments restricted them to existing settlements. Today, it would be difficult for Israel to dismantle all settlements, especially the suburb-like areas around Jerusalem. Still, in opinion polls, a majority of Israelis consistently support a future two-state peace agreement that would involve a significant withdrawal of settlements from occupied territories in exchange for a secure peace. This was done in the Sinai in compliance with the Camp David Accords and unilaterally in the Gaza Strip in 2005.
Security Threats Continued
Israel has continued to face ongoing military and terrorist threats in the last decade. In response to numerous missile and guerilla attacks by the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah near the border, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) launched a major aerial bombardment of Hezbollah positions across Lebanon. When the air campaign was suspended due to high civilian casualties, the subsequent Israeli ground incursion of the southern border area was slowed by Hezbollah forces, which also fired thousands of rockets directly at Israeli population centers. An armistice negotiated in August 2006 resulted in the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the border, replaced by UN peacekeeping forces and Lebanese government troops. Hezbollah remained largely in control of southern Lebanon.
In response to increased rocket attacks on southern Israel from the Gaza Strip after Hamas’s takeover of the territory in 2007, the IDF carried out attacks on suspected terrorist sites in urban areas in Gaza, but, as in Lebanon, these resulted in numerous civilian casualties. A second major conflict with Hamas erupted in the summer of 2014. Over two months, Hamas launched more than 10,000 rockets at Israeli civilian centers. The IDF carried out major air and ground operations against Hamas in Gaza to end the attacks, in the process uncovering hundreds of miles of tunnels reaching from Gaza into Israeli territory to carry out terror attacks. Since Hamas hid its missile launching areas within civilian centers, the IDF’s operation resulted in heavy civilian casualties and damage to buildings, housing, and infrastructure. A cease fire was agreed to in September that remains in effect. Generally, other Arab neighbors remain in formal states of hostility or war with Israel and continue to refuse to recognize its existence. Extremist groups like Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and parts of the PLO are pledged to destroy the state of Israel. In the last decade, Iran’s leaders have repeatedly stated that Israel should not exist and provide military backing to all extremist groups committed to Israel’s destruction.
|Throughout numerous wars, acts of terrorism, political crises, and many internal and social conflicts, Israel has remained a vibrant and stable multi-party democracy — the only such example thus far in the Middle East.|
Throughout numerous wars, acts of terrorism, political crises, and many internal and social conflicts, Israel has remained a vibrant and stable multi-party democracy — the only such example thus far in the Middle East. Freedom of association, assembly, speech, and religion are largely respected. Israel’s media is independent and representing diverse political views (see Israel’s Country Report in Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press: 2016). Internet access is unhindered and uncensored. The rule of law functions to limit the abuse of state power, as well as to temper state policies, including towards citizens in occupied territories. The judiciary is an independent branch of government. The Supreme Court has repeatedly acted to nullify laws and government actions it judges to be contrary to constitutional principles, including those deemed discriminatory to Arab Israeli citizens and Palestinians.
Israel has a parliamentary system with a 120-seat unicameral legislature, which in Hebrew is called the Knesset. The president, elected by the Knesset for a seven-year term, has limited powers as a largely ceremonial head-of-state, however he or she may act as a final check on power. Prime ministers were directly elected for a brief period between 1996 and 2001, but otherwise the president has had the authority to nominate a prime minister to form a government. This is usually but not always the head of the leading party in elections and depends on the possibilities of the leading party to form a functioning coalition government. Executive power is exercised by the prime minister and the cabinet, who must be collectively approved by a vote of confidence of the Knesset. The Knesset may vote singularly to remove a cabinet member or in a no-confidence motion to bring down the government.
Members of the Knesset are elected to four-year terms, but the prime minister may call new elections before the scheduled end of term. In elections, voters choose among national party lists according to a strict proportional representation system. Until 1982, the threshold for a party entering parliament was just 1 percent. In 2006, the threshold had risen to 2 percent and in 2014, it was raised to 3.25 percent. While Israel’s politics has been dominated by two main ideological parties since independence (Labor on the left and Likud on the right), many other major and smaller parties, including religious, personality-based, and Arab-Israeli minority parties, have been a constant presence in Israeli politics. From 1951 to 2015, elections resulted in at least ten and as many as fifteen parties being represented in the Knesset. Twelve parties were represented in the previous three parliaments using the 2 percent threshold adopted in 2006. With the higher 3.25 threshold in the 2015 elections, ten parties and coalitions (representing a total of 13 parties) qualified for seats. No government has formed without forming a coalition.
Israeli Elections, Parties, and Coalitions
From 1948 until 1977, Israel was governed by a succession of coalition governments led by the social democratic Labor Party and its antecedents. After 1977, when the right-wing Likud party won elections, there was an alternation of Likud-led, Labor-led, and Likud-Labor unity governments. In 1996, direct elections for prime minister were introduced. The first direct election was won by Benjamin Netanyahu. The second, in 1999, was won by Labor leader Ehud Barak. The third, in 2001, was won by a new Likud leader, Ariel Sharon. A former general, he promised a hardline security policy against the second intifada (see above) and won 62 percent of the vote, one of the strongest electoral performances in Israel’s history. But Likud still lacked a majority in parliament and Sharon formed a unity government with Labor and a number of smaller parties. Direct elections for prime minister were abandoned after 2001.
A new dynamic began after Likud won a plurality in the 2003 elections. At first, Sharon formed a coalition with four right-wing secular and religious parties, but he faced serious challenges to his leadership within Likud over a new policy he proposed — called “security through disengagement” — namely to dismantle settlements and withdraw Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip and some parts of the West Bank. Sharon, still quite popular, left Likud in 2005 to create a new centrist party, Kadima (Forward), in order to carry out his new policies. Leading members of both Likud and Labor defected to join. Soon thereafter, however, Sharon was felled by a debilitating stroke. Under his successor, Ehud Olmert, the party still won an unprecedented first-time victory in March 2006, with a plurality of 22 percent. Labor came in second with 15 percent and Likud (again led by Sharon’s rival, former Prime Minister Netanyahu), had its worst performance in more than 30 years. Kadima formed a center-left coalition with Labor and smaller parties, the only time in Israeli politics a party other than Labor or Likud led a government.
In the fall of 2008, Prime Minister, Olmert was forced to resign due to corruption charges involving property deals he oversaw as Mayor of Jerusalem. (He was the first Israeli prime minister to stand trial or be convicted of criminal charges, although Israel’s Supreme Court overturned the most serious bribery conviction in December 2015 on procedural grounds. He served 18 months in prison on lesser charges.) Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who had led the Olmert-Abbas negotiations (see above), became head of a caretaker government. She succeeded in gaining a second victory for Kadima over Likud in early elections, but quite narrowly, 28 to 27 seats (with each getting 22 percent of the vote). This time, however, Labor had its worst showing in its history, declining to fourth place with 10 percent. A new ultra-nationalist party, Yisrael Beiteinu, advocating the removal of a large part of the Arab population from Israel through territorial exchanges with the West Bank, surged to come in third with 15 seats. In this situation, Kadima failed to put together a majority coalition and Likud was asked to form a government.
The Role of Smaller Parties
|Throughout Israel's history, smaller parties have had a large role in creating its governments and tend to complicate the politics and policies of coalitions.|
Throughout Israel's history, smaller parties have had a large role in creating its governments and tend to complicate the politics and policies of coalitions. The goals and ideologies of these smaller parties usually require meeting specific special interests or policies. The most significant smaller parties in the past have been two Orthodox religious parties, which regularly get 12-13 percent of the vote and 15-16 seats. These have received various concessions for leading what is termed the “religious establishment” in exchange for their support in left- or right-led coalition governments. More recently, nationalist parties favoring the expansion of settlements in occupied territories (and rejecting a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) have become linchpins to right coalition governments. Since 2005, personality-based and splinter parties have created a new centrist bloc that seeks an end to concessions to religious and nationalist parties and support a two-state solution, but these have strong disagreements with the Labor Party on economic issues. A small left-wing peace party, Meretz, gets around 4 to 5 percent, and allies itself with the Labor Party on most issues.
Three Arab-Israeli parties (United Arab List, Hadash, and Balad) have a strong representation in the 120-seat parliament, regularly netting 10-12 seats. These parties have never been included in a governing coalition due to their ideological opposition to Zionism and their general public sympathy with Israel's adversaries. Many Israeli Arab leaders argue that the use of Jewish symbols in the country's flag and national anthem and immigration laws favoring repatriation of Jews are incompatible with democracy. Most Jewish Israeli leaders and some Arab Israeli leaders maintain that full civic equality for Arabs can be attained within the framework of a Jewish nation state. Attempts by some politicians to ban Arab Israeli parties from participating in elections on the grounds that they reject the "Jewish and democratic character of the state" have been repeatedly rebuffed by the government's legal adviser and by the Supreme Court. Recently, the Court also acted to reinstate a leader of one of the parties after she had been stripped of her Knesset seat due to her controversial statements interpreted to support terrorist actions against Israel.
Recent Elections and Challenges
The results of the 2009 elections brought new challenges to forming governments in Israel’s multi-party system. When Kadima failed to put together a majority coalition, Likud’s Netanyahu pieced together a partnership that included Labor and the religious right wing parties. While the unity coalition lasted four years, it ended up dividing the Labor Party.
In the January 2013 elections, Likud moved further right by merging with Yisrael Beiteinu, but the new Likud got just 23 percent — much less than the two parties running separately received in 2009. The Labor Party again had disappointing results, coming in third at 11 percent behind a new centrist party called Yesh Atid (There Is a Future), led by a popular media personality who was advocating a “middle class” platform and secular policies against the religious bloc. It gained 15 percent of the vote in its first outing, while Kadima fell to 2 percent (an unprecedented drop from its previous election win). Hatnuah, a new splinter party led by former Prime Minister Tzipi Livni and former Labor Party chairman Amir Peretz, won 5 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, the pro-settlement Jewish Home and the two establishment religious parties won a much larger total than previously, netting 30 seats in all, or one-fourth of the vote. Netanyahu again formed an unlikely coalition by joining together with the two new centrist parties, Yesh Atid and Hatnuah, and the far-right Jewish Home. By putting the religious parties in opposition, the government succeeded in eliminating the unpopular exemption for military service for religious reasons and certain religious subsidies. But, with divergent views on the budget and the peace process, the coalition faltered after the collapse of peace negotiations in 2014 and the war in Gaza.
Seeking a mandate to carry out a stronger security and foreign policy, Prime Minister Netanyahu pushed through the higher 3.25 percent threshold and called early elections for March 2015. Labor and Hatnuah joined together to form a new coalition, Zionist Union, led by Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog, the son of one of Israel’s founding fathers. Campaigning on a center-left and secular platform, the Zionist Union appeared set to match or surpass Likud. Netanyahu, however, appealed to his right constituency with strong security planks and also last-minute chauvinist warnings about an increased Arab Israeli vote (he later distanced himself from his election statements due to domestic and international pressure). Likud, running without Yisrael Beiteinu, equaled its 2009 and 2013 result (23 percent) and garnered a plurality of 30 seats. The Zionist Union received 18.5 percent and 24 seats, less than hoped, while a Joint List coalition of the three Arab-Israeli parties, came in third, at 10.5 percent and 13 seats. Yesh Atid and a new centrist party, Kulanu, led by a popular former Likud minister, won 11 and 10 seats respectively (each receiving about 8 percent of the vote). Yisrael Beitanu dropped to 5 percent, less than the settler party Jewish Home at 7 percent. The two religious parties received 13 seats with 11 percent of the vote. The left-wing Meretz gained 5 seats with nearly 4 percent of the vote.
The results of the 2015 elections led to prolonged negotiations to form a coalition government. In the end, Netanyahu failed to convince the Zionist Union to join a unity government. He was elected Prime Minister as head of a slim majority coalition made up of Likud, the splinter Likud party Kulanu, the nationalist party Jewish Home, and the two Orthodox parties. This has meant the restoration of some concessions for a generally unpopular Orthodox religious establishment and the renewed expansion of settlements in the West Bank, making less likely a resumption of the peace process.
Overall, Benjamin Netanyahu has maintained Likud’s electoral strength in the last three elections based on his advocacy for stronger security policies, tougher responses to terror attacks, and his strong stance against the recent nuclear accord with Iran. Public support for harder-line security policies increased due to recent conflicts in the Gaza and West Bank (see above). There is also a high level of public concern regarding the danger of spillover from the Syrian war and the continued threats of Iranian leaders to Israel’s existence. At the same time, Israeli public opinion polls continue to register strong majorities for more secular policies in domestic affairs (such as ending religious preferences in marriage and easing restrictions on activities on the Sabbath) as well as for a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that would involve a withdrawal of settlements from occupied territories. But a growing concordance of Likud with nationalist and religious parties has made it more difficult to forge a center-left government that would reflect majority opinion on these two issues. Likud and its centrist partner Kulanu are aware of the disconnection between the majority governing coalition and majority public sentiment on these issues. For example, a majority in the cabinet overrode the religious parties’ objections and recently confirmed a decision to allow women to pray at a designated area of the Western Wall, a holy place of worship for Jews in Jerusalem. The decision followed a multi-year campaign of women who had defied the previous ban on women praying at the Wall. The campaign was supported also by many diaspora organizations that have become increasingly vocal in their positions on Israeli domestic issues.
The current government’s security policies and expansion of settlements have also increased tensions with Palestinians. In the wake of the elections, the security situation worsened. Beginning in the summer of 2015 and accelerating in October, there was a wave of violence carried out by young Palestinians, mostly from East Jerusalem and West Bank but also from within Israel. Individual attacks with knives, guns, and explosives have killed and maimed dozens of Israeli citizens, security personnel, and tourists in a campaign reminiscent of the first two intifiadahs. The attackers, who refuse surrender, are usually killed. The violence began in response to an arson attack by extremist Jewish settlers on a Palestinian home that killed a toddler and also rumors that Israel planned to change rules regarding worship at the Al Aksa Mosque, also known as the Noble Sanctuary. Under a joint administration with Jordan, the rules allow Jews to visit the mosque, also considered the site of the First and Second Temples, but not to pray. The rumors intensified as some Israeli politicians made public visits to the site and advocated changes in the rules. In response, Prime Minister Netanyahu has banned such visits and came to an agreement with King Abdullah of Jordan on stronger monitoring of the site. He also ordered strict controls on movements of Palestinians in East Jerusalem in response to the violence.
In January 2016, Israeli courts convicted and sentenced the perpetrators of the arson attack in July. A lighter sentence for one of the perpetrators who was found not to have taken direct part in the murder was met with protest by the victim’s Palestinian family, who appealed the sentence to the Supreme Court. The arson attack, as well as other cases of attacks by settlers on Palestinians, has unsettled the Israeli public and Israeli politics. Israel’s police and security forces have intensified investigations into what they believe is a new extremist network in settlement areas on the West Bank aimed at organizing vigilante attacks on Palestinians. A number of arrests have been made of Jewish settlers responsible for the attacks and for organizing the network.
The forging of the Joint List from the three Arab-Israeli parties was a new development in Israeli politics and gave Palestinian politicians a stronger presence in the Knesset. The unwritten consensus to exclude these parties from government tended to depress Arab Israeli participation in previous national elections. In turn, these parties tended to focus their concerns on issues of Palestinian nationalism rather than domestic representation of minority interests. Arab Israeli voters have consistently turned out in higher numbers in municipal elections where their votes had more weight and direct impact. In the 2015 national elections, the Joint List’s leaders appealed for votes based on an increased focus on issues of discrimination (for example in the budget and education) and the role of Arab Israeli citizens in Israeli society. The higher Arab-Israeli voter turnout brought the Joint List an unprecedented representation in the Knesset. Since the elections, however, the Knesset has been roiled by several incidents involving Joint List members, especially sympathy visits of three leaders to the homes of Palestinian families on the West Bank whose sons were killed by Israeli police in attacks on Israeli citizens and security officers. The three leaders were censured and their voting privileges in parliamentary committees temporarily suspended. At the same time, the government-approved budget has greatly increased funding for development and public spending in Arab-Israeli communities.
As seen in both past and recent elections, Israel's parliamentary system allows the full political representation of the country’s ideologically, ethnically, and religiously diverse society. But recent elections have also resulted in a splintered multi-party system with a complex array of interests and ideologies that makes it difficult to forge consensus policies. Israel continues to face enormous challenges to its security, identity, and even democratic character. Yet, despite these challenges and the continuous threats to its existence since its founding, Israel has achieved remarkable political stability and is the region’s only democracy with a multi-party system. Its independent judiciary and other institutions, such as a free media and active civil society, contribute to the survival and strength of Israeli democracy.