Q&A: The Israeli elections

Al Jazeera examines the issues facing Israelis as they prepare to elect a new government.

    The Likud party of Benyamin Netanyahu, a former prime minister, leads in opinion polls [EPA]

    Why are Israel's elections being held now?

    Israel had been due to hold elections in 2010 but Ehud Olmert, the outgoing prime minister, stepped down - under from the opposfition - amid a police investigation into corruption.

    Tzipi Livni, the foreign fminister, tofok over from Olmert as leader of the Kadima party, which headed the coalition government.

    Livni tried to win the support of Shas, the third largest party in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, but when that failed the Kadima leader called elections for February 10.

    Who is running?

    Israel's political scene is made up of a large number of parties, many of them small and representing specific social groups. More than 40 parties registered to run in the elections, though only 34 submitted lists of candidates.

    Amid the Gaza conflict, two Arab parties - the National Democratic Assembly (also known as Balad) and Ra'am-Ta'al – were barred from running after being accused of refusing to recognise Israel’s right to exist.

    Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, called the Arab Knesset members a "fifth column" in Israel. Ahmed Tibi, one of the Arab Israeli party leaders, responded by calling Lieberman a "fascist".

    A supreme court ruling later revoked the ban.

    How does Israel's electoral system work?

    The Israeli system works on the principle of proportional representation. Israelis cast their vote for a party, rather than a candidate, and the number of votes a party receives determines how many seats it gets in the Knesset.

    A party needs 61 seats to have a majority "- there are 120 seats in the Knesset - and this is mainly achieved by forming a coalition. The prime minister’s post then usually goes to the largest party in the coalition.

    Who's likely to win?

    Despite the proliferation of parties, the main contenders for prime minister are Livni from Kadima; Benyamin Netanyahu, the opposition Likud leader; and Ehud Barak, who is defence minister in the current coalition and who leads the Labor party.

    Netanyahu is ahead in the polls and it is likely that he will win enough support to form a government. Having said that, Israel's recent offensive in Gaza brought the current government greater support, boosting both Kadima and Labor.
    The strongly right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu also received a major boost from the offensive, with many analysts saying that Lieberman's party may out pace Labor and end up as a coalition partner.

    Ultimately, whoever the winner is will have to form a coalition in order to govern.

    What will the elections mean for any future peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians?

    Israel’s next government looks set to be dominated by the right-wing.

    In an interview with Al Jazeera, Hanan Ashrawi, the Palestinian academic and commentator, said: "It's the right-wing that's on the ascendance. It's the more hardline policies that are emerging now ... Even if you look at the broader picture - not at parties - you can see the right gaining seats."

    Both Netanyahu and Barak have been prime minister before and in neither case was there much movement on the peace process.

    Netanyahu held the post from 1996 to 1999 and made little headway in negotiations with the Palestinians, insisting that he would not accept negotiations under any pre-conditions.

    David Ross, the then US envoy to the Middle East, subsequently called Netanyahu "insufferable" in his account of the peace negotiations.

    Barak was prime minister between 1999 and 2001, overseeing Israel’s disengagement from Lebanon and the failure of the 2000 Camp David peace agreement with the Palestinians.

    Livni is seen as the most high-profile candidate to favour the peace talks, though she has also been given to hardline pronouncements and provoked an outcry in December when she said Arab-Israelis should be moved to a separate state once one was created.

    What are the issues people will be voting on?

    Israel’s recent war on Hamas in Gaza has focused people’s minds on security, but Israelis will also be voting on issues such as the economy and corruption.

    Olmert stepped down as a result of corruption investigations but he is far from being the only politician to have been tainted by the suggestion of scandal.

    Meanwhile, Israel’s economy looks set to suffer alongside others in the global downturn.

    The country saw growth in 2008, but the Bank of Israel has substantially revised down its growth predictions for the economy in 2009, while the Israeli shekel has slowly strengthened, hurting the country’s exports.

    With many small parties representing specific interests, a large number of people are likely to vote along social lines.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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