Democratic change and social diversity:
Israel's general election 2006

Published: 30 April 2006
Briefing Number 172

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Summary: Israel is frequently accused of being undemocratic. But its 2006 election illustrated the opposite: the strength of its democratic character. Major existing parties collapsed; others arose from nowhere. This happened peacefully. Ethnic minority groups found expression. And Israel’s Arabs once more exercised their democratic rights. The 2006 election revealed Israel’s capacity for democratic change; and the diversity of its society.

On 28 March 2006, Israelis voted in the country’s first general election since January 2003. The range of parties standing in the election, and the results, demonstrate the vitality and social diversity of Israeli society. This Briefing sets out some striking facts about the election result.

Changes in Israel’s democratic politics

  • The so-called ‘centrist’ party, Kadima, was the most successful single party, with 29 seats. It did not exist in 2003. Kadima was founded by Ariel Sharon in 2005 and is now led by prime minister Ehud Olmert.

  • The right-of-centre Likud party, which had won 40 seats in the 2003 elections, won 12 seats in 2006. This was a dramatic collapse.

  • Left-of-centre Labour, focusing on domestic economic issues, won 19 seats. Mainstream religious party Shas won 12 seats. Shas represents a wide range of ethnic and religious groups.

  • The third most successful political party in the 2003 election, civil rights party Shinui, collapsed in 2006 from 15 seats to no seats.

  • Gil, a brand new pensioners’ party, amazed Israel’s political and media establishment by winning 7 seats. Many young people voted for Gil.

  • Other parties which won significant numbers of seats in 2006 also spanned the ideological spectrum. Yisrael Beiteinu, which is on the centre-right, and enjoys a large amount of Russian-Israeli support, won 11 seats. The National Union / NRP, which is religious and right-of-centre, won 9 seats. Meretz, which is doveish and socialist, won 5 seats.

  • Other parties which stood (but failed to win seats) included an Israeli green party, and a party campaigning for the legalisation of cannabis.

  • Israel’s new Foreign Minister is a woman (Tsipi Livni). And for the first time since 1948, Israel’s most powerful political figures have risen to prominence through their roles in civilian life, rather than having emerged via their military accomplishments.

Israeli Arab Members of the Knesset – including the first Christian-Arab MK

  • Three Israeli Arab parties won a combined total of 10 seats: the United Arab List, Balad, and Hadash. The Israeli Arab politicians who lead them are outspoken in their criticism of Israel’s policies.

  • On 17 April, Israel’s first Christian-Arab MK, Nadia Hilou, took up her position as a new Member of Parliament. Hilou, who was formerly a social worker, is a member of Israel’s Labour Party.

  • Israel’s President Moshe Katsav recently acknowledged that Arab citizens in Israel do experience discrimination (Jerusalem Post, 20 February 2006).

Related Beyond Images Briefings

Briefing 87 – Israeli society: resilience, dignity and democracy

Briefing 161 – Ariel Sharon, Kadima and political change