(Reuters) - Israel holds a general election on Tuesday that opinion polls forecast will bring to power right-wing political leaders who have tapped into voters’ security concerns and public support for the Gaza war against Hamas Islamists.
The 120 seats in the single-chamber Knesset are allocated by proportional representation to national party lists, which may secure seats after passing a minimum threshold of winning at least 2 percent of the national vote.
Following are the main parties contending in the election:
KADIMA - Led by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, the ruling, centrist party is running a close second in opinion polls behind the right-wing Likud. Livni, Israel’s chief negotiator with the Palestinians, supports the creation of a Palestinian state as outlined in 1990s interim agreements.
Kadima was founded in 2005 by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon when he led much of Likud into alliance with Labor rebels to promote a security plan to pull out troops from Gaza. When Sharon fell into a coma, current Prime Minister Ehud Olmert led Kadima to victory in a 2006 election but lost support over that year’s Lebanon war. Olmert resigned last September in a corruption scandal. He stayed on as caretaker prime minister after Livni failed to put together a coalition government.
LIKUD - Filleted by Sharon, the main party of the right won only 12 of parliament’s 120 seats in 2006. Its leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, wants to shift the focus of peace talks with the Palestinians away from territorial issues that have stymied an agreement and concentrate instead on boosting their economy. He has also pledged to end Hamas’s rule over the Gaza Strip. Likud backs a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians but says their future state must be demilitarized and have limited powers. Members rebuff charges they oppose negotiated peace by noting it was Likud leader Menachem Begin who signed a 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, Israel’s first with an Arab nation.
Labor - Having ruled for the first half of Israel’s 60-year history, Labor then spearheaded interim peace accords with the Palestinians in the 1990s under Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. The center-left party is now led by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who served as prime minister from 1999 to 2001. During that period he pulled Israeli troops out of south Lebanon and held peace talks with the Palestinians and Syria, but failed to clinch deals. His handling of the Gaza war won praise in Israel but has not boosted his party in the opinion polls.
YISRAEL BEITEINU - Avigdor Lieberman’s gravelly, Russian-accented Hebrew has been music to the ears of many of the million Israelis who came from the former Soviet Union since the 1980s. Opinion polls show his policies toward Arabs, which some critics have dubbed racist, have won growing support among the general electorate. Lieberman says land where many of Israel’s 1.5 million Arabs live should be “swapped” for West Bank Jewish settlements in a peace deal with the Palestinians. Now controlling 11 seats, the former aide to Netanyahu founded Our Home is Israel in 1999 (when Moscow’s ruling party was called Our Home is Russia).
SHAS - A fixture in successive governments, the Union of Sephardic Torah Observers, or Shas, effectively triggered the election by refusing to back Livni in coalition talks. Shas’s mostly poor supporters are drawn from the fast growing community of religious Jews of Middle Eastern origin whose spiritual leader is the 88-year-old, Iraqi-born rabbi Ovadia Yosef. The party has 12 parliamentary seats.
OTHER PARTIES - Nearly a third of parliamentary seats are held by minor parties. MERETZ (5 seats) is a left-wing party not in the outgoing coalition. Along with a group of parties, HADASH, UNITED ARAB LIST and BALAD, representing Israel’s Arab citizens and which together have 10 seats, Meretz supports making concessions for peace. UNITED TORAH JUDAISM (6 seats) represents ultra-Orthodox Jews of Ashkenazi, or European, background. NATIONAL UNION/NRP (9), is an ultra-right religious coalition that demands an end to peace talks. The PENSIONERS have 7 seats and speak out for Israel’s older population.