(Reuters) - Israeli political leaders are back on the campaign trail for a February 10 election following the end of the Gaza war and opinion polls show Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud part is still in the lead.
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 next month’s parliamentary elections:
KADIMA - Founded in 2005 by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon when he led much of Likud into alliance with Labor rebels to promote a security plan to pull troops from Gaza. When Sharon fell into a coma, current Prime Minister Ehud Olmert led Kadima to a 29-seat triumph in 2006 but lost support over that year’s Lebanon war. A graft scandal led to Olmert’s resignation last September. He was replaced as Kadima leader by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, but stayed on as caretaker prime minister after she failed to form a new governing coalition.
LIKUD - Filleted by Sharon, the main party of the right crashed to 12 seats in 2006. Its leader is Benjamin Netanyahu, who as finance minister and prime minister in the 1990s claimed credit for a hi-tech-led boom that followed his easing of state economic control. Netanyahu says he will pursue peace talks that Olmert began with the Palestinians but will focus on shoring up their economy rather than on statehood issues. He also has pledged not to build new Jewish settlements, but said he would expand existing ones.
Labor - Having ruled for the first half of Israel’s 60-year history, driving expansion under leaders like David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir, Labor then forged land-for-peace accords with the Palestinians in the 1990s under Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. Again led by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, a former prime minister, center-left Labor has received a popularity boost in opinion polls over his handling of the Gaza war. But it is still trailing Likud and Kadima in the surveys.
SHAS - Whoever becomes prime minister will probably have the Union of Sephardic Torah Observers in the cabinet. A fixture in successive governments, the ultra-Orthodox Shas party draws its supporters from among the fast-growing community of religious Jews of Middle Eastern origin whose spiritual leader is the 88-year-old, Iraqi-born rabbi Ovadia Yosef.
YISRAEL BEITEINU - Avigdor Lieberman’s Russian-accented, gravel-strained Hebrew has been music to the ears of many of the million Israelis who came from the former Soviet Union since the 1980s. Now controlling 11 of parliament’s 120 seats, the former aide to Netanyahu founded Our Home is Israel in 1999. He says Israel’s 1.5 million Arabs and some of their land should be “swapped” for West Bank Jewish settlements.
OTHER PARTIES - Nearly a third of parliamentary seats is held by minor parties. MERETZ (5 seats) is 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. Balad and United Arabs were barred this month from running due to complaints about their lack ofsupport for the Jewish state but that ruling was overturned in court. 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. Finally, the PENSIONERS have 7 seats and speak out for Israel’s growing older population.