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Palestinian Statehood

Once a hot-button topic supported by the extreme Left, the notion of a Palestinian state has gradually gained acceptance since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. This acceptance culminated in Ehud Olmert's clear enunciation of a Palestinian State during the Annapolis Peace Conference's signed statement. Palestinian statehood appears further away as a result of the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007, splitting the Palestinian Authority into two.

The idea of creating a Palestinian state alongside Israel is not new. The idea - basically that of partitioning western British Mandatory Palestine into an Arab and Jewish State - was first proposed in 1937 by the Peel Commission. On November 29, 1947 the UN voted to accept a similar partition plan to replace British colonialist rule of the area. Representatives of the Jewish population in Mandatory Palestine accepted the partition, paving the way for Israel's establishment. The Arabs rejected the plan, and launched a failed bid to "unify" Palestine by crushing the fledging Jewish State in a military campaign that started as the Brits set sail for England on May 14, 1948.

Nevertheless, from 1948 - 1967 most of the land set aside by the UN partition plan for an Arab state was ruled by Jordan (Judea, Samaria - or the "West Bank" of the Jordan River) and Egypt (Gaza Strip). These countries never attempted to honor the UN plan by initiating Palestinian sovereignty in the areas. Instead they incorporated them into their respective countries.

When, in 1967, Israel captured these areas from the Jordan and Egypt in a defensive war, Israelis believed they would be able to negotiate a settlement with the Arab countries in exchange for returning the captured areas. This was further confirmed by United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, which allowed for Israel to retain part of the land conquered in that war. The resolution also set in motion the concept of "land for peace".

However, the Arab response to the crushing defeat and UN resolution was the infamous "Three No's" of the Khartoum Conference: "No peace with Israel; No negotiations with Israel; No recognition of Israel."

After fighting existential wars twice within 19 years, Israelis understood that any future peace agreements with the Arab states would have to take into consideration the Jewish State's security needs. Those needs - which have been validated over the past years of violence - call for changes to the 1949 armistice line (the so-called "green line"), which left Israel particularly vulnerable to attack and destruction.

Khartoum's outright rejection of Israeli peace overtures in the aftermath of the Six-Day War, coupled with Israeli security needs and political aspirations led to the establishment of Israeli communities in the captured territory by both right and left wing governments. Today, these communities are alternatively viewed as obstacles to the creation of a Palestinian State, bargaining "chips" on the way to the creation of such a state or physical barriers to further attempts at Israel's destruction.

The 1993 Oslo Accords jolted Israeli society by recognizing the Palestine Liberation Organization as the sole, legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and granting this organization the land and military wherewithal to implement self-rule. In practice, it also re-introduced the idea of "partition" as Oslo's architects increasingly spoke of Palestinian statehood as the ultimate outcome of the process.

Ironically, in response to Ehud Barak's offer of a Palestinian state at the 2000 Camp David negotiations, Yasser Arafat launched a war of terror against Israel that undermined much, if not all, of Oslo's potential.

In the midst of Arafat's terror war, Ariel Sharon rose to power on the strength of his security background with the promise of ending terror with a firm hand. Under Sharon's leadership, Israel disproved the long-held belief that there 'was no military solution to terror' and the IDF was largely successful in reducing terror to a limited level.

Despite his success in fighting terror Sharon publicly proclaimed that there was no partner for peace and set out on a path of unilateralism. His goal was to consolidate Israeli lines and improve Israel's demographics by removing Israeli communities from hard to protect areas - a policy known as Disengagement that was implemented in August 2005.

However, terrorism and violence did not stop from the areas that Israel left. In fact, since the Disengagement, over 4,000 rockets have been launched from the Gaza Strip into Israeli communities in the South.

Palestinian statehood appeared even further away when Hamas won the legislative elections in the Palestinian Authority in 2006. Hamas, considered a terrorist organization by the U.S., most of Europe and Israel, is dedicated to Israel's destruction and refuses to recognize any previous agreements between Israel and the Palestinians.

In 2007, Hamas staged a military coup in Gaza and pushed out Fatah, the more moderate party, and the party of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Hamas then took full control of the Gaza Strip while Fatah tentatively control the Palestinians in the West Bank. This split the Palestinian Authority into two and made the introduction of a Palestinian state seem more remote.

At the end of 2008, Hamas refused to renew a six month truce with Israel and once again launched its deadly rockets into Israel. Israel was left with no choice but to launch 'Operation Cast Lead' which sought to weaken the power of Hamas to attack Israel.

Political Parties and Palestinian Statehood

Labor, Kadima and left of center parties are proponents of the establishment of a Palestinian state. The reasoning is two-fold: 1) the character of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state is jeopardized by ruling over a large numbers of Palestinians and, 2) a Palestinian state would ideally signal the end of the Arab-Israeli conflict, leading to a comprehensive regional peace. Although the logic is impeccable, this concept has been battered in recent years since progress towards reconciliation paradoxically ushered in an era of unprecedented violence and terror.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the Kadima party have continued to carry the banner of peace negotiations coupled with the stated pledge to abide by Israel's commitment as outlined in the Road Map peace plan. Labor have supported the Kadima party as the senior partner in its coalition and supported Olmert's peace gestures.

The Likud party itself is split on the idea of a Palestinian state. Much of the Likud leadership has come to the conclusion that a Palestinian state will exist in the future, but that the borders of such a state have yet to be decided. On the other hand, the central committee of the Likud formally adopted a platform rejecting an independent Palestinian state between Israel and Jordan. This is also expressed by many of the new Likud members who are implacably against the concept of a Palestinian state and the relinquishment of more territory.

From their vantage point, an independent Palestinian state would leave Israel with indefensible borders. Vulnerable borders - coupled with the current Palestinian leadership's propensity for violent confrontation and capability as a sovereign power to negotiate military pacts with neighboring belligerents - would ultimately invite increased terror attacks and lead to war. In such a war Israel would not have the strategic depth necessary to counter military drives into its most densely populated urban areas. These and other security factors led the Likud central committee - and conservative parties - to reject the idea of a Palestinian state. They also point to the retreats from Lebanon and Gaza, and the subsequent attacks which emanated from these territories, as proof that Israel can not afford to further retreat from territory.

At this point, all parties to the right of Likud reject the idea of a Palestinian state based on the security rationale mentioned above as well as religious/ideological grounds - primarily that the Jewish People - forcibly exiled from their ancient land - never forfeited their right to return and settle in the Land of Israel.

However, Yisrael Beytenu conceived of a plan whereby if a Palestinian state were to emerge then there would be a population and territory swap ensuring that Israel retains an overwhelming demographic advantage, thus ensuring a Jewish and democratic state.

It is important to note that all Israeli political parities - except the Arab factions - reject the idea of a Palestinian "right of return" to Israel.

Even Meretz, representing the extreme left in Israeli politics, believes this policy would bring about the destruction of the Jewish State as it upsets the demographic balance of the country. Labor and some left-wing parties will, however, consider a "symbolic" right of return by a small number of Palestinians under Israel's family unification program. Read more about the Palestinian refugee issue here.

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The Peace Process

The Peace Process - Achieving peace with neighboring states has been as goal of Israel since its inception as witnessed by Israel's Declaration of Independence that reads: "We extend our hand to all neighboring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighborliness, and appeal to them to establish bonds of cooperation and mutual help with the sovereign Jewish people settled in its own land. The State of Israel is prepared to do its share in a common effort for the advancement of the entire Middle East."

However the process of achieving "good neighborliness" has not been easy. Only after vicious and painful wars in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973 did Egypt sue for peace. Syria, under father Hafez Assad and son Bashar, has failed to show a willingness to seriously address Israeli security concerns. Instead that state actively agitates by assisting Iranian backed emissaries from Lebanon to attack Israel's northern border. The Oslo process was supposed to pay a "peace dividend" of Arab countries normalizing relations with Israel. Only one, Jordan, fully took advantage of the opportunity before Oslo disintegrated.

Despite limited success, making peace and the managing the peace process are the focus of most campaign rhetoric on both sides of the political spectrum. The following are key milestones in the peace process, each of which have left legacies that reverberate in the current election campaign.

November 1977 - Egyptian President Anwar Sadat Visits Israel

This unimaginable act - an Arab head of state visiting Israel and addressing the Knesset - paved the way for the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement signed on March 26, 1979 between Sadat and Likud Prime Minister Menachem Begin. The agreement stipulated that the "stat e of war between the Parties will be terminated and peace will be established between them" and "Israel will withdraw all its armed forces and civilians from the Sinai," captured from Egypt in the 1967 Six-Day War.

As a result, Begin instructed Defense Minister Ariel Sharon to evacuate civilians and dismantle the Israeli communities established in the Sinai during Israel's rule. Neither Begin nor Sharon wanted Israel's willingness to return the entire Sinai Peninsula and uproot settlements there to become a precedent for future peace agreements. Yet, undoubtedly this enactment of "land for peace" influenced the expectations of all other parties - from Syria to the Palestinians.

October 1991 - The Madrid Peace Conference

Following George Bush Sr.'s Gulf War, a peace conference in Madrid inaugurated direct peace talks between Israel and her immediate Arab neighbors for the first time in history. The conference spawned bilateral negotiations between Israel and Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinians, as well as multilateral talks on key regional issues. While the talks with the three Arab states were aimed at achieving peace treaties, the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians were based on a two-stage formula: 5-year interim self-government arrangements, to be followed by negotiations on the permanent status issues. To date, these negotiations have resulted in a peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, and a series of interim agreements with the Palestinians.

September 1993 - Israel - PLO Mutual Recognition

Like Sadat's visit, Israel - PLO mutual recognition was an unimaginable act that jolted Israel and sent shockwaves throughout the world. Following intense behind-the-scenes contacts between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in Oslo, an agreement was achieved between Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat. On September 9, 1993, Chairman Arafat sent a letter to Prime Minister Rabin, in which he stated unequivocally that the PLO:

  • Recognizes the right of Israel to exist in peace and security;
  • Accepts UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338;
  • Commits itself to a peaceful resolution of the conflict;
  • Renounces the use of terrorism and other acts of violence;
  • Assumes responsibility over all PLO elements o ensure their compliance, prevent violations, and discipline violators;
  • Affirms that those articles of the PLO Covenant which deny Israel's right to exist are now inoperative and no longer valid;
  • Undertakes to submit to the Palestinian National Council for formal approval the necessary changes to the Covenant.

As it is well known, the Oslo Accords, as the Israeli-Palestinian interim agreements are known, have failed to deliver peace. Although explanations abound, from the Israeli perspective, the primary reasons cited for its collapse are the Palestinian insistence on a "right of return" coupled with intensification of Palestinian terror throughout the entire process. Both are viewed as fundamental breeches of the agreement inasmuch as they challenge Israel's existence and security, respectively.

October 1994 - Peace Treaty Between Jordan and Israel

For a change, this peace agreement came as no real surprise. Jordan and Israel had discreet ties for years after the Six-Day War. Aside from sharing a long border, Israel and Jordan both wanted to afford the Palestinian population in both countries relative freedom of movement. Even though technically at war, Israel and Jordan maintained an "open bridges" policy allowing people and goods across the border. Although this peace agreement is viewed as an achievement of the Madrid framework, it was implemented only after the Oslo Accords were operable. Despite some ups and downs in the last twelve years, the peace between Israel and Jordan has proven to be a positive development for both countries. While anti-Israel sentiment still exists in Jordanian society, business ties and government cooperation have generally remained strong.

April 2003 - The Road Map to Peace

The performance based, Road Map, sponsored by the Quartet (the US, the UN, the EU and Russia) was hailed as the last step that would lead to peace between Israel and the Arabs by 2005-clearly a time-line that has not been met. The basic premise is that a two-state solution to the conflict will only be achieved through an end to violence, when the Palestinian people have a leadership acting decisively against terror and willing and able to build a practicing democracy based on tolerance and liberty, and through Israel's readiness to do what is necessary for a democratic Palestinian state to be established, and a clear, unambiguous acceptance by both parties of the goal of a negotiated settlement as described in the plan. The three phases of the plan are:

  1. Fighting Terrorism
  2. Palestinian State with Provisional Borders
  3. International Conference with negotiations of permanent status issues

However, as a performance-based plan, progress is dependent upon the good faith efforts of the parties, and their compliance with each of the obligations outlined in the plan. Since the Palestinian Authority never moved to fight the terrorists within its population, the plan never moved forward. When Israel introduced the Disengagement plan back in December of 2003, the Road Map was basically suspended until after Disengagement's implementation in August 2005. By September 2005, there was renewed talk of resuming progress towards the goals of the Road Map. However, in light of the Hamas victory in the Palestinian elections, there is no consensus in Israel or among the parties of the Quartet on how to move forward.

Annapolis Peace Conference

The Annapolis Conference was a Middle East peace conference held on November 27, 2007, at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, United States. The conference marked the first time a two-state solution was articulated as the mutually agreed-upon outline for addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The conference ended with the issuing of a joint statement from all parties, signed by Ehud Olmert on behalf of Israel, Mahmoud Abbas on behalf of the Palestinian Authority and George W. Bush on behalf of the U.S. The list of attendees included representatives from the Arab League, which was the first time a delegation from the Arab League was present at such a meeting.

Political Parties and the Peace Process

All Israeli political parties are ardent supporters of the peace process - they just differ in how they wish to manage it and how they define 'peace'. Hamas' electoral victory and subsequent assumption of control of the Gaza Strip had sent every political party and leader searching for an answer on how to deal with this reality.

Despite continued presence of violence, Labor, Kadima and left of center parties still maintain the belief that the best path to peace is through negotiations with the PA, bypassing Hamas. To a large degree, these parties remain committed to the Oslo process (or at least a new, modified version of this process) and, like predecessors Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, aim to "fight terror as if there is no peace process and advance the peace process as if there were no terror."

Although Kadima was formed and won the last elections due to their platform of more unilateral disengagements, the leading party realized how this policy untenable and lost major support due to the situation in Gaza. Olmert attempted the difficult feat of balancing continued contacts with PA President Mahmud Abbas while refusing to deal with Hamas. Olmert was supported in this by Labor, Shas and the Pensioners Party. Kadima's stated position vis a vis the peace process is the path of negotiations in line with the demands of the Road Map peace plan and the Annapolis Agreement.

Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu is currently campaigning on an economic peace plan. This plan seeks to reinvigorate the Palestinian economy which in turn, it is hoped, will reenergize the Palestinians quest for peace. As a requirement for continuing the peace process, Likud demands a "reformed" Palestinian leadership, including significant moves towards freedom and democracy as key to a renewed peace process and a leadership not stained by terrorism.

Parties to the political right of Likud, including the Jewish Home and the National Union, all share a common opposition to any further territorial compromise. Yisrael Beytenu has released a plan for territory and population exchange, while not directly supporting a Palestinian state. Shas remained part of Olmert's government during most of its tenure, while declaring that it would leave if it felt that Jerusalem's division was being discussed.

Iran

As a documented state sponsor of terrorism for years, Iran has long-been on the radar of the Israeli security services and government officials as a threat to the security of the State. However, the election of conservative President Mahmud Ahmadinejad in August of 2005 and Iran's continued insistence on pursuing nuclear capabilities has brought Iran to the fore of Israeli and international consciousness as an existential threat to Israel's existence and world peace. These elections more than ever before will elect the government that will have to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat as most analysts agree that Iran is very close to acquiring nuclear weapons that can reach Israel and beyond.

As a documented state sponsor of terrorism for years, Iran has long-been on the radar of the Israeli security services and government officials as a threat to the security of the State. However, the election of conservative President Mahmud Ahmadinejad in August of 2005 and Iran's continued insistence on pursuing nuclear capabilities has brought Iran to the fore of Israeli and international consciousness as an existential threat to Israel's existence and world peace. These elections more than ever before will elect the government that will have to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat as most analysts agree that Iran is very close to acquiring nuclear weapons that can reach Israel and beyond.

Ahmadinejad's virulent anti-Semitism and continued public statements denying the Holocaust and calling for Israel 'to be wiped off the Earth' are cause for concern by themselves.

However, when coupled with the continued pursuit of nuclear weapons, Iran has shot to the top of Israeli security concerns. In addition, with Tehran aiding and abetting both Hamas and Hizbullah the fear of non-conventional weapons falling into the hands of terrorists in Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza is a real fear among the Israel's security officials.

To date, Israel has been satisfied to allow international diplomacy led by the US, Britain, Germany, France at the UN. Although a series of sanctions have been imposed on Iran both Russia and China have threatened to use their veto rights to stop any harsher sanctions from taking effect. It is clear that the diplomatic path may not bear fruit, forcing the world to forcefully address the issue through military actions.

Israel would obviously prefer to allow the US, NATO or the UN deal directly with this issue, but reports are that the IDF has been preparing plans if the world fails to deal with what Israeli security views as an existential threat to Israel security and future existence. Not surprisingly, all Israeli parties (save the Arab parties which have been fairly quiet on the subject) are adamant that Iran not be allowed to take the final necessary steps towards nuclear weaponry. Israel diplomats are actively lobbying world leaders to deal strongly and with real determination to ensure that the Iranian threat does not come to fruition.

Syria

Syria is rife with internal and external problems which are cause for concern for Israel's security establishment. In the wake of the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister and business leader, Rafiq al-Hariri , and the implication that Syria was behind the attack, Syria was forced to withdraw its forces from Lebanon ending its decades long de facto control of the country. Syrian President President Bashar el-Assad has been under immense international pressure to reform the Syrian system and end Syrian sponsored terrorism. During the last government, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert conducted negotiations with Syria through Turkey as an interlocutor.

Syria is rife with internal and external problems which are cause for concern for Israel's security establishment. In the wake of the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister and business leader, Rafiq al-Hariri , and the implication that Syria was behind the attack, Syria was forced to withdraw its forces from Lebanon ending its decades long de facto control of the country. Syrian President President Bashar el-Assad has been under immense international pressure to reform the Syrian system and end Syrian sponsored terrorism. During the last government, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert conducted negotiations with Syria through Turkey as an interlocutor.

The world had high hopes for Bashar Assad when he came to power falling the death of his father in June 2000, however, he has not been able to escape the long shadow of his legendary father and is perceived as a weak leader with no internal backing. He has been under constant pressure since assuming the Presidency. With the fall of Iraq, Libya's public foregoing of its weapons of mass destruction program, US concerns of Syria supporting and condoning terrorist attacks in Iraq, the Hariri assassination and subsequent Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon there is a concern that Assad will resort to attacking Israel through Syrian backed terrorist allies (Hizballah in Lebanon and various Palestinian terror groups based in Damascus) in order to build internal support for his regime and turn the spotlight away from his perceived shortcomings.

Syria has also signed many agreements with Iran and has been seen as a close ally of the Islamic Republic. However, many nations, including Israel, are very suspicious of this relationship.

Recently, Assad needed to return to international legitimacy and knew that being perceived as conducting negotiations with Israel was a great opportunity. Since opening negotiations with Israel and seeking rapprochement with political adversaries in Lebanon, Syria has come in from the cold. A long list of international dignitaries has been visiting Assad in Damascus which provides him and his regime with a badly needed source of legitimacy.

In 2007, the Israel Air Force blew up a suspected Syrian nuclear bomb plant which had been built largely with North Korean help.

The uncertain future of the current Syrian regime, its continued support of terrorism around the region, its close relationship with Iran and its hunt for nuclear weapons are cause for great concern for Israel political and security leaders. The situation will need constant attention and regardless of who wins the upcoming elections, Syria will either continue to be near the top of Israeli security concerns or become the forefront of Israel's search for peace.

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Jerusalem

Jerusalem's Heart - The Dome of the Rock sits atop the site of the first and second Jewish Temples. The "Western Wall" is the western retaining wall of King Herod's enormous Temple Mount plaza.

In the 1967 Six Day War, Jerusalem was captured after the Jordanians entered the war on the side of Egypt and Syria. Jerusalem's reunification was an epic event in Israeli history and - for the first time since 1948 - Jews were allowed access to their holiest site, the Western Wall. Israel moved to unify the city under one municipality while safeguarding the religious rights and shrines of all denominations. In addition, Israel cleared and reconstructed much of the historic Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City and built new neighborhoods throughout the unified city.

Political Parties and Jerusalem

Until Ehud Barak's surprising offer in the summer of 2000 to effectively divide Jerusalem, Israeli parties (except the Arab factions) talked of an undivided Jerusalem as the "eternal capital of Israel." Barak's move broke the taboo surrounding the city's division allowing more open and practical discussions about its future.

Today, Labor and Kadima have both accepted some sort of division of Jerusalem. Although due to coalition sensitivities Kadima did not openly negotiate the status of Jerusalem, it is assumed that the party is willing to concede some of the Arab neighborhoods.  Any division may be more reflective of municipal responsibilities rather than a physical border, but it is clear that the issue remains open for debate should negotiations for a permanent peace agreement be undertaken.

Historically, Labor, Kadima and the Left have been willing to consider re-dividing Jerusalem under the auspices of a comprehensive peace deal while the Likud and other conservative parties object to the division of Jerusalem. The main argument against dividing the capital is that only under Israeli rule has the freedom of religion been respected for all - Jews, Christians and Moslems. These parties cite the desecration of Joseph's Tomb in 2000, the ongoing unauthorized and archeologically-catastrophic construction programs carried out under the auspices of the Moslem Waqf under the Temple Mount and the seizure of the Church of Nativity in May 2002 by fleeing Palestinian terrorists as evidence of what to expect when religious shrines are entrusted to the current Palestinian leadership.

Due to recent attacks in Israel by Arab Jerusalem residents, the debate surrounding Jerusalem's Arabs has further polarized the debate. Those on the Left see this as further proof of a need for division, while the Right cites this as proof of Israel's need to retain control of extreme elements within the city.

Religious parties tend to agree with the Likud analysis and argue additionally that the unique spiritual and historic connection between Jews and Jerusalem is reason enough to maintain sovereignty over the city and its myriad of religious shrines.

Jerusalem has also become a hot topic because of the fact that many feel the capital is falling into disrepair. Many of Jerusalem's secular and religious residents are leaving Jerusalem because of what is perceived as creeping ultra-Orthodox elements in the city, high rental prices and a lack of jobs.

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Israeli Communities in the Territories

Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria-'the Settlements' - A hot button issue since 1967, the debate surrounding the settlements after the Disengagement has taken on a very different tone. For thirty years, the settlements were considered sacrosanct by many and it was thought that all the settlements would be a permanent presence on the hills of Judea and Samaria. After the Disengagement and the removal of 25 settlements in Gaza and Northern Samaria, it is clear that the settlements are not as permanent as most previously believed.

In general, there are two types of communities - security and ideological. Security related communities are those that have been created in areas of strategic defense importance to Israel. Examples include communities in the Jordan Valley, along the Jordan River. These communities are traditionally seen as an obstacle to invading Arab armies from the East. Other security settlements are located on high peaks of the Judea and Samaria - places from which hostile forces could control or seriously disrupt life in Israel's major population centers.

Ideological communities are those in locations where the Jewish People have a historic or spiritual affinity. Examples include Hebron, communities in the area of Shechem and - according to the US State Department - neighborhoods of Jerusalem, including the Jewish Quarter of the Old City.

Political Parties and the Settlements

Although not explicitly stated, the difference between the three main parties is mainly about how much territory would be handed over to the Palestinians in any future permanent agreement. Labor and Kadima will look to retain the three major settlement blocks and compensate the Palestinians with land in the Negev, south of the West Bank.

Even Likud, formerly at the forefront of the right's ideology, has accepted that some settlements will need to be removed, though the party is seeking to retain more land, especially along the security sensitive Jordan Valley. Only the right-wing Jewish Home and National Union (among others) parties still maintain absolute opposition to further territorial withdrawal.

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Democracy and Diversity in Israel

When the term 'democracy' comes to mind most people immediately think of voting and free elections. While elections are at the fore in any discussion of democracy, there are other issues that are just as crucial. One of these issues is minority rights. The most diverse countries with the highest degrees of minority rights in the world are all democracies. In the modern world, a democracy is judged on the rights of its minority population(s).

Israel, as the only true democracy in the Middle East, is at the forefront of minority rights. Israel's minorities, Muslims and Christians, Druze and Circassians and many others are all afforded more and stronger protections than their co-religionists in any other country in the region. Israel's Supreme Court regularly rules on the sides of Israel's minorities in cases of governmental responsibility, religious freedom and protection and many other cases.

There are three major issues where Israel stands proud in its dealings with minority rights:

  1. Arab Rights
  2. Religious Rights
  3. Women's Rights

Arab Rights

Arab's make-up approximately 15% of Israel's population (the majority are Muslims, but there are sizable Christian and Druze populations as well). While Israel is regularly castigated by the world which accuses her of mistreating its Arab population, the reality of the situation is quite different.

Arabs, like all citizens of Israel, have complete freedom of religion, freedom of press, equal voting rights, etc. and Arabic is an official state language alongside Hebrew. There is currently an Arab Supreme Court justice, a government minister, diplomats and many members of Knesset who represent Arab parties as well as Kadima, Labor, Likud, Meretz and others. While Arabs are officially exempt from mandatory service in the IDF (a concession which allows Israeli Arabs to avoid the potential of fighting there brethren in neighboring countries) there are many Druze and Bedouin who proudly serve in the IDF and police forces, many opting to make the military a career eventually becoming officers.

Religious Rights

From the earliest days of the State, as outlined in the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, Israel has guaranteed religious freedom for all. In fact, religious minorities in Israel are afforded religious rights far beyond what many would encounter if they lived in countries where their brethren are the majority. Each officially recognized religious community (there are five officially recognized religions in Israel-Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Druze and Baha'i-as well as eleven denominations within Christianity) is overseen by their own religious councils, with officially recognized clergy, State recognition of their Sabbath and holidays and the right to establish their own, State-funded religiously affiliated schools. Even religions that are not officially recognized are granted full religious expression in Israel.

In addition to the original clause in the Declaration ensuring freedom for all, the Knesset has since adopted the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty. This law, which refers to Israel as a Jewish and democratic State, concretizes in law the fundamental rights of every individual.

In addition to these legal documents, the Israeli court system has consistently ruled in favor of religious freedom for all of her citizens. In ensuring religious freedom, the courts have relied upon basic democratic principles as well as international law like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant of Political and Civil Rights. In one prominent case Justice Moshe Landau wrote, 'the freedom of conscience and worship is one of the individual's liberties assured in every enlightened democratic regime'.

Women's Rights

Just like the Arab minority and religious practitioners of all stripes, women are afforded full and equal rights in Israeli society. In 1969 Golda Meir (who was also an American immigrant) became only the third woman to be head of state in the world when she became Prime Minister of the State of Israel. Previously she had served as Ambassador to the Soviet Union and as Foreign Minister. Today, women serve in the Knesset, as Government ministers and as Supreme Court Justices; currently, Tzipi Livni serves as Acting Prime minister and will become the next prime minister if Kadima wins the elections. Dalia Itzik served as Speaker and Acting President during the last government. In addition, more and more women serve in elite army units and, in the last few years, have been accepted to the pilot's course widely regarded as the most elite course in the IDF.

The ratio of female students enrolled in institutions of higher learning (55.9%) ranks Israel seventh in the Western world with regard to the percentage of women studying in higher education.

The status of women in Israel is similar to that of women in America with similar percentages of women in Congress and the Knesset and similar cabinet opportunities. While Israeli women trail some of their Western European counterparts in some measures of advancement, when compared with other countries in the region (Jordan, Egypt, Syria, etc), Israeli women have opportunities of which their neighbors can only dream. Israeli Arab women are far beyond their brethren in neighboring countries and vociferously reject the notion of being included as citizens of a future Palestinian state with the full knowledge that their lives as they have come to enjoy could not be replicated living under an Arab led government.

There will be a record number of women vying for seats in these elections.

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Demographic Issues

Demographic issues can be defined as those that affect (or have the potential to affect) the character of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Within this category are three major issues - Aliyah (Jewish immigration) to Israel; rights of the minority citizens of Israel; and the question of the Palestinians. The 'Demographic Question' has played a large role in the public discourse over the past number of years and was used as one of the supporting arguments for the Disengagement and for future withdrawals. Many proponents argue that Israel must remove itself from areas heavily populated by Arabs to ensure the continued Jewish and democratic nature of Israeli society.

As a fundamental tenet of the Jewish State, most political parties are ardent supporters of Aliyah. The last few years have seen the largest number of North American olim to Israel, a positive trend that is likely to continue with the help of Nefesh b'Nefesh and other pro-Aliyah groups.

Some of the religious parties would like to see Israel's Law of Return amended to prevent the influx of non-Jewish immigrants who take advantage of the legislation's loose interpretation of "who is a Jew." These parties argue that many immigrants are simply escaping from a bad situation to enjoy Israel's relatively good standard of living. By allowing the establishment of a large non-Jewish immigrant population, the parties claim, Israel is inadvertently fueling the demise of its own Jewish character as expressed by holiday observances, traditions and culture. In addition, the non-Jewish immigrant population poses challenges to religious councils that oversee lifecycle events such as birth, marriage, death and burial.

Although only 18% of Israel's population, minorities have played a pivotal role in past Israeli elections. The large Arab Israeli population has at three Arab parties vying for their mandates. In addition, major left-wing parties such as Labor and Meretz also fight for the "Arab" vote. Minority relations have been strained as a result of Israel's recent wars. The Arab population deeply empathizes with the Palestinians, and some even with Hizbullah. Unfortunately, there have been instances in which Israeli Arabs have carried out against civilian targets, most notably the recent shootings in a Jerusalem yeshiva and the tractor rampages. The death of 13 Israeli Arabs during riots following the outbreak of the Intifada in 2000 has also negatively impacted the Arab Israelis' relationship with the State. Israel affords full rights to minority citizens and they enjoy the same rights as the Jewish citizenry.

When Azmi Bishara of the Balad Party, and former prime ministerial candidate, was suspected of assisting Hizbullah during the war in 2006, he left Israel. Although he still retains all of his pension and other payments, many Jewish Israelis have seen this as an example of duplicity within certain sections of the Arab Israeli community.

In the absence of a peace agreement, many are concerned that the Palestinian population may grow to pose a demographic threat to Israel's character as a Jewish State. Indeed, the primary impetus for parties on the far Left, such as Meretz, in pushing for a Palestinian state is to safeguard Israel's Jewish and democratic nature. Yisrael Beytenu, a right wing party, has placed the demographic issue at the forefront of its platform and has advocated population and territory exchange to deal with the demographic issue without anyone else having to be removed from their homes.

If Israel were forced to rule the Palestinians for coming decades, many parties fear that Israel will have to forfeit either its Jewish character or democratic system of government - neither an attractive option.

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Economy & Social Welfare

Over the past number of years, Labor, Kadima and Likud-led governments have practiced a moderate economic policy, gradually moving towards a free market economy. Privatization of state-owned businesses was common the 1990's and continued under recent governments. Like many other places in the world, the economy is a hot topic during current election campaigns.

The agents driving the changes in Israel's economy were the meltdown of old socialist methodology and institutions, high immigration rates, rapid globalization and the spread of technology. Pragmatic as ever, most Israelis aren't bothered by the incongruity of kibbutz-initiated deals which turn pioneer-plowed fields into shopping malls replete with massive parking lots.

The three large parties appear to be seeking a continuance of the policies which have seen Israel fare far better than many other Western nations since the recent economic meltdown.

However, the meltdown has still affected Israel and has led to increased unemployment. Some of the basket of social services typically provided by the government was cut back as part of Bibi Netanyahu's economic programs enacted during his term as Finance minister.

Parties like Shas are fighting to repair the welfare system and return some of the benefits, like those to large families, to the poorer sectors of society.

Although security issues are still expected to be the most important issue in the elections, largely due to the war against Hamas, the economy is playing havoc with people's livelihoods and is likely to feature prominently.

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Religion & State

In Israel, religion and state are intertwined. Due to the Jewish nature of the state, the official day of rest day Saturday (Shabbat) and national holidays are those of the Jewish calendar. In accordance with Jewish tradition, the law prohibits work on the Sabbath and Jewish festivals. However, political activists, shop owners and mall proprietors have challenged the laws by opening on the Jewish Sabbath. In some cases the government has issued fines, but this has not prevented an increasing number of leisure businesses from opening.

Religious pluralism within Judaism is another issue affecting Israeli society. The orthodox political parties, representing a traditional Jewish perspective, hold significant political power and are charged by small minorities of reform and conservative Jewish movements of stifling alternative expressions of Judaism. The claim is correct inasmuch as the religious establishment does not provide funds for such groups, claiming they have immeasurably damaged Judaism by careless tinkering.

At the same time, Jews can practice (or not) any form of Judaism they please with little or no interference from religious authorities. The major exception is lifecycle events such as marriage and burial, which are regulated by religious authorities. Some Israelis marry abroad - Cyprus is a popular destination - as a protest. However, Kadima and some other parties have announced the intention of introducing legislation that would legalize civil marriage and burial within Israel, a move that would dramatically alter the current religious status quo in Israel.

Some of the religious leaders and some political parties have proposed an alternative solution which would establish "civil unions". These unions would not be considered marriage according to Jewish tradition, but the legal ramifications for those who choose this path would be the same as in marriage.

While the perceived lack of pluralism vexes Western Jewish supporters of Israel, army exemptions for full-time religious scholars irritates a large percentage of Israelis, including many devoutly religious citizens. The exemptions - introduced by Israel's founder David Ben-Gurion - have lasted 57 years. At first, the exemption was meant to placate the ultra-religious community while simultaneously strengthening Jewish learning decimated by the Nazi Holocaust. Since then, no government has dared risk losing the critical support of the ultra-orthodox (haredi) parties by forcing a change in the status quo.

Therefore thousands of able-bodied men do not serve the compulsory three years in the Israel Defense Forces. Until recently, exemption from the army was contingent upon full-time study. The result was that even ultra-orthodox men well beyond draft age could not officially join the workforce without being automatically drafted into the IDF - something few would risk. This situation prevented thousands of tax-dollars from entering the economy. Under Netanyahu's financial reforms, the government assistance to large families was halted. This has meant that more and more ultra-Orthodox men and women are entering the workforce for the first time.

Interestingly, these elections will be the first that see the National Religious and the Ultra-Orthodox in disagreement on many issues. Issues like marriage, kashrut and conversion have created major differences between the parties because of recent events.

The way to address these issues - some political parties claim - is to simply separate religion and state. Critics of this plan say it jeopardizes the Jewish character of the state and will only exacerbate the problem, as the religious community will feel under attack. Compromise proposals were issued in the past  paving the way for non-IDF veterans to enter the workforce and the establishment of ultra-orthodox army units that adhere to the strictest measures of Jewish law.

Political Parties and the Religion vs. State Issue

Many Israelis feel that Israel's interrelated religion and state has polarized the society.
They view the army exemptions - and the resulting tax burden - as unfair to the non-haredi population and call for an end to the arrangement. Many parties are calling on national service to be compulsory for all Israelis that do not serve in the army.

In the shadow of the war against Hamas and the looming threat of a nuclear Iran, coupled with concern for more economic issues like unemployment and social services, issues of religion and state have fallen by the wayside on the agenda of many Israelis. Needless to say, the haredi parties disagree with changing the status quo and fight changes in the status quo viewed as politically motivated or insensitive to their needs.

The major political parties - Labor and Likud (and to a lesser extent Kadima as witnessed by its proclamations to introduce civil marriages and burials) - are caught somewhere in the middle. Although all would probably like to see the ultra-orthodox further integrated into Israeli society, they are loath to take on issues such as army exemption directly for fear of souring relations with an important sector of the population and key coalition partners.

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