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Likud Party: History & Overview

The Likud Party (“The Consolidation,” in Hebrew) is a right wing political party in Israel founded by revolutionary leader Menachem Begin and was the first right-leaning party to lead the Israeli government. It is currently headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Likud started out as a group of both left and right-wing parties – including Herut, Liberal Party, Free Center, National List, and Labor Movement for Greater Israel – that united in 1973 just before the elections to the 8th Knesset. The party’s electoral list for the Knesset was drawn up from representatives of the various movements based on an agreed formula.

Chosen to head the party was the veteran leader of Herut and former Etzel commander, Menachem Begin. From its inception, the Likud Party adopted the principles of social equality, a free market economy, and preservation of Jewish tradition and culture, values that were influenced by the views of Ze’ev Jabotinsky.

Likud first came to power in 1977, in what would eventually be referred to as “the Upheaval,” an election that marked the first time since Israel’s independence the Labor Party would not lead the government. The shift in power was a result in part of lingering anger over the failures of Labor’s leadership during the 1973 War and a financial scandal while Yitzhak Rabin was prime minister.

As Prime Minister, Begin negotiated the historic peace agreement with Egypt, ordered the bombing of the atomic reactor in Osirak, Iraq, and launched Operation Peace for Galilee. Under Begin, Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) began to accelerate. His government also introduced the Jerusalem Law, which formalized the status of united Jerusalem as the capital of the Israel.

Begin unexpectedly retired in 1983 and was succeeded by Yitzhak Shamir. As Prime Minister, Shamir took part in the Madrid Peace Conference and managed Israel’s policy of restraint during in the Gulf War. During his term, the the historic, large-scale Jewish immigration from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia (Operation Solomon) occurred.

Benjamin Netanyahu was elected to lead the Likud after Shamir’s retirement in 1993. Three years later, Netanyahu was elected prime minister on a platform opposing the Oslo Accords and promising to bring the country greater security in the wake of an escalation in terrorism. Despite his skepticism of Oslo, he continue negotiations with the Palestinians and signed the Wye River Memorandum in which Israel agreed to additional redeployments of Israeli forces in the West Bank. Netanyahu also strengthened the economy by accelerating the privatization of government companies and reducing the deficit.

Following a vote of no confidence, Netanyahu called for early elections in 1999, which for the second time involved the direct election of the prime minister. Netanyahu was subsequently trounced by Ehud Barak and temporarily retired from politics. He was succeeded by Ariel Sharon as party leader.

Following an escalation of violence, and the failed Camp David negotiations in which many Israeli voters were angered by the perception that Barak was prepared to divide Jerusalem and support the establishment of a Palestinian state, Barak was defeated in the 2001 elections by Sharon. During his term, Sharon led Operation Defensive Shield and ordered the construction of the security fence to help protect Israel from Palestinian terrorism in the West Bank. In 2005, Sharon carried out his Gaza disengagement plan, which caused a schism in the party. Sharon left the Likud shortly thereafter to form the Kadima Party.

After Sharon left, Netanyahu was once again elected leader of Likud and returned the party to power in 2009. In October 2012, Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, announced that their parties would run as a joint ticket in the January 2013 elections. Though they won just 31 seats in the Knesset, Netanyahu succeeded in forming a coalition government that included Yesh Atid, the Jewish Home and Hatnuah. It was the first government in Israel’s history without any religious parties. This allowed Netanyahu to adopt positions that were previously impossible such as a plan to draft yeshiva students.

The compromises related to religious matters Netanyahu entertained during this period largely went out the window when the centrists defected and he once again cobbled together a coalition with the religious parties.

Netanyahu and his wife became embroiled in a number of scandals. A report prepared by State Comptroller Yosef Shapira released on February 17, 2015, documented extravagant spending by the Prime Minister and his wife at their official residence, such as $18,000 spent on takeout food in a single year, despite the fact that they are provided with a personal chef. The Netanyahu’s reportedly also spent $2,120 per month cleaning their beach home, and the cleaning costs at their main residence in Jerusalem doubled between 2009 and 2013 to more than $300,000. Shapira concluded that, “The way in which the budget of the Prime Minister’s residence was managed during the years 2009 until 2012 does not comply with the basic principles of money management, saving and efficiency and is likely to result in a waste of public funds.”

In the week leading up to the elections on March 17, 2015, the Likud was trailing in the polls to the Zionist Union. In a last ditch attempt to attract right-wing voters, Netanyahu stated the day before the election that there was no chance of the establishment of a Palestinian state while he remained Prime Minister contradicting an earlier statement expressing a willingness to accept a two-state solution. He also created a furor on election day when he posted a campaign video stating, “Right-wing rule is in danger. Arab voters are streaming in huge quantities to the polling stations.” He also claimed left-wing groups were providing rides for Arabs to the polling stations. Critics denounced his remarks as racist.

The last-minute appeals paid off by energizing his base and Netanyahu won the election and formed a coalition that again included religious parties. On the positive side, his government enacted the Free Education Law for children aged 3 and up, reformed the cellular network industry, offered free dental treatment for children to the age of 12, provided tax benefits for working parents, and generally maintained a strong economy. In addition, despite ongoing provocations from Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah and Iran in Lebanon and Syria and terrorists in the West Bank, Netanyahu succeeded in defending the country without becoming embroiled in war.

His government also engaged in a number of more controversial activities, including reneging on a compromise for worship at the Western Wall, which angered many American Jews; adopting the “Nation-State” Law, which upset Arab citizens and many others inside and outside of Israel; oversaw the continuing growth of settlements in the disputed territories and offered no peace plan for resolving the conflict with the Palestinians.

Ultimately, however, his government fell because of tensions with the religious parties over the Supreme Court’s order for it to develop a plan to draft yeshiva students. Rather than make a decision, which would have led to the collapse of the government, Netanyahu called for early elections, which were scheduled for April 9, 2019. The Likud won the most seats in that election; however, Netanyahu was unable to form a government and a new election was scheduled for September. To enhance his chances of winning the second election,  Netanyahu decided to merge with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu Party.

The Likud won the most votes, but Benny Gantz’s new Kahol Lavan Party equaled its total of 35 seats in the April 2019 election. Since Netanyahu was viewed as having the best chance to form a coalition, President Reuven Rivlin chose him to try to put together the Knesset majority needed for a government. After seven weeks of negotiations, however, Israelis were stunned when Netanyahu failed to meet the May 29 deadline to form a new government. Following the expiration of the deadline for forming a government, Netanyahu orchestrated the dissolution of the Knesset to force new elections, which were scheduled for September 17, 2019.

In the September 2019 election, the Likud won only 31 seats and finished second to Kahol Lavan; nevertheless, Netanyahu was given the first crack at forming a government because he had a large block of votes from coalition partners than Kahol Lavan. He once again failed to win over enough partners to secure the 61 seats needed to form a government. Gantz was subsequently given a chance to build a coalition. Though both Netanyahu and Gantz explored the possibility of a unity government, they could not agree on a number of issues, including who would serve first as prime minister. Ultimately, Gantz failed to form a government and a third election was scheduled for March 2020.

Sources: Likud Official Website;
Encyclopedia of the Orient;
Lis, Jonathan. “Likud Youth Chair Files Complaint Against Zionist Camp, Meretz,” Haaretz(February 5, 2015);
Beaumont, Peter. “Binyamin Netanyahu faces damning expenses accusations ahead of elections,” The Gaurdian (February 17, 2015);
“New Poll: Netanyahu's Likud Down to 20 Seats,” Haaretz (March 13, 2015);
Lubell, Maayan. “Netanyahu says no Palestinian state as long as he's prime minister,” Reuters (March 16, 2015);
Kershner, Isabel. “Deep Wounds,” New York Times (March 17, 2015);
Deitch, Ian.“Israeli leader backtracks from Palestinian state opposition,” Yahoo News (March 19, 2015);
Hoffman, Gil. “Netanyahu declared Likud leader for seventh term,” Jerusalem Post (January 14, 2016);
Lis, Jonathan. “Likud expels MK Oren Hazan from Knesset Committees,” Haaretz (February 23, 2016);
Allison Kaplan Sommer, “Israel’s Do-over Election: A Guide to All the Parties and Who Holds the Keys to the Next Government,” Haaretz, (July 31, 2019).