. The Likud is the currently governing party of Israel, and will probably be so for some time to come. Its roots are as old as the country itself. During the fight for independence from Britain there were two major groupings in Israel - the socialist inspired Haganah which went on to form the core of the Israeli Army, and the Revisionists who were more inspired by Nationalist, economically Liberal thought. During the independence exist, the Haganah tried to coexist with the British, but the Revisionists - who formed the "National Army Group", or Irgun Zvai Leumi believed that, what with the British turning jewish refugees away from Israel and sending them back to the ovens in Europe, they had better act fast - and committed what can't be called anything other than acts of terrorism - they blew up the headquarters of the British Command Headquarters in Palestine (The King David Hotel), whipped British officers naked through the streets of Tel Aviv (in retaliation for similar punishment meted out to them) and killed at least one UK Lord who was trying to defang the idea of a Jewish state with a peace plan that the Irgun felt would have left Israel too vulnerable.
Whether the Haganah's conciliatory or the Irgun's violent tactics won the day is still debated in Israel. What is known that the Haganah, which has a much better equipped and disciplined fighting force, took control of the country shortly after independence, wiped out most of the Irgun (including trying to kill the Irgun's leadership, and Prime Minister to be Menachem Begin on the Irgun's arm boat, the Atalena) and became the defacto ruling party until the late 70's.
As honest men, hard-working men, good men, and Jews who genuinely cared about the country, the party formed by the Haganah's commanders - the Labor Party - developed one of the world's strongest armies, fought four wars for their existence, all of which Israel won (or it would have been one big graveyard) and slowly, but surely, destroyed the economy of the country with Socialist Economic policies. By the end of the 70's, Israel had inflation in the tens of thousands, it was illegal for Israelis to own hard currency, people were immigrating to America for work, and a gritty proletarian underclass had formed among a people who, back in Europe and the Arab world were infamous for their economic abilities. The final straw came when Labor leader Yitzchak Rabin (yes, THE Rabin) was forced to resign after it became clear that, while he had made it illegal for all Israeli's to own dollars, his wife had an illegal dollar account in a New York bank.
Throughout all this time, what was left of the Irgun formed a right wing party that went under various names, and finally became the "Likud". They presented themselves as the party of the underclass, the Jews from arab nations, the unemployed - anyone, in other words, who was alienated from the small socalist elite which was running Israel, which included not only the Labor party, but the fat-cat leaders of the Aguna, that is the National Labor Union, the managers of all the state owned companies, and anyone with protectzia (A Hebrew word borrowed from Slavonic meaning 'connections') Their leader, Begin, won the election handily while the country almost went through economic collapse. Begin's record could hardly be better: although a former guerilla leader, he made peace with Sadat, modernized the economy, brought more social equity to Israel, and remains one of the most popular leaders the country has seen.
Throughout the next twenty years, Labor and Likud became the two principal fighters in the election, sometimes one winning, sometimes the other, sometimes forced by the vagaries of the Israeli political system to share power, but basically making the government a two party show with a bunch of supporting parties to form coalitions with on the extremes (Whether this will remain the case after the new elections remains to be seen).
Currently, the Likud is mainly known for it's leader, Ariel Sharon, a war criminal to a number of Belgian prosecutors, a hated figure in most of the Arab world, and a beloved savior of the nation to a large number of Israeli's. Without a complete biography of Sharon, it's hard to understand the attraction Israeli's have to him, or why they would vote for him. To a typical reader of the NYT or CNN the idea that he wants peace is laughable. Many people believe him morally responsible for massacres in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla. His son was just caught taking a 1.5 Million USD Bribe from a South African "businessman". And yet, his popularity persists. Why? First of all, he is a military leader of known skill - it's widely understood that through a series of brilliant tactical moves in 1973, he saved Tel Aviv from an Egyptian occupation, which given Egyptian rhetoric, (Nasser coined the phrase "we're going to drive the Jews into the sea") would have been a massacre even if it was to be immediately reversed. Secondly, he is considered an admirable student of world affairs - most Israeli's feel like Arafat 'suckered' them, and Sharon, as tough as he is, is not the type to be 'suckered' again. Finally, if you look carefully at his record, he is almost certainly not a genocidal war criminal who enjoys shooting civilians - he is an extremely tough General, whose view is that he is leading a country fighting for it's survival while most of the world looks on disapprovingly for hypocritical reasons (Anti-semitism in the case of Europe, Arab Money and anti-Americanism, which leads to anti-Israelism, in the Third World. Most Israeli's share this view, which may seem paranoid to you, but it's an Israeli who coined the phrase even paranoids have enemies.
As for Sharon, the man of peace, even I think that would be stretching it, but he has shown he is open to the idea of peace. He has agreed in principle to a Palestinian state, and has openly stated that he would prefer a centre-left-right coalition which would probably force him to make concessions to the Palestinians, rather than a narrow right-religious coalition which would prevent him from making any concessions at all. Books could be written about Sharon, a hard but brilliant and daring general, a complicated man, war criminal to some democracies, 'hard, wise leader' in ours - but to categorize him, or his party, simply, is to have an incorrect view of the Palestine-Israeli conflict.
That having been said, the Likud is now going through some sort of spiritual crises. First of all, extreme right wing activists who got into the candidate slot, (especially the Moshe Feiglin who comes from Long Island and wants to impose religious law on Israel, including a seven year pause on labor so that Jews can study the Talmud, withdrawing diplomatic recognition from Germany because of the Holocaust, etc.) began to use their power to make "vote brokerage" deals with a bunch of sleazy mobsters. The chief of these was Moroccan Jew Moussa Alperon who is mainly known for showing up at the houses of bad debtors with his 20 brothers and cousins and getting the bad debtor to pay. In addition, votes were exchanged between the radical right and mobster, casino-owner and possible pimp Shmuel Gavrieli a dedicated enemy of the Alperon clan. When asked if they would bring their enmity to the Knesset they reponded, hell no, this isn't business, it's politics. Both mobsters got comofortable slots on the candidate lists, which, since you vote for the party and not the individual in Israel, seemed to make Mafia representation in the parliament assured. In addition, Sharon's sons were caught taking large amounts of money from various businessmen to do various things with it which no one is willing to clarify. This lead one Labor party official to attack the Sharon campaign saying, "He's supposed to protect us from the Palestinians, but he doesn't even know what his own son is doing?"
The left wing Meretz party was quick to take advantage of this, with an ad showing unemployment figures, corruption charges, etc, while a young man apparently being whipped in the background says, in the height of sexual ecstacy, "Sharon, sir, thank you, sharon! Please, more, sharon!" Finally, alluding to both a typical Semitic hyperbolic rhetorical maneuver and the involvement of Sharon's sons, they ran with the slogan, "Sharon! Enough! You are the father of Bribery!"
Sharon's reaction, obviously enough, was to call a press conference to fight against these accusations. Unfortunately for the Grandfather of the Nation, he lost his cool, banging on the table twice and asking reporters, "How can you make these accusations? Are you crazy?" Finally, the supreme court ordered the press-conference cut, and all stations, radio and TV were ordered to end their broadcast as Sharon began to froth at the mouth.
For about two days, this hurt Sharon in the polls, now his party is on top again. As my Sephardi Jewish father and army veteran put it, "First, I was angry, and I said I was going to vote for Lapid. But then, when they kept attacking him, I thought, 'you know, he did save the nation from destruction. What they're doing to him just isn't fair." The Likud purged the party of mobsters, debt collectors, and radical racist right wing activists, and despite the bump, is back on top. Corruption isn't really a problem in Israel, as long as you have a good military record, apparently. (Another long term damage to Israeli society because of the Intifada).
Just as an aside, the anti-Labor election ads run by Likud have been very effective. They show Mitznah, the labor candidate, saying "We will negotiate as if there is no terrorism." (They conveniently forget to mention that he also said, "We will fight terrorism as if there is no negotiation".) Then a voice says: Barak offered 95% of Israel! 5% of the Negev! Half of Jerusalem! The return of tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees into the heart of the nation!. But Arafat wanted more! (Cut to a VERY angry Arafat, shouting 'all of Palestine' which in Middle East Code actually means all of Israel, but I would need a special node to explain why.). The same voice then asks: "What will Mitznah give away? Will he go back to the 1948 borders? Let in 1,000,000 refugees! And finally, in a yellow on red background, "Mitznah! Yet another mistake made by labor". Then, a bitchy female voice says, "There is really no reason at all to vote Labor!" Finally a big red dot pounds a black screen as if to signal the finality of Mitznah losing.
Of course, this is grandstanding at its best, Mitznah hardly being an extreme left wing peace camp member. However, it seems to work on the electorate, which feels betrayed by the current peace process, either as much, or more, as the Palestinians do.