Understanding Israel Segment #1: The 2015 Election: The Role of Political Parties

[Note: If you prefer listening, please scroll to the end and click on the attached audio file.] 

In six weeks, March 17th, 2015, corresponding to the 26th of Adar, 5775 on the Jewish calendar, Israeli citizens will again head to the polls to elect their next leadership.  

G-d willing, each week between now and then, I’ll post a brief segment about the Israeli political process and what’s happening as the election approaches. In the final pre-election segment, I hope to tell you whom I will have decided to vote for, if I’m in Israel on election day as I hope to be and was in 2013, and why I’ll vote that way.  

To help us understand and evaluate Israeli politics and elections, let’s start by considering a crucial difference between the American and the Israeli political systems: the role of political parties.

Whereas in America we have a stable two-party system, in Israel, many viable political parties constantly struggle with each other.  In the coming election, no fewer than 26 parties will vie for the 120 seats in Israel’s Parliament, the Knesset. 

No party has ever won an outright majority in a Knesset election.  So, almost certainly, whichever party does receive the most votes – current polls say this will either be the right-wing Likud party or a Left-center alliance – will have to entice one or more additional parties to ally with it to form a majority coalition.  

Israel’s current President, Rueven Rivlin – who was elected by the Knesset – will invite the leader of the party that received the most votes to attempt to form a majority government coalition.  That leader, who if successful would become Prime Minister, will likely offer key cabinet assignments to the leaders of other parties who won Knesset seats in the election.  

In the last election just two years ago, for example, the Benjamin or “Bibi” Netanyahu’s Likud party, in alliance with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael-Beitenu party, won the most seats – 31.  Still, that was only half of what they needed to form a government.  So, they formed a coalition with Yair Lapid’s “Yesh Atid” party’s 19 seats, Naftali Bennett’s HaBayit HaYehudi party’s 12 seats, and Tzipi Lifni’s Hatnuah party’s 6 seats.  This gave the coalition 68 seats. Eight other parties, with a total of 52 seats, made up the opposition – including 18 so-called “Ultra-Orthodox” seats, 13 Left or center seats, and 11 seats held by Arab parties.  

Why did Yair Lapid, Naftali Bennett, and Tzipi Lifni agree to join Bibi’s coalition?  Each received a key cabinet post and could thus exercise substantial power, as well as enjoy a high-profile Minister’s job and hopefully be positioned for a run to become the next Prime Minister.  No wonder it’s so hard to govern in Israel; any support by a major politician for the Prime Minister, his or her party, or their legislative agenda arguably hurts that Minister and Party’s own chances to advance at the next round.   

A Knesset is elected for four years, but if the coalition breaks down for any reason, a new election may be called.  This happened recently over several issues, including proposed tax relief and legislation to declare Israel a “Jewish State.”  When rival ministers Lapid and Livni criticized Bibi, he fired them from their Cabinet posts.  It’s hardly surprising that Bibi has gone on record favoring a drastic change to an America-like two party system (presumably, expecting his party to usually be one of them), claiming that effective governance is impossible under Israel’s current system. 

The American system is certainly more stable.  But is it better?

One the one hand, Israel’s system is arguably more democratic. With 26 parties running in the election, voters have many more choices than in America.  They can vote for a party that represents their views far more precisely than does either of the two huge American parties for any individual American voter, since both American parties must lean to the center in hopes of winning an outright majority.  Also, there are no “term limits” in Israel, so if voters want to keep a leader in power, they can keep voting for that leader’s party.  Current polls suggest that they will do exactly that; Bibi’s Likud party maintains a slim lead. 

On the other hand, Israel’s party system is arguably less democratic than America’s.  By casting only a single vote for an entire party, rather than for individual politicians, voters must accept the party’s entire slate, or “list,” of members who will gain Knesset seats depending upon how many seats the party wins.  

And since small parties do gain seats in the Knesset – the current threshold is just 3.25 percent of the votes cast, up from 2% in 2013 -- and may provide key votes to form and sustain a coalition government, small parties inevitably have disproportionate power relative to their size.  This was certainly the case with the so-called “Ultra-Orthodox” parties prior to their exclusion from the current government.  It would not be far from the truth to say that small parties can literally sell their influence –joining the coalition in return for financial and other benefits for their constituents.    

Which brings me to one of Israeli voters’ biggest complaints about the party and coalition system.  Career politicians remain in key government positions for decades, with little accountability outside their party.  They are never really out of power, just in positions of greater or lesser influence at any given time as coalitions shift.  And the longer in power, the more “deals” they can or must make to improve or preserve their position.  The longer in power, the greater the likelihood of arrogance, sense of entitlement, loyalty to those able and willing to help them – and of their ability to engage in corruption. Sad to say, Israeli politicians known for personal and financial integrity are the exception rather than the rule.  

As this very brief introduction suggests, Israeli politics are messy in the extreme, and I haven’t even mentioned the Israeli penchant for speaking one’s mind and disrespecting authority.  All this certainly makes politics in the Jewish homeland “interesting,” to say the least. 

Whatever your view of Israel’s political system, though, it’s important to remember that Israel is not and cannot be just like the United States.  It’s unrealistic and unfair to hold Israel to American political standards.  

For one thing, Israel is a far younger country.  At Israel’s current age, US politics of the 1840s were far rawer and uglier than they are today.  Think of just two examples: the Annexation of Texas and the national divisiveness over slavery.  The first would lead to war with Mexico; the second, to the horrific civil war. 

Second, Israeli society is extremely diverse, with a 20% Arab population and a large percentage of immigrants from non-democratic lands, especially Russia and Arabic countries.  We can’t expect the Israeli electorate to think nor act like America’s far more homogeneous cultural “melting pot.” 

And third, the reality of life in Israel is far different from in the US.  Miniscule Israel has always faced wars and existential threats from its neighbors. It also faces extremism by its own citizens – such as the murder of Prime Minister Rabin, z”l in 1995 by a Jewish religious extremist.  The political parties take different positions on issues of defense, peace negotiations, and land withdrawal, for example.  In Israel, politics is often visceral in a way that we in the U.S., not threatened by hostile neighbors and potential internal enemies, just can’t feel.     

I hope that this introduction has perked your interest.  Starting next week, we’ll look at some of the issues and at how various parties approach them. 

Thank for reading this, or for listening to the attached audio version.  I welcome your emailed comments to me at rabbiartlevine@gmail.com.  

I’m Rabbi Art Levine wishing you Shabbat Shalom and a deeper understanding of -- and attachment to -- our Jewish home, Israel. 

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