The Knesset Divided Against Itself

By Ofir Haivry

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In the wake of the Israeli elections this past May, there has been much talk to the effect that lists such as the Sephardi-religious Shas party and Avigdor Lieberman’s Russian-oriented Yisra’el Beitenu (“Israel Is Our Home”)—whose success was based on a radical critique of the country’s courts and police force—constitute a grave threat to Israel’s democratic fabric. The real problem, however, lies not in the success of the smaller parties, but in the failure of the larger ones; not in the fact that Shas captured 17 out of the Knesset’s 120 seats, but that Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s victorious One Israel list (heir to the Labor party) could muster no more than 26 seats. The demise of Labor, and the parallel collapse of the Likud party to just 19 seats, may augur the end of the two-party system in Israel.
Israel no longer has large political parties. It has three medium-sized parties, One Israel, Likud and Shas, each with 17 to 26 seats; seven smallish parties of 5 to 10 seats; and five minuscule parties of just 2 to 4 seats each. While Labor and Likud still act as though they are the only serious contenders for leading the country—talking of national leadership, hosting enormous party conventions, fielding prime ministerial candidates—their behavior no longer corresponds with the actual size of their respective Knesset factions, which only a decade ago boasted about 40 mandates each, and sooner or later they will have to come to terms with the new reality: That the Israeli parliament has become a place where success is based on representing sectoral interests—those of Sephardim, Haredim, Russians, Arabs, the religious, the secular—rather than national ones.
Israel’s method of electing its leaders is unique in the world, the product of the combined efforts of academics, activists and politicians. In 1992, lobby groups such as the Constitution for Israel movement and political figures such as Yitzhak Rabin and Benjamin Netanyahu teamed up to replace the old proportional-representation electoral system with a mixed regime that looks more like the product of caprice than of any cohesive theory of government, and from the outset was guaranteed to transform the Knesset into a splintered and ineffectual body.
Under the old system, Israeli voters cast their ballots for a political party; the size of parliamentary factions was proportionately determined according to the number of votes each party received; the largest faction was given the chance to form a ruling coalition. Given only one vote, most voters preferred to use it to express their preference as to who should lead the country—for the last three decades, either Labor or Likud—rather than to give voice to the parochial interests represented by most of the small parties. As a result, the Knesset was always dominated by the two parties claiming that they could lead the Jewish state, with each presenting a (supposedly) comprehensive set of proposals for how Israel—the whole country, not just part of it—should be governed.
Under the new system, voters cast two ballots on election day, one for a prime ministerial candidate who will have the chance to form a governing coalition, and the other for one Knesset list or another. As in the past, each party earns a number of seats in parliament proportional to the number of votes it receives—but the link between a party’s success at the ballot box and its right to form a government has been severed. The result has been a dramatic decline in the electoral success of parties selling themselves as governing parties, for the simple reason that the Knesset ballot has almost no bearing on who actually gets to govern. Having already voiced their national concerns through the prime ministerial ballot, voters who previously supported Labor or Likud now feel free to choose a party in accordance with their particular interests, be they religious, ethnic or petty-ideological (a party demanding legalization of marijuana came close to passing the cutoff threshold and receiving two seats in the Knesset).
The results have been swift and calamitous. In 1992, the last election held under the old system, the largest party in the Knesset, Labor, won 44 seats, while the Likud earned 40. Two elections later, in 1999, One Israel won just 26 seats, while the Likud shrank to 19; the 45 seats earned by the two “large” parties combined is only one seat more than Labor alone won just seven years earlier. At the same time, a sectoral party such as Shas, which has never pretended to have a political program in areas such as defense, foreign policy or the economy, was able to muster only two mandates fewer than did the Likud.
The result has been no less than a disintegration of national Israeli politics as it was once represented in the Knesset. Now, the process of building a governing coalition has stopped bearing even the pretense of mutual compromise in the national interest, and has taken on the character of one man—the elected prime minister—wheeling and dealing with a multitude of enfeebled factions, coalescing with the lowest bidders.
Witness, for example, the much-heralded “broad government” which Ehud Barak assembled during June and July. Knowing that he was starting with only 26 seats out of the 60 he needed to form a government, he proposed policy guidelines so vague as to allow almost any party to join. To maximize his leverage, Barak conducted serious coalition talks with nine different parties, representing no fewer than 76 out of the 94 remaining seats, and pieced together a coalition containing such bizarre bedfellows as Shas (representing Haredi and Sephardi interests), Meretz (opposed to Haredi interests and West Bank settlements), Yisra’el Ba’aliya (representing the interests of Russian immigrants, who generally oppose Haredi empowerment, but many of whom live in West Bank settlements), and the National Religious Party (the political patron of the West Bank settlement movement). Each of these parties showed a remarkable willingness to sacrifice dearly held principles in order to join the coalition—mainly because they knew that Barak had any number of alternatives in forming his government.
Nor does this new government face any serious parliamentary opposition: The remainder of the Knesset is hopelessly fragmented, with many of its parties still interested in joining the government under the right conditions. It turns out that in the best case, the new electoral system empties the Knesset of its ideological underpinnings, turning it into a haggler’s market; in the worst case, it may strip the Knesset of its democratic authority, transforming it into little more than a rubber stamp.   
Much of the blame for the collapse of Knesset politics rests with the new electoral system—but not all of it. When an electorate makes a point of rewarding those politicians and parties which keep the national interest in mind, and punishing those who do not, even an electoral system as badly designed as Israel’s can still allow the democratic process to function more or less properly. The old system of strict proportional representation was no great triumph of political engineering either, and yet for Israel’s first forty-eight years, the Israeli political system functioned rather well—under extremely difficult conditions—largely because of the public’s strong sense of national interests. This facilitated the debate of issues on their merits and prevented the sectoralization of politics. Almost every party, large or small, addressed its rhetoric to the collective and not just to a specific group within society. Radical-Left parties such as Mapam and Ahdut Ha’avoda advocated more socialism in Israeli governance; Mapai proposed a more centrist political approach to governing the country; and Gahal and its successor, the Likud, offered a liberal-hawkish alternative to Mapai rule. Even religious parties made extensive use of the rhetoric of public-spiritedness in making their demands. And parties which failed to do so—the Sephardi Tami party of the 1980s is an obvious example—never really had a chance.
This system functioned reasonably well until the mid-1980s, mainly because the voters, time after time, came out clearly in favor of one large party, which in turn formed a governing coalition. In 1984 and 1988, however, national unity governments were formed after the proportional method failed to deliver a clear-cut winner, and the voters seemed to have no problem with this, rewarding the large parties’ infidelity to principle with their continued electoral loyalty. Thus the willingness of the large parties to share power with one another—not in response to a national crisis as was the case during the 1967 war, but as the electorate’s preferred outcome—meant that neither was to be taken seriously in its claims to leadership, and therefore signified the first substantive deterioration of the country’s political consciousness.
The fundamental error of those who worked so hard to bring about electoral reform was their belief that it was the old system of proportional representation that was responsible for the stalemate which characterized Israeli politics from 1984 until 1992. But this is giving far too much credit to “the system,” and neglecting the crucial factor of Israel’s political culture. In Britain, for example, the district system has fostered stability, largely because that country has a deep tradition of public-mindedness; yet in Canada, which has a similar system, the country is in constant danger of being dismantled by a political culture which tolerates never-ending secessionist murmurings on the part of the Québecois, as well as the continual attacks on central government from politicians representing the western provinces. Similarly, proportional representation performed rather well for many years in Israel and a largely proportional method has provided stability for more than fifty years in Germany—while France and Belgium were never able to make the system work.
In today’s Israel, however, the bankruptcy of the national political consciousness and the parties that are supposed to represent it has left a void in the center of the political arena—a void that, far from being filled by a cogent “centrist” ideology such as that which was offered by the Labor party of David Ben-Gurion during the 1950s and 1960s, is being filled by those who offer a divisive, corrosive political culture in its place. On the one hand, parties such as Shas, the United Tora Judaism party (UTJ), the radical worker’s party Am Ehad (“One People”), and Sharansky’s Yisra’el Ba’aliya—together holding thirty Knesset seats—are explicitly sectoral in nature, placing the interests of one group at the forefront of their campaigns. On the other hand, Shinui and Yisra’el Beitenu parties won 10 more seats on election campaigns dedicated to attacking one group or another (the Haredim, and the “elites,” respectively). To these we may add 10 seats of the Arab parties which reject Israel’s identity as a Jewish state. All told, no fewer than 50 members of the new Knesset have formally excluded themselves from shaping Israel as a united, national entity. Compare this to the 45 seats won by the parties headed by Barak and Netanyahu together.
This, then, is the bleak picture of Israeli democracy at the dawn of the country’s second half-century: A fragmented political culture, expressing itself through the dissolution of its two-party system, and the dramatic success of sectoral parties; an eviscerated Knesset, rendered increasingly irrelevant in the face of an overempowered executive and a revolutionary Supreme Court; and an uninspired national leadership, whose ideas, such as they are, have failed in the most embarrassing way to capture the loyalty of the public.
To breathe new life into the Jewish state, a combined effort will be needed: An effort of the political mind, which alone can bring the restoration of national ideals to the center of political discourse; and an effort of the political body, meaning the abandonment of our present electoral system for one which restores both honor and authority to the seat of Israeli democracy, the Knesset.
Ofir Haivry, for the Editors
August 1, 1999

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