Israeli Elections: The Blanket Can Only Cover So Much

December 31, 2012 11:39 pm 3 comments

Israeli Knesset Hall. Photo: Wiki Commons.

Do you know the feeling, on those cold winter nights, when you and your partner mindlessly pull the shared blanket in opposite directions, and a foot or an arm gets left out in the cold? Sometimes the baby crawls into bed to snuggle up, and kicks the blanket off altogether. I’m sure that you wished then that the blanket would cover the whole bed, and you wouldn’t wake with a shiver to find yourself in the cold.

The political spectrum is like this blanket, meant to cover the whole family. The middle of the blanket covers much of the family, and the main conflict is about the ends. Everyone is continually trying to cover their own needs, and naturally pulls the cover away from the other side. Now consider what happens in a family with a lot of kids on a cold winter night. I know about that firsthand. Mollie and I have eight kids. Remember that old nursery rhyme, “There were ten in the bed, and the little one said ‘Roll over, roll over,’ so they all rolled over, and one fell out”? That’s us.

As the biggest one of the bunch, sometimes I “fight” for my place in the center of the blanket, but at other times I’d just rather be warm and get another, smaller blanket to cover my own needs. I could leave the rest of the tribe with the main blanket.

Israel is currently undergoing its 19th Knesset election campaign. In Israel’s multiple party system, each eligible voter can pick one party in the election booth. The parties themselves each have a set list of candidates that they have submitted to the Central Election Committee ahead of the elections. The votes are divided among 120 positions in the Knesset. The number of seats a party wins determines how many candidates from that party will fill the allotted positions.

If a party has 10 people on their list, but only wins five seats, only the top five receive seats in the Knesset. Each party’s own committee determines who their candidates are, and what placement they have on their party’s list. Some parties hold pre-elections within their membership, while others have a non-democratic internal system of choosing candidates.

Back to the blanket. There are basically two types of parties out there now. A handful are competing for the position of the main central body, and they  must deal with the reality that one of their appendages will stick out whenever they turn left or right. The other type of party consists of all those “special interest” parties, the ones on the right and left fringes that don’t expect the center position. They just want a piece of the blanket.

The dilemma of the parties that strive to compete for the center – the mainstream – is that while trying to prove that they can cover those special needs, they alienate themselves from the parts of the population who have strong conflicts with those interests.

Recently, Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party has been very effective in widening its support base by reaching out to voters who were not traditionally supporters of the National Religious Party. In addition, they have been very successful in positioning themselves as a young and dynamic force, set to protect national interests in Judea and Samaria.

Netanyahu’s leading Likud party has been feeling the heat. On the one hand, Netanyahu wishes to cover the central-left part of the population and compete for votes that could go to candidates like Lapid and Livni. On the other hand, he knows that he also needs support from the right, and from the leaders of the Judea and Samaria communities. So the dilemma of the parties fighting for the mainstream vote remains how to cover the central part of the body, and stretch the blanket to the ends without losing it all together.

Robert Dahl, known as the “Dean of Political Scientists,” identifies two of the main causes of voter apathy in democracies: first, the lack of belief that the individual’s vote will really make a difference; and second, the similarities between the competing parties. The strategy utilized by Likud, Jewish Home and other parties – attempting to claim each other’s voters by proving how much they are the same – can actually backfire on the mainstream parties. This can cause more of their potential voters to stay home, because they don’t see what difference it makes which of these parties gets more seats. Thus, smaller special interest parties, with more loyal and motivated voter bases, will get more bang for their buck. Their actual votes will amount to a larger share of the overall  votes cast, compared to the mainstream parties. In sum, those in the center of the blanket can rest assured that they will remain covered, while those on the edge grab corners and use leverage wisely.

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