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January 29, 2013 2:01 am

Opinion: The Israeli Political System Needs a Complete Overhaul

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Israeli knesset (parliament). Photo: Chris Yunker.

The political system

The January 22, 2013 Israeli election highlighted the urgent need to overhaul Israel’s entire political system, not just the proportional electoral system.

Thirty-four parties participated in the proportional election, and 12 parties (including anti-Israel parties) will be represented in the next unicameral 120-member legislature, the Knesset. The more fragmented the Knesset, the more difficult it is for the prime minister to establish — and to manage — the governing multiparty coalition. The Israeli political system is replete with mid-size and small parties, devoid of any large parties. Therefore, the political system tends to be volatile and unmanageable, lending itself to short-lived governments and early elections.

The proliferation of political parties reflects voters’ frustration with the political system, which is top heavy on freedom of association and expression, but very low on accountability — by elected officials — to the constituent. While voters elect parties, they do not directly elect their representatives, who are therefore not constrained by an effective system of checks and balances and separation of powers (e.g., legislators are also members of the executive). Loyalty to the leaders of their parties supersedes loyalty to their constituents.

Hawks vs. Doves

While the January 2013 campaign rarely referred to national security issues, it underlined — once again — Israel’s hawkish majority. The hawkish bloc of Likud-Beytenu (31 seats), Yisrael Beytenu (12 seats), Shas (11 seats) and United Torah Judaism (7 seats) is bolstered by Yesh Atid (19 seats) which owes some of its seats to support by moderate hawks. Yesh Atid’s leader, Yair Lapid, made a commitment — at Ariel University in Samaria — to maintain Israeli control of the settlement blocs and oppose the re-partitioning of Jerusalem.

The hawkish Knesset majority reflects the frustration caused by the 20-year-old Oslo Process. Most Israelis do not trust the Palestinian Authority and do not believe in the viability of further concessions to the Palestinians. The number of Israeli hawks exceeds the number of centrists, which exceeds the number of doves. The most dovish party (Meretz) is represented by 6 seats, the mildly dovish Labor by 15 seats and the centrists Yesh Atid (19) and The Movement (6) by a total of 25 seats.

It’s the domestic agenda, stupid!

Irrespective of the boiling Arab Street and Israel’s recent war against Hamas terrorists in the Gaza Strip, the disillusionment with the “peace process” catapulted the domestic agenda to dominance.

The Israeli constituency expects the next governing coalition to forge a domestic common denominator, notwithstanding deep national security and foreign policy disagreements among the coalition parties. The key issues that preoccupy most constituents are the need to prevent a global-like economic meltdown; carefully manage severe budget cuts; buttress the middle class; reform the housing market; introduce significant rental housing; expedite the integration of ultra-Orthodox youth into military conscription; and overhaul the entire political system. Averting the threat of a nuclear Iran is the only front-seat national security issue.

The Arab constituent

The traditionally low turnout of Israeli Arabs during national election derives from their disillusionment with the preoccupation of the Arab parties with Israel-bashing, rather than with pressing domestic Arab concerns: crime, drugs, education, employment and infrastructure. In defiance of the Arab League which urged Israeli Arabs to vote to weaken the Jewish state, the Arab turnout was only 57 percent (Jewish turnout was a disappointing 67%), compared with more than 80% Arab turnout during municipal elections.

The discrepancy between rank and file Israeli Arabs on one hand and the Israeli Arab parties on the other hand is widening as the Israelization process of Israeli Arabs takes roots. Israeli Arabs are rapidly integrated into Israel’s medical, pharmaceutical, banking, industrial, commercial, agricultural, cultural, sports and political infrastructures. While many Israeli Arabs express their frustration by abstention, an increasing number votes for non-Arab Israeli parties. The relative representation of the Arab parties (11 out of 120 Knesset members) is substantially lower than their proportion in the population (18%).

Winners and Losers

“Kick the rascals out” dominated the January 2013 election and highlighted the major winners, producing an unprecedented wave of new legislators: around 50 new Knesset members, a 40% turnover! The 19 members of Lapid’s party — all freshmen — and the 12 members of Bennett’s party — mostly freshmen — represent the new wave sweeping the Knesset.

The Knesset is the youngest ever with a record number of women (26) and settlers (17).

While Prime Minister Netanyahu will launch his third term in office, he lost 25% of his party’s Knesset representation, reduced to 31 — from 42 — seats. However, Netanyahu can snatch a victory out of the jaws of defeat by adhering to the voice of the constituents and forming a domestic-driven coalition with a game-changing domestic agenda.

This article was originally published by Israel Hayom.

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