Monday, January 24th | 22 Shevat 5782

March 8, 2011 8:26 pm

Israel: When the Center Doesn’t Hold, Anarchy is Born

avatar by Arik Elman

David Ben Gurion, Israel's Prime Minister and Defence Minister. January, 1959.

If there’s anything decidedly wrong with the Jewish State, it’s our political system. The comparisons that many well-meaning Israelis and Americans like to make between the circumstances of birth of our two countries are, unfortunately, mostly hot air. Whereas the American Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights had been written by a group of intellectuals raised in the Anglo-Saxon Protestant tradition and concerned with laying the foundations for ideal society, the “founding fathers” of Israel were a cynical bunch of Eastern-European Socialist apparatchiks, most concerned with ensuring the new country’s physical survival through the alliance with Western democracies and the preservation of their own power. To advance the former, they’ve created an ostensibly democratic system which gave the citizen individual rights, created independent judiciary and established free and fair elections. To preserve the latter, they’ve based the country’s economy on the vast public sector they could control, made away with the prospects for a Constitution and built an electoral system which guaranteed the maximal fragmentation of any possible opposition and the continued dominance of the united socialist forces under the umbrella of one large political block.

The system worked, sort of, until the country’s demography changed. The Ashkenazi Socialist elite and its Israeli-born progeny haven’t managed the difficult task of bridging the mental and cultural gap between itself and the new immigrant Jews from Arab countries. Being of more religious and traditional disposition, they proved to be resistant to the secular-socialist idea of the “new Jew”. In addition, the endearing qualities of government trying to micromanage your life had brought about strong (and not entirely unfounded) belief among the “Mizrahim” that the Ashkenazi Socialists simply don’t respect them, believe in their own superiority and discriminate against the newcomers. For the time being, the ruling MAPAI elite had managed to corral immigrant votes by bribery and corruption immortalized by Ephraim Kishon in his “Salah Shabati”. This short-term fix made the Mizrahim feel like participants in a crime, impugned their sense of dignity and increased cynicism and mistrust of the rulers who thought nothing of compromising their declared principles in order to retain power. In 1977, following the Yom Kippur War and the Agranat Commission, when it became apparent that the Ashkenazi Socialists couldn’t even be trusted with the country’s defense, the Mizrahim embraced Menachem Begin and the era of monopolistic politics in Israel had come to an end.

The next 20 years were characterized by the struggle between the two equally powerful party blocks, the “Left” and the “Right”, leading political commentators of the time to bemoan the “teko”, the perennial draw, which lead to national unity governments. However, while the big partners had cancelled each other out with regard to increasingly crucial Palestinian question, they managed to develop a coherent economic policy, which turned Israel off the socialist road and paved the way for Binyamin Netanyahu and his brand of crash capitalism. By privatizing state enterprises and forcing the unions to part with their own inefficient business empire, the government had removed the second pillar of the Israeli political system.

The death knell for the Israeli “First Republic” had sounded in the 90’s. The passage of the voting reform that gave Israelis an opportunity to vote for the chief executive directly, and the arrival of hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the political cauldron of the disintegrating Soviet Union, had demolished the last vestiges of party identification. Veteran Israelis had woken up and realized that being in the party no longer gives you a job, that party affiliation doesn’t say anything about the health service fund you should join, the bank, the sports club you should patronize… For the new immigrants, whose political development took years, not decades, the old party labels of the new country meant nothing. They were going to vote with their patriotism and their wallet.

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Ironically, it was the “Russian” vote that gave the old elite its last best chance in 1992. Contrary to the expectations of the Israeli Right, immigrants put aside their dislike of the red banners and socialist slogans in order to punish the Likud government for the mismanagement of their absorption and the prevalence of the ultra-Orthodox. That was the moment for the Israeli Labor movement to seize onto the new constituency and to preserve the two-block system, if not to rebuild its own dominant position. However, in the pursuit of the peace that proved at first elusive, then deadly, Rabin, Peres and their associates had not only wasted this opportunity, but managed to alienate the “Russians” by the old tried and tested method – stomping their collective dignity into the mud. When the first direct election of the Prime Minister loomed in 1996, the new immigrants joined the Ashkenazi Orthodox and the Mizrahi traditionalists in the belief that the system will only work for them if they will be represented in it by themselves. The fragmentation of the political map continued on the ever-narrowing ideological, religious and now ethnic lines.

The malaise of dissolving party identification having now caught up with the Likud as well, even the forceful intervention of Ariel Sharon, who’d abolished direct vote, increased the number of his party’s seats and kept his coalition under control by the sheer force of will, could not prevent the dissipation for long. The demise of the parties, together with the parallel bankruptcy of their ideologies of “New Middle East” and “Greater Israel”, and the convergence of their economic policies, opened the stage for the leadership politics, where the public debate increasingly becomes a personality contest, while the parochial interests rule.

Despite gradual raise of the “electoral threshold” (the minimum number of votes required to attain seats in the Knesset), party-list proportional representation with no parties can only produce two things – increasingly soft and erratic ad-hoc gatherings of more or less like-minded individuals headed by a charismatic leader, and the much more solid sectorial groups with narrow self-serving interests. No national agenda can emerge out of this mess; no crucial decision can be made. Today, the nominal balance of power in the Knesset tilts to the Right, but it’s an illusion that will be challenged and quite possibly shattered in the next election, when several new “parties” – the “National Left” list, the Arye Deri list, perhaps the Yair Lapid list and the new “Russian” list – will throw their hats into this three-ring circus. All will probably win seats.

The ensuing paralysis of the elected branch of government, the impotence of the Knesset exposed by an endless stream of “propaganda legislation” which has no chance of ever becoming law and only serves to get the authoring MK a mention in the news, aren’t only detrimental to the civil spirit and the will of the citizens to participate in the electoral process, they have a very real, very pernicious effect on the foundation of democracy, where people’s elected representatives rule and the appointed civil servants serve. Israel is rapidly becoming a place where the bureaucrats rule and the MK’s and the ministers serve as a foil, insulating the unelected officials from public’s ire and paying the price for unpopular decisions, mismanagement and neglect. Increasingly, the top “civil servants” are addressing the public directly via the media, in clear disregard of their elected “masters”.

When the attorney-general, the chief of police’s investigating branch, the Chief Justice and the IDF Chief of Staff discuss the policy in the newspapers and on the airwaves, and the decisions affecting the economy are made by the Ministry of Finance and the Bank of Israel with almost no input from the parliament except for scratching out some sectorial handouts, the average Israeli must ask himself – where is the rule of the people? On the other hand, since the perception of powerlessness turns more and more of Israel’s best and brightest off the political career and into… well, everything else, the Knesset increasingly looks as a bunch of clowns one should not entrust with managing his children’s future.

It is hard to say what should come first – the cutting of the Gordian knot of the “Palestinian question” or the establishment of the Second Israeli Republic, which will reconnect the citizens with their elected representatives, give the executive the tools and the time to carry out its policy as approved by the voters, subdue the interest groups to the national interest and bind the state, judicial and military bureaucracies to the real and meaningful civilian democratic control. Finding the solution, even a temporary one, to the Palestinian problem will, for the first time, allow Israelis to concentrate on getting our own house in order. On the other hand, bold initiatives and painful choices which must necessarily accompany the separation from the Palestinians have almost no chance passing through the current system.

It could be, however, that the current rising tide of the challenges from abroad, which the outdated Israeli political structure simply cannot meet, will force the nation to deal first with the internal problem, since it does not require foreign partners to solve. Alas, instead of leading and shaping the public debate about reform and its urgency, many Israeli “defenders of democracy” prefer to sit on the sidelines, believing that their agenda will be better served by an appearance of a new charismatic leader like Rabin, Sharon or Obama, who’ll buck the trend, win over the majority and make things happen without changing the rules of the game. Unfortunately, we are too far gone for one man (or even one woman) to carry us to the Delectable Mountains. Waiting for Godot requires unlimited time – time we simply don’t have.

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