The Repercussions of Israel’s Fractured Democracy
Israel is a democracy, and, like most parliamentary democracies, the party that wins a plurality of the vote typically ends up forming the government — asking a few of the smaller parties to join a coalition government if they have not received an outright majority. Relative to most parliamentary (particularly West European) democracies, Israel has a larger number of parties, each vying for the biggest representation in the Israeli parliament.
There are two major reasons behind the vast number of political parties. The Jews who immigrated to Israel from nearly 120 different countries came with different cultural, political, and ideological backgrounds — there were liberals, conservatives, socialists, and even communists. Although they were all committed to the security and well-being of the state, they held onto their sets of political and ideological beliefs, which led to the creation of a plethora of parties.
The second reason is that, until 1988, the electoral threshold for a party to be allocated a Knesset seat was only one percent. It has been increased in minute percentage points since then, until March 2014, when the Knesset approved a new law to raise the threshold to 3.25 percent, with the objective of consolidating and reducing the number of parties.
Given the low threshold, even at 3.25 percent, this has encouraged different ideological groupings to form parties of their own so as to accomplish four objectives: satisfy the personal ambition of the party’s leaders, promote the party’s own policies, maintain the support of its loyal adherents, and strengthen their bargaining positions at the negotiating table should they be invited to join a coalition government.
Another interesting phenomenon of the Israeli electoral system is the party shakeups prior to any election — several new parties are formed, some existing parties unite to establish a stronger block, and other existing parties dissolve altogether.
The chief shortcoming of the existence of many parties is that it is impossible for a single party to garner more than 50 percent of the parliamentary seats (61 out of 120). As a result, all Israeli governments since inception have been coalition governments consisting of several parties.
Every time, efforts to establish coalition governments become saddled by the would-be coalition partners, who continue to hold fast onto their different ideologies and priorities, and the personal ambitions of the party leadership, which are often placed above the party or even national interests.
Given the desire to be a part of the government, the coalition partners agree to make some concessions, often temporary or conditional. The net result is that the various parties end up settling for the lowest common denominator, both in domestic and foreign affairs policy, which inadvertently weakens the government’s hand in taking major initiatives unless there is full support by all members of the coalition.
The result of the most recent election offers a glaring picture of Israel’s chaotic political system. Twenty-nine parties ran in the September election, only nine of which were able to pass the threshold. Blue and White, led by Benny Gantz, won 33 seats, followed by Likud led by Benjamin Netanyahu, which won 32 seats. The third largest party is the Joint Arab List, which was able to garner 13 seats. The remaining six include Shas (9), Yisrael Beiteinu (8), United Torah Judaism (7), Yamina (7), Labor (6), and the Democratic Union (5).
The Netanyahu bloc consists of right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties, which currently stands at a total of 55 out of 120 seats. The counter left bloc, excluding the Arab List, stands at 44 seats. Although the Arab List agreed to support the left bloc without joining a government led by Gantz, three out of the 13 seats they hold refuse to endorse Gantz. As a result, the left block ends up with a total of 54 seats, which explains why Israel’s President Rivlin decided to give Netanyahu the first chance to establish a government.
Since Netanyahu failed to form a government with his own camp, he invited Gantz to form a unity government, but they have fundamentally disagreed as to who should be prime minister. Netanyahu wanted to serve as the prime minister, not only because of his never-ending lust for power, but also because he wanted to avoid a pending indictment on three corruption charges, which he could potentially avoid as a sitting prime minister.
Gantz, on the other hand, insisted that he would serve as the prime minister because his party won 33 versus Netanyahu’s 32 seats, and he refuses to join a coalition government with Likud as long as it is led by Netanyahu, in particular because Netanyahu will potentially be indicted. In fact, Netanyahu’s pre-indictment hearing has just begun.
To break the impasse, President Reuven Rivlin advanced a number of options to help facilitate the establishment of a unity government, including sharing the premiership position so that each can serve as prime minister for two years. Rivlin also advanced the idea that both can simultaneously serve as prime minister, with divided but equal responsibility and power. Although Netanyahu agreed, he insisted that he would serve for the first two years, only to avoid the indictment. Gantz rejected the idea in principal because, as he stated from the outset, he will not join a government in which Netanyahu serves as prime minister.
The party that remains outside these discussions over a unity government is Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu. He insisted that he would join only a unity government between the two largest parties without any of the religious parties, which would give the government a solid majority of 73 seats.
This, however, has not come to pass, as Netanyahu and Gantz remain divided. Lieberman’s offer to enter the unity government discussion between Gantz and Netanyahu to help facilitate an agreement was turned down by Netanyahu, who stated, “There is no point in wasting Israel’s time. We’ll meet and decide [how to proceed] if we see [intentions are] serious.”
Israel’s proportional electoral system not only has failed to produce a clear winner who can govern with a popular mandate, but in the negotiating process between the would-be coalition partners, there is hardly any discussion about the major issues that face the nation. For example, there is little or no discussion about the conflict with the Palestinians, or how to address the Iranian threat, or what to do with Hamas, along with many other critical foreign and domestic issues, such as the broken healthcare system.
This is essentially a repeat of what happened after April’s election. Much of the discussion between the parties centered around the personal ambitions of the leaders involved. Horse trading goes on for days if not weeks, as each party’s leaders vie for this or that post, regardless of their qualifications.
Failing to form a government, Netanyahu is required to return the mandate back to the president, who may then ask Gantz to try to form a new government. The failure of the latter would precipitate another election — the third in less than a year. Given the prevailing political conditions, a third election is not likely to produce significantly different results. What Israel needs is an overhauling of its absurd political system, which only encourages the mushrooming of small parties.
To begin with, Israel should raise the threshold to a minimum of five percent, which would eliminate many parties that are unable to pass the threshold. More important, however, is for the right-of-center and left-of-center camps to establish one united party for each camp. As it is, each camp almost always coalesces to create a coalition government. By fashioning Israel’s electoral system along the British model, one party or the other stands a much better chance of winning an outright majority.
The big advantage to this system is that all the small parties who no longer stand a chance of passing the increased threshold will opt to support one of the large parties, ensuring their voices count. The Arab parties (currently united) may opt to remain independent or join the leftist party. This political system does not prevent the rise of one or two smaller parties. Nevertheless, a total of four or five parties makes it much easier to form a coalition government if either of the large parties fail to win the majority of the vote.
To be sure, whereas Israel has made tremendous strides in just about all walks of life, its democracy is faltering. After 71 years of existence, the Israelis could not settle on a political system that would avoid these types of impasse, which are economically disruptive while undermining the national security of the state.
Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.
A version of this article was originally published in Australian Outlook.