Don’t Be Put Off by Israel’s Messy Politics. They are a Sign of a Functioning Democracy
Originally posted on JTA.org
Israeli politics looks like a big mess right now. In the last few weeks, three new parties have been launched, one party has kicked out a former partner, and more changes are likely. It probably will get messier still if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gets indicted before the April 9 vote.
The latest polls show between 12 and 14 parties entering the new Knesset, many with the bare minimum of four seats. That would be up from 10 in the recently dissolved parliament. But expect those early tallies to change. The polls diverge widely in their counts, and more political surprises are surely in store.
For Brits and especially Americans, who are used to two-party politics, this fluid situation may seem like a weakness of Israeli democracy, but it is actually a sign of its strength. As they say in the tech world, Israel’s political condition is a feature not a bug.
Why is that? The games of musical chairs, with parties breaking away and others being fired, are not only being driven by political egos. That’s not to say no egos are in play. But the emergence of new parties and the shrinking of older ones are based on the notion that the Israeli voter is “woke” and caring. Voters have demands, opinions, and desires, and the country’s politicians are trying to find out what they want. Hardly any voters are in politicos’ back pockets. They cannot take anyone for granted.
Most Israelis do not vote based on family traditions, ethnic loyalty, or rabbinic directives any more. They change their minds every campaign. Old and influential Zionist movements like Labor and the National Religious Party are losing ground politically, even though people still believe in the ideologies. Voters are making specific demands of their leaders and will not be loyal to a politician just because he or she is a leader of a particular party.
These continuing splits have also shattered the traditional support networks of the old-line parties. The Labor Party cannot count on the support that its “ground troops” from the Histadrut labor unions and kibbutzim used to provide. The religious parties used to be able to count on their B’nei Akiva youth groups and yeshiva students. Such networks are less important in an era of Internet campaigning, but that traditional support is certainly not showing up on election day.
Not even the Haredim vote en bloc anymore. You would have thought that in a right-wing government they would get what they want. But they didn’t and in the end, there will be army conscription of Haredim, even in a right-wing coalition.
Overall, Haredim hold fewer seats than their demographics would suggest. It is even possible that the Sephardic Haredi party Shas won’t receive enough votes to gain Knesset seats. With Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked exiting the Jewish Home party, its remnants, primarily the old National Religious Party, also may not exceed the electoral threshold of four seats.
Other examples abound. Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beiteinu Party doesn’t represent Russian Israelis any more. The Arab political parties are a more complicated matter, but on numbers alone, one would think they could hold more than 20 seats in the 120-member Knesset, as Arab Israelis represent 20 percent of the country’s population. But they’re stuck in the low double digits.
By my estimates only 20-25 percent of voters vote according to tradition, and they are clustered in the Likud and Haredi parties. That is not a large enough percentage to be a game changer. The game changer is the other 75 percent. The Israeli political map in the 2019 election is different from 2015’s, which was different from 2012’s and 2009’s before it.
This is a sign of a mature democracy and shows voters’ critical thinking about politics. They say, “I won’t vote for you just because I voted for you last time, or I was raised in your educational system.” There are no loyalties.
This direct influence of the individual citizen on politics is the real check and balance in our political system, especially as we don’t have a constitution and the courts are under attack. Even Benjamin Netanyahu, a great politician, has to seesaw back and forth among differing ideas. You cannot fool Israelis, and he knows that.
The argument that most of Israel’s Jewish population is right-wing is a fact, but it’s a result of the current situation. It wasn’t like that always, and it won’t always be like that. Israel is not a racist country, and Bibi won’t be here forever.
Even though Likud looks as if it is the last of the old-line parties to retain its deep core intact, the day that Netanyahu goes – and that day will come – Likud will implode as its historic rivals and partners have. He’s the only one holding the Likud together.
A governing coalition with many small parties is a problem. But I prefer a fragile system that is sensitive to the different opinions in society than strong leadership like a presidential system.
Israel’s politics may seem chaotic, but it gets things done. Innovative legislation of cannabis exports, child vaccinations, and cigarette labeling made it through the system before the Knesset dissolved.
The two-party, presidential system in the US has ground to a halt, as a result of a polarized electorate and differing parties running the two houses of the Congress. America’s founders wanted governing to be difficult, but they also wanted consensus of a sort. It takes a lot of agreement in a divided government and what has become a two-party system. But polarization and a divisive president have literally shut down the US government.
Netanyahu cannot allow himself such a thing. He knows he is always in danger. You can argue that danger paralyzes him from acting, but it also demands more caution. In a society with a lot of friction, it gives more representative power to different parts of society, which is what democracy is about. I prefer that to some kind of political tyranny.
A democracy is not tested by the power of a ruler but by the constraints it imposes on power. A prime minister in a parliamentary system must be open and listen. He or she has to make concessions, even to small parties. There will always be people who are unhappy, and here, virtually every political group is both happy and unhappy, depending on the moment.
One of the proofs of this is our high voter turnout. In countries such as France and the US, people don’t turn out for elections in the numbers we do. Either Israelis are naïve – which they’re not – or they think the system is working. Elections in Israel are an example of the trust people have in the political system, and the greater the noise and chaos, the greater the involvement and engagement.
Ariel Picard is Director of the Institute’s Kogod Research Center for Contemporary Jewish Thought .