How Did Israel Arrive at This Sorry State of Governance?

If the Israeli voter wants to contribute to stablizing Israel's governance, he would be well advised not to cast his vote for fly-by-night parties.

Moshe Arens
Moshe Arens
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An election employee preparing voting slips at a polling booth in southern Israel on Monday.
An election employee preparing voting slips at a polling booth in southern Israel on Monday.Credit: Reuters
Moshe Arens
Moshe Arens

You can fault whomever you like for bringing down upon us another Knesset election, only 26 months after the last one, but you have to acknowledge that the Israeli political system has become intrinsically unstable in recent years. If it continues in this manner, the next election may very well not be the last early one that we will have to contend with in the years to come.

Long gone are the days when the political scene was dominated by two large parties – Labor and Likud – each garnering more than 40 Knesset seats in the elections, which could provide an anchor for a reasonably stable coalition to be formed by one or the other of the two.

Since then Likud and Labor have joined the ranks of a large number of medium-sized and small party factions that make up the Knesset after each election. Hardly a situation that allows for a stable coalition government, to be formed after the voting.

How did we arrive at this sorry state of governance? The "original sin" was the law instituting direct election of the prime minister – promoted at the time [1992] by four illustrious members of the Knesset, one a professor of constitutional law – which produced what any fool should have expected: the drifting of votes that were in the past given to one of the two large parties, to smaller parties representing particular parochial views.

Although this ill-conceived law has since been revoked it has left its mark on the political scene to this day, the large parties having never fully recovered from this blow.

But that is not all. The Israeli voter, perennially sick of the “old politicians,” has a penchant for looking for new bright stars in the political firmament. Israel’s political history is chock full of such new bright stars, forming new parties before election time, sometimes obtaining results that are beyond all expectations at the expense of the “old” parties – and then disappearing, never to be seen again.

A partial list would include Dash, Tzomet, Shinui, Kadima and the Pensioners’ Party. All have contributed to reducing the representation of Likud and Labor in the Knesset and thus have made their contribution to destabilizing Israel’s democracy.

Israel’s electoral system is based on proportional representation. It provides various sectors of the population, like the Arabs, ultra-Orthodox Jews and new immigrant groups, with a chance to participate in the Knesset, something very important to Israeli democracy. Such a parliamentary system is essentially based on political parties. They are the mainstay of the system.

However, when looking at the makeup of the Knesset, the present one or the one projected after the next election, one finds only a few political parties worthy of the name – parties that have a substantial number of members or adherents and who elect their candidates for the Knesset by democratic procedures. These are Likud, Labor, Habayit Hayehudi, Meretz and Hadash. Most of the rest are one-man or one-woman affairs, which are inevitably ephemeral apparitions on the political scene.

But the worst aspect of Israel’s political scene is a phenomenon peculiar to local politics – namely, the wandering of political leaders from one party to another. Not elected in the primary elections of their party, or not satisfied with its leadership, off they go to join another party, or to found a new party. This political wandering usually eats into the representation of the larger parties. To provide a slate of these “political nomads” would be downright embarrassing.

As the election campaigns begin, we already see these “nomads” searching for possibilities of abandoning their present political framework and moving to another one. They may be assuring themselves of a seat in the next Knesset, but at the same time they are making their contribution to destabilizing the next government coalition.

The voter, if he wants to contribute to stable governance, would be well advised to cast his or her vote in the next election for one of the authentic parties and not for one of the fly-by-nights. The competing programs and personalities are important, but stability is important as well.

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