Parties Ought to Stand for Something

While a two-party system like the one in the United States may not be appropriate for Israeli society, neither is it fitting to have new parties pop up and fade away on a regular basis.

 Yuval Yoaz
Yuval Yoaz
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Israelis will go to the polls again in March. Whose face will be around the next cabinet table?
Israelis will go to the polls again in March. Whose face will be around the next cabinet table?Credit: Amos Biderman
 Yuval Yoaz
Yuval Yoaz

Take the very fact that the 2015 election is taking place so soon after the last round, and add it to the feeling that nothing will change even if the prime minister is replaced. What you get is a clear indication of the deep-seated problem with Israel’s system of government.

This is something that won’t be resolved by superficial legislative solutions like raising the electoral threshold, making it harder to pass no-confidence votes or limiting the number of ministers (though that is a welcome measure in and of itself).

The problem lies in the fact that the public no longer feels that it can have any influence either on who is in power or on what happens in the Knesset and the cabinet once the polls have closed. Even if someone other than Benjamin Netanyahu should form the next government, chances are that it will still suffer from the same internal flaws and failures that typified recent past governments.

In part, the problem stems from the chronic instability of the party structure in Israel. Parties come and go, split and merge, as politicians hop from one party to another with hardly any hesitation. This encourages opportunism by politicians willing to sell themselves to the highest bidder, and blurs the ideological identity of the various parties (if any vestiges of such an identity do in fact remain). It also creates a feeling among the voters that no matter which ballot they choose, the next Knesset will contain the same faces as the previous one.

While a two-party system like the one in the United States may not be appropriate for Israeli society, neither is it fitting to have new parties pop up and fade away on a regular basis. It would be reasonable if this dynamic were at least the result of changes in what those parties stand for. But the driving force behind these short-lived parties is the personal political motivations of their members, and the result is that the public, the politicians and the media are overly focused on the who instead of the what.

It is not only party founders who leave an existing party for a brand-new one; it’s also the party activists and registered members. Small but well-organized centers of power are capable of penetrating the ruling party’s institutions, like a hostile takeover. The fact that the parties’ platforms were abandoned long ago, and that all attention is directed at the identity of those who fill the high-level positions and the degree of power they wield, has turned the parties into flimsy vessels that can be filled with content of any sort.

Some rules could be made that would change this troubling dynamic, but it is not clear which politicians would support legislation that restricted what they could do.

For example, the parties need to focus once more on what they stand for and encouraged to publicize detailed platforms as a way of distinguishing their beliefs from those of others. Parties could also be prevented from ignoring their platforms after the elections; they could be required to either follow them or change them as needed. The public would become accustomed once again, albeit very slowly, to choosing among different methods of taking action rather than among different personality cults.

Party hopping would be minimized if MKs know that if they quit their parties, they won’t be allowed to run in the next election. Splits and mergers among parties would be reduced if they resulted in fundraising sanctions imposed on the parties.

Israel needs governmental stability that will give rise to a more practical choice of leadership — to leaders who see themselves as obligated to act instead of merely doing all they can to stay in power. Where is the politician who will dare run on such a platform?

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