The Problem With Israel's Political System, and How to Fix It

If Israel wants coalitions that last for the duration of a Knesset term, it needs both Likud and Labor to become powerhouse political forces again.

Moshe Arens
Moshe Arens
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The Knesset, October 27, 2014.
The Knesset, October 27, 2014.Credit: Emil Salman
Moshe Arens
Moshe Arens

Whoever ends up forming the next government will have a tough time assembling a coalition and holding it together while preparing for the next election. When the party forming the coalition has no more than 20-something seats in the Knesset, it is a foregone conclusion that it is not going to be stable. So while worrying about the housing crisis, the cost of living, a nuclear Iran, and the Hezbollah and Hamas rockets aimed at Israel, someone better start thinking about the root cause of the instability of Israel’s political system.

Too many parties, people say. But the number of small parties is a legitimate reflection of Israel’s heterogeneous society. The Arabs, the ultra-Orthodox (both Ashkenazi and Sephardi), the Russian immigrants – and maybe next time the new immigrants from France – want and deserve to be represented in the Knesset by parties that have their particular interests at heart.

The notion that raising the threshold of votes required for representation in the Knesset would contribute to the stability of governing coalitions, by reducing the number of parties in the Knesset, has no theoretical or empirical justification. The recent law increasing the electoral threshold to 3.25% – arbitrarily and brutally forced down the throats of the three Arab parties in the Knesset – will contribute nothing to the stability of the next coalition, while denying Israel’s Arab citizens the opportunity to express their diverse political views on election day.

When two large parties dominate the political scene, stability is undoubtedly enhanced. That was the situation for many years, when the Labor and Likud factions in the Knesset each numbered over 40 MKs. It is the drastic reduction of the parliamentary representation of these parties in recent years that is at the root of the unstable coalitions – whether led by Likud or Labor – that have attempted to govern in recent years.

It is too easy to blame the electorate, most of which casts its ballot for the array of small parties at election time. It is useless to attempt to force the electorate to change its way by introducing half-baked laws like the direct election of the prime minister [which occurred three times between 1996 and 2001] or the raising of the electoral threshold. The first only made the situation worse, and the second contributed nothing while causing harm to the democratic process. It is only when Likud and Labor once again become the two dominant parties in the Knesset that a measure of stability will return to the political scene.

The Labor Party’s deterioration began with the exodus of its leadership to other parties. The list is long: Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak, Amram Mitzna, Amir Peretz. Is it any wonder that many voters likewise deserted the party? The gradual recovery that has become apparent this year [now as Zionist Union] is no doubt the result of the efforts made by its leader, Isaac Herzog, and the party’s able director general, Hilik Bar, to renew and strengthen loyalty to the party.

Likud suffered from a similar affliction, with many of its leaders abandoning the party. This list is also long: Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert, Shaul Mofaz, Tzipi Livni, Dan Meridor, Tzachi Hanegbi [although the latter two did later return to Likud]. And Likud’s leader these past years, Benjamin Netanyahu, has paid little attention to the party and its branches. The virtual absence of Likud from the municipal elections weakened the branches and eliminated them as a training ground for national leadership. Add to that the ill-advised joint ticket with Yisrael Beiteinu in the previous, 2013 election, plus the departures of Moshe Kahlon and Gideon Sa’ar, and it is clear that major changes need to made within the party if it is to reappear as one of the dominant parties in future elections.

Political stability in the future will not be achieved by brute force legislative measures, but rather by hard, diligent work, grooming the next generation of leadership, and building cohesion and loyalty in the ranks of the two major parties – Labor and Likud.



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