Part Two of a Theme: “What’s At Stake in the Israeli Election of March 17, 2015?”
A Goy’s Guide to Israel’s Political History.
Sixty-six years ago, in March of 1949, the first of Israel’s Knesset elections took place.
Most well-informed people at that hour were under the spell of the postwar spirit of liberal utopianism, whose first principle was that democracy was about to break out everywhere as European imperialism collapsed, giving way to nationalism. There was no particular reason, most thought, for Israel to be an exception to this inevitable blessing.
Indeed, there were plenty of reasons to guess that Israel was no closer to accomplishing authentic democracy than any other of the new nations in her neighbourhood. One conspicuous obstacle to Jewish national unity was the deep divide at that time between the secular politicians who for the moment dominated the political scene and the many religious parties who seemed dedicated to keeping the nation disunited over the place of Judaism in public. Certainly, that is what the Arab Hands in the State Department believed; and that is how they spelled things out to Presidents Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower.
But the democratization of the post-colonial Arab world never happened. In fact, we have just undergone four years of Arab Spring that have resulted in dragging the Arab world further back than it ever was from democracy — or for that matter from stable government of any kind. Today Israel remains the only democracy in that part of the world – with the qualified, wobbly, exceptions of Turkey and bomb-scarred, corpse-strewn Lebanon.
Throughout the years of Britain’s Palestine Mandate it had been obvious that the Mapai (Labour) party, led by David Ben-Gurion would dominate Israel’s politics and its Government when Independence came — and no doubt for a long time to follow. Mapai was by far the most popular political movement in the country; it had usually dominated proceedings in the several Zionist organizations and in the Jewish Agency during the Mandate Years. But that was not the whole story: Mandate-era Jewish electioneering had always been based on proportional representation; and now, so keen was the first generation of Israelis to advance ideas, to participate in the founding of institutions for a new nation, that every man and his brother (provided he was not a Mapai apparatchik) got busy at once and founded a new political party, intended to realize whole-heartedly some principle that was not prominently advanced or was even smothered in compromise by Ben-Gurion’s party.
In the first Knesset, formed on March 8, 1949 there were 12 parties having at least one seat, and a larger number that had contested the election without winning any seats. And so inevitably the first Government of Israel, formed by David Ben-Gurion as Prime Minister, was a Coalition, with Labor at its core, but with Ministers representing the United Religious Front, the Progressive Party, the Sephardim and Oriental Communities and the Democratic List of Nazareth. With the qualified exception of the last-named, none of these could plausibly be considered to the Left of anything real.
All governments of Israel thereafter have been coalitions. Following the election of March 1977, Menachem Begin overturned the Labour-Alignment coalition by cobbling together Likud (Consolidation), a coalition of most of the also-ran parties and their leaders, with his own Herut party at its core. For nearly forty years now, government of Israel has alternated at irregular intervals between coalition of the Centre-Left (more or less on the Ben Gurion model) and Coalitions of the Centre-Right (more or less on the Menachem Begin model.
But, just to keep things lively – and just so that outside historians like me should remain in their place – Israel’s leading politicians, belonging to both the Coalition of the Left and the Coalition of the Right, all of them world-class egoists, developed a passion for suddenly throwing to the winds the party that had made them powerful, resorting to the easy-going ground rules for formation of a new party and demanding personal fealty from an entire generation of political followers. Ben-Gurion pioneered this shtick when he bolted the Mapai/Alignment and formed the short-lived National List.
More recently, in late 2005, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon abruptly ordered his troops to follow him into a brand-new political party, Kadima (Forward), a party with only one plank that mattered — unilateral withdrawal from occupied Gaza and simultaneous withdrawal from the calcified Oslo Process. This gesture was meant to shut down the complaint of all the world (led by the United States) that Israel was clinging to land that it had no title to. Sharon’s shining idea was that the United States and other interested outsiders would now be able to persuade Mahmoud Abbas, the Partner for Peace, to acknowledge his loss of the moral advantage, and return to negotiations in better faith over the much-reduced remaining business. Of course, nothing of the sort happened.
An instant success in the election of 2006, winning 29 seats, Kadima became the nucleus of a new governing coalition under Ehud Olmert (Sharon having been abruptly retired from active life by a massive stroke) . Although Kadima again won the most seats in the 2009 elections, it went into opposition under Tzipi Livni’s leadership when Netanyahu formed his new government. In the 2013 elections Kadima became the smallest party in the Knesset, winning only 2 seats. Thereupon a new party Hatnuah (The Movement) was formed by Kadima’s former leader, Tzipi Livni.
In a variation on this theme (the well-established egoistical politician who skips the traces of his well-established party and in a moment of time founds a new party on fealty to himself) we see another model in such recent political parties as Yesh Atid (There Is a Future), founded in 2012 by former journalist Yair Lapid.) In the Yesh Atid model, a political amateurs or a small group of amateurs, usually with lots of personal money, become inspired by the need for new directions in politics, start up a brand new party and draw a blue-ribbon list of candidates from well-known public figures, military heroes, journalists and so on. The latest example of this type is Kulanu (All Of us) formed November 2014 under the leadership of Moshe Kahlon; as I write, pollsters are predicting that it will gain anywhere from 5 to 13 seats.
Another variant on this theme is the party like Meretz (Vigour) formed in 1992 by a long-time Knesset member Shulamit Aloni out of remnants of three small parties that had been declining for many years (Ratz, Mapam, Shinui.) Meretz exemplifies the ability of the Israeli system to keep alive the commitments of smaller parties while including them in new outfits, benefitting in the short term from the popularity of a suddenly-emerging political super-star. Meretz is a secular party, loyal to the two-state solution to the Peace Process. It was at its peak in the 13th Knesset (1992-1996) holding 12 seats, it declined to six seats at the 2013.
(Given the vastly greater population of the United States and the greater venerability and rigidity of the American two-party system, one does not expect to find parallels to this story in American politics. The closest modern parallel might be the capture of the New York Republican party in the 1950s by Nelson Rockefeller and the capture of the West Virginia politics in the late 1960s by another Republican outsider, Winthrop Rockefeller.)
The proportional representational model seemed providentially appropriate to the situation of the several waves of Jewish refugees fleeing from persecution in Arab states following 1949. Under Israel’s basic Law, these immigrants were citizens from the moment of arrival; and finding the governing parties in situ all of Ashkenazi (European) background and generally unfriendly to the Eastern way of life, they of course founded brand new parties that even today draw almost exclusively on fractions of Sephardic Jewry or Jews of African origin. Several of these ethnic-based parties were subsumed into Shas (Guardians of the Torah) founded in 1984 under the leadership of Sephardi Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.
A similar pattern played out with respect to the massive immigration of Russians who suddenly found themselves free to migrate to Israel following diplomatic pressure by the American government in the 1980s and who moved eventually into the ranks of Israel Beitenu (Israel Our Home), founded in by Avigdor Lieberman (Foreign Minister in the current Netanyahu government.
Recent Patterns and Prospects.
This bird’s-eye summary does not does not do justice to all the permutations and combinations of possibility that there are in Israeli politics. There were, after all twelve parties represented in the Nineteenth Knesset, not to mention the thirty registered parties that did not have seats in the 19th Knesset and a roughly equal number running with little hope for the 20th Knesset. Each of these thinks of itself at least as deserving of voter support precisely because it is in class all by itself.
When the votes were counted in the days following the 2009 Israeli legislative election it was found that Kadima had earned 28 seats, while Likud had won 27 seats; but then as now Likud is better able to win the loyalties of a larger number of the smaller parties, which tend to be on the right-hand side of public issues. After more than a month of coalition negotiations, Benjamin Netanyahu was able to form a government and become Prime Minister.
While this matter is always relative, it did seem that Netanyahu’s coalition was less stable than others had been in recent times. When the religious parties over-played their hands, Netanyahu showed them the door and brought in Yisrael Beiteinu. In the 2013 election, the Likud/Yisrael Beitenu alliance won 31 seats. Twelve parties came out with at least a single seat. A governing majority was achieved by inviting in Yesh atid , Bayit Yehudi and Hatnuah (whose leader, Tzipi Livni, had defected from the moribund Kadima (which has since been taken off life support.)
A Democracy Like No Other.
Anyone who has ever visited the Israeli Knesset in session has come away upset (at a minimum) or downright shocked by the shouting, the shaking of fists, sometimes verging on bedlam. In The Blood of Abraham (1985), Jimmy Carter goes back to that day in 1979 “When I addressed the Knesset …”
It was a shock to observe the degree of freedom permitted the members of the parliament in their relatively undisciplined exchanges…. Instead of being embarrassed by the constant interruptions and by the physical removal of one of the members from the chamber, Prime Minister Begin seemed to relish the verbal combat and expressed pride in how unrestrained the shouted argument was. During an especially vituperative exchange, he leaned over to me and said proudly, “This is democracy in action.” (Jimmy Carter, Blood of Abraham, p.33.)
Carter’s disgust with such “undisciplined” political behavior became one enduring strand in the pattern of contempt for Israel that has made him perhaps Israel’s most formidable adversary in the arena of public opinion today. But we should pause long enough to reckon that the model for parliamentary behaviour that Carter has in mind is that of the U.S. Congress, where the “deliberative process” comes down on a daily basis to one member at a time bloviating from behind a podium to an all-but-empty house.
Still, Israel’s undisciplined and sometimes uncouth Knesset is responsible for creating and presiding over one of the world’s miracle economies. It has won public confidence and has sustained a high degree of patriotic pride and respect for its civilian authority from military forces involved in the most dangerous kind of duty in the world.
The hit-and-run effort I have made in this essay to make sense of Israel’s politics should bring out at least how malleable and how unpredictable Israeli politics has always been and how irrelevant to this story is our own history of partisan politics.
About ten days before election day reputable polls were suggesting a result more-or-less along the lines of 2013: Netanyahu’s Likud and the Herzog/Livni joint list (Zionist Union) were virtually tied for first place (between 24 and 26 seats each, out of the total 120 seats); Bayit Yehudi and Yesh Atid, Netanyahu’s partners in the 19th Knesset, with perhaps 15 seats and 12 seats respectively. In recent elections the pattern has been for the smaller parties, including the “religious” ones – after much display of distaste – to sign on to the Netanyahu combination, giving the margin of victory over any combination of Herzog and Livni with the other small parties.
But who can really say! Israel is a democracy like no other. It is much more truly “democratic” in its procedures than is our own system – if we understand “democracy” to be measured by the possibility that voters have to participate in its methods and procedures. (Canada still has an unelected Senate, in case you haven’t; and we are still at least a century behind the United States in the matter of providing “primary” elections for political officers and candidates.)
Perhaps the best way for testing the vitality of a democracy is simply to find how hard political leaders must work at keeping their followers in line behind them while responding to what the citizens are demanding. No democracy passes this test with higher marks than that of the State of Israel.