Israel heads for elections

Israeli elections

For people who have been following local Israeli news recently, it comes as no great surprise that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has called for the dissolution of the Knesset and for new elections to be held in 3 months time, on March 17th 2015.  I would hazard a guess and say that most Israelis are not particularly happy about this turn of events, which seems unnecessary and more of an ego-play by all parties rather than a genuine need.

The background to this crisis was a total breakdown of trust between Netanyahu on one side, and Finance Minister and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid and Justice Minister and Hatnua leader Tzippi Livni.

Yair Lapid

Yisrael Hayom reports on the “unforgivable subversion” of Lapid, and the inevitable divorce:

Netanyahu used a spear to hit Lapid under his fifth rib, which the Bible tells us is the most vulnerable part of the body. He used Lapid’s Achilles heel — his record at the Finance Ministry — to strike where it hurt most. This resulted in a feud over actual substance, unlike the manufactured crises we have become used to. The disagreement was over Lapid’s decision to withhold some NIS 6 billion ($1.52 billion) from the Defense Ministry. The military is reliant on these funds to relocate some of its biggest bases to the Negev. And now, with this project in limbo, the Zionist vision of settling the desert is imperiled.

Dimona, Yeroham, Beersheba, Yotvata and Eilat are not like Ofra and Beit El. By holding off on the IDF’s relocation to the Negev, we are undermining our own Jewish identity — more than any so-called “Jewish state” bill. What was a pointed disagreement between Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Lapid is now a battle of ideas. Yesh Atid is fighting the very vision articulated by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion at the state’s founding.

Tzippi Livni

Netanyahu was also furious at Tzippi Livni’s undermining his diplomatic position by holding unauthorised talks with the Palestinians, and called Lapid and Livni’s efforts “an attempted putsch” and fired them both, which was the immediate cause of the collapse of the coalition:

Lapid had sabotaged him on Iran by hailing “a new tune” when President Hassan Rouhani came to power, and criticizing him for ordering Israel’s diplomats to boycott Rouhani’s UN General Assembly appearance. And Livni had defied him by meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas when government policy was to refrain from doing so.

They also tried to subvert the coalition from within by attempting to enlist the haredi parties:

“Something Lapid and Livni have in common in their leadership is grandiloquent statements about new politics. But in effect they are part of the same old politics,” he said. “In recent weeks, they attempted to entice the ultra-Orthodox parties into deposing the prime minister while sitting in government.

“The finance minister who failed in managing the economy conspired with the justice minister in the dark in an effort to topple the government,” Netanyahu charged. “In one word, we call that a putsch. It’s impossible to run a government and a state this way, and therefore I advised the cabinet secretary to fire Livni and Lapid.

Livni, in an interview with Channel 10 immediately after Netanyahu’s press conference, accused the prime minister of cowardice in firing her over the phone rather than in person, saying that he “didn’t even dare to look me in the eye to fire me. There was no putsch against him. As far as I know, he made relentless efforts to bring in the ultra-Orthodox.”

The difference between Livni and Netanyahu is that Livni was trying to bring in the haredim and create a new coalition, rather than trying to widen the existing one.

As for the chances of the various parties in the new elections, here are some figures:

Snap polls by the two major television stations indicated that if elections were to be held today, Netanyahu’s Likud party would make gains at the expense of Lapid’s and Livni’s parties. According to a Channel 10 poll, Likud would win 22 seats, Jewish Home 17, Labor 13, Yisrael Beytenu 12, Moshe Kahlon’s as-yet-unnamed party 12, Yesh Atid nine, the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism eight, Shas seven, Meretz seven, Hatnua four and the Arab parties nine.

A similar survey by Channel 2 showed Likud with 22, Jewish Home 17, Labor 13, Kahlon and Yisrael Beytenu with 10 apiece, Yesh Atid with nine, Shas with nine, United Torah Judaism with eight, Meretz with seven, Hatnua with four, and the Arab parties with 11.

But 3 months is a long time in politics. We will yet see if these numbers carry through to March.

Why are Israeli coalitions so unstable? According to Haviv Rettig Gur in the Times of Israel, it’s all the voters’ fault:

Until the beginning of the last decade, Israeli politics divided fairly neatly between right and left, between the center-left Labor and the center-right Likud. Each was the overwhelming political power on its side of the political map, and each had a clear answer to the fundamental question that defined the left-right axis throughout the 1980s and 1990s — the Palestinian question.

That question has now been settled, not because peace has been achieved but because the vast majority of the Israeli public is convinced peace is not possible in the foreseeable future.

The electorate is more fickle, and more cynical. In polls that ask Israelis which state institutions they consider the most corrupt, political parties come out at the very top of the list.

And voters no longer seem to vote on clear-cut ideological lines. In the last election, fully one-third of likely voters were undecided by election day. A December 2013 poll found that perhaps as many as half of the 345,985 Israelis who voted for the right-wing Jewish Home, which explicitly opposes the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, actually support such a state if it brings about separation between Israelis and Palestinians.

Into this electoral chaos, this crisis of political identity and purpose, a new breed of Israeli politician has arisen. The old defense-establishment elite that once ran the country, from generals like Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon to former Defense Ministry director general Shimon Peres, gave way to a new class of PR-savvy, socially minded journalists, businesspeople and high-minded academics. Ex-Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich, Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid, Jewish Home chief Naftali Bennett — all reflected an Israeli public seeking a new politics, where personality trumped policy and where domestic concerns were no longer superseded by the now-frozen security-diplomatic track.

Posturing, not policy, drove much of the government’s behavior. And in the end, it was not any substantive disagreement that broke the coalition apart. It is hard to see how the attempt to govern through electioneering could have ended differently.

And if the electorate doesn’t offer more decisive results at the ballot box, there is every reason to believe this new merger of governance and electioneering will be a defining — and destabilizing — feature of Israeli politics for years to come.

I’m not sure I agree with Gur. One can hardly blame the voters for being indecisive when the politicians themselves offer such a mix of solutions to the multiple problems facing Israel today.

For sure, the old “left-right” divide has disappeared. People who are hawkish, i.e. right-wing, on security issues are not necessarily capitalists, and might well be quite socialist on economic issues.

David Horovitz in the Times of Israel sums up the general feeling of so many Israelis in “A Plague on all their houses“:

The first thing you want to say to the dysfunctional rabble who have self-evidently failed to work together doggedly in the wider interests of the state of Israel is: Grow up. There are bigger issues at stake here than your egos. Democracies around the world have tended to provide for parliamentary terms of four years or so because it takes a while for politicians to learn the ropes, and for policies to be formulated, fine-tuned and implemented. Too long between elections, runs the sensible thinking, and elected leaderships tend to forget the voters on whose behalf they are supposed to be working. Too short a government’s term, and the leaderships get nothing done on behalf of those voters. As is emphatically the case with the now-to-be truncated 19th Knesset.

And the second thing you want to say is: A plague on all of your houses. Rarely has the old anarchist proverb, “Don’t vote, it only encourages them,” seemed so apposite. Except, of course, that staying away in March or April, or whenever it is our lousy leaders can manage to agree on a voting date, would further weaken our precious, abused democracy.

But one thing has changed since we last voted, on January 22, 2013: The electoral threshold has been raised from 2% to 3.25%. Two of the current Knesset’s three Arab parties and Kadima would have missed out had that been the case last time. There can no longer be small, two- and three-seat parties in our 120-member parliament. And since there are already no big parties — at 19 seats, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid is the largest in the outgoing Knesset — Israel is apparently becoming the land of multiple medium-sized parties.

Again, though, what happens on polling day will likely be only part of the story. Those unthinkable alliances will suddenly again become possible, and earnestly justified by their advocates, as the egotists jostle for power. Legislation — some planned, some already passed — will be easily sacrificed on the altar of expediency. That “Jewish state” law Netanyahu deemed sufficiently essential as to risk unsettling Israel’s fragile Jewish-Arab interaction? Well, that’s gone out the window for now. Evidently not quite so urgent, after all. The legislation intended to increase the quota of ultra-Orthodox recruits to the IDF, forced through this short-lived parliament, will be substantively amended if the ultra-Orthodox parties join the next coalition.

Israeli voters might be forgiven for thinking that their leaders are more interested in power for power’s sake than in the vital, orderly, effective governance of the state of Israel in a region fraught with dangers. Israeli voters would be correct.

The incomparable Winston Churchill observed, rightly of course, that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” He is also said to have quipped that “the best argument against democracy is a five-minute talk with the average voter.” Actually, there’s a far better argument. He just hadn’t met Israel’s modern politicians.

Interesting times lie ahead.

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8 Responses to Israel heads for elections

  1. Reality says:

    Yesh Atids leader Yair Lapid ,a great anti ultra orthodox guy ,who pushed for them(rightly so)to enlist,has suddenly done an about turn&has offered them anything&everything including cancelling all the laws he pushed through that hurt them.They(again rightly so)told him to get lost &refuse to join him.But that is today.Tommorrow is another matter…..

  2. Brian Goldfarb says:

    Arguably, it’s the electoral system that’s to blame: it’s almost designed to generate unstable coalitions. That is, the largest single party has to cobble together sufficient votes on the Knesset to ensure that the PM (usually) gets a majority. Given that Ben Gurion (here I go, blaming him again, and he’s a hero of mine – but he did have feet of clay) devised – or at least he and the Mapai majority did – a system of supposedly “perfect” proportional representation (pr), the result was bound, over time, to lead to chaos. His (or Mapai’s) system was to calculate what % of the votes represented 1 Knesset seat: get that, and your party got a seat (slightly oversimplified, but you get the point): no realistic threshold: see below.

    For the first 30 years (or thereabouts) of Israel’s existence, Mapai (later Labor) could govern with the help of the National Religious Party – I’m that old I can remember these coalitions – given that the NRP was relatively moderate, even centrist. This held true, for a while, when Herut (later Likud) became the largest party.

    However, as members of political parties represented in the Knesset fell out/failed to get the recognition they (but not necessarily anyone else) felt they deserved, parties fell apart, spawned offshoots…

    Result: multiple parties, who all (or many of whom) had to be satisfied to get a working majority.

    The West Germans (who got their own independent government at about the same time as the Israelis) decided on a what turned out to be a sensible threshold: get at least 5% of all the votes cast in any election, or you get no seats in the Bundestag/Lande government…Result“; nearly always a stable government that lasted a full Parliament, even if it was a coalition of near opposites (Blue/Red, for instance).

    So why didn’t the Israelis do the same? Go ask! They’re all Jews, so maybe they just enjoy arguing.

    Actually, there’s one of the originals still around: go ask Shimon Peres: he might actually know – he’s certainly spry enough to remember, if he ever knew the reason!

    • anneinpt says:

      You’re absolutely right – more so than Rettig Gur who says it’s the voters’ fault. However – a big but – the system has been reformed somewhat so that the threshhold is now 3.5%. It used to be 1% and was upped to 2% with a great hullaballoo.

      It was supposed to be raised to 5% this time round but of course the smaller parties rejected it. Why would anyone think the smaller parties would vote themselves out of existence?!

      However the Knesset did manage to squeeze through a 3.5% threshhold amendment.

      Slowly slowly our system will end up making sense. Despite Israel being a very stable democracy people forget we are really a very young country, not yet 70 years old, which is the blink of an eye in history.

      And considering that Ben Gurion and his crowd were basically communists, it is nothing short of a miracle that Israel dug itself out of its socialist nightmare relatively quickly (after about 30 years) to become a free capitalist social-liberal society without bloodshed and without societal breakdown.

      • Now, now Anne, that comment on Ben Gurion is a bit naughty, and I suspect that you know it. He was as much part of the sane Left as I am. The mistake he made was to assume that’s “pure” system of PR would somehow create a “pure” democracy, by which he didn’t mean one in which Mapai was returned in perpetuity. After all,by the time of Altalena incident, he and Menachim Begin werereconciled as to the “bet” outcome of that affair.

        That he was wrong about the electoral system is nothing new: lots of well-meaning and democratic politicians have made much the same worth of mistake. And, let’s be honest, BG’s was hardly the worst in the history of politics, hardly on the scale of “that guy with the funny moustache and crazy method of saluting won’t get anywhere,so we can all safely ignore him” was it?

        • anneinpt says:

          OK, I’ll take it back about B-G being a communist. But he was a die-hard socialist, and despite being of the sane left regarding Zionism – obviously, since he was its leader – he and his comrades brought with them many of the bad political processes of socialism and even communism. It wasn’t all bad obviously, for example the National Health – Kupat Holim – system is excellent although it has since been privatized. Also the kibbutzim, which are actually examples of Communism as it ought to be but never is outside of Israel – were fantastic in building up the country. On the other hand the closed-shop industries and unions stunted Israel’s growth for decades.

          I’m not saying it was all B-G’s fault. Of course not. But let’s put it this way. If Israel had been founded by yekkes (German-born Jews) the country would have run much more efficiently. 😈

  3. peteca1 says:

    a lot of politics.
    BUT is there any other reason why PM Netanyahu might have dissolved the Government for the next 3 months? Well, I suppose that we will find out.

    Pete, USA

    • anneinpt says:

      I don’t think you should try to read too many sub-texts here Pete. In this case it’s a matter of “what you see is what you get”. Too many egos and not enough willingness to cooperate is the basis of these new elections.

      It’s quite pathetic really.

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