It isn’t just Netanyahu the Israelis are fighting – it’s the system

“This election will be everyone against Netanyahu. The vast majority of voters, all of the other parties, the entire media, the US, Europe and the vast majority of users on social media; all standing against a single man. The absolutely heart-breaking fact is, that given the political system that Israel employs, the Israeli public’s shift to the right and the current lack of a viable alternative…..all those forces combined probably still won’t be enough.”

It seems like it is election time again and soon Israelis will be heading back to the ballot box. For those of us in relatively stable democracies, where the process ‘rewards us’ with 4 or 5 year government terms, the Israeli system is at best confusing. So much so that most people never look beyond the headlines. As much as I accept Israel’s position in the Middle East is one of having to live in the world’s most dangerous neighbourhood, I have simply never felt the inclination to defend a political system that in my mind, defeats every major purpose of a democracy. I see no conflict in both actively supporting Israel and actively petitioning to change their system of government.

Perhaps to those who do not understand sometimes, why Israel is doing what it does, this might just go some way to shedding some light on the situation. This isn’t a piece about Israel’s position vis-à-vis its borders or policies, although the repercussions of the political system can impact greatly on the inflexibility of political will. Israel operates a party list proportional representation system in the one nation that should never have employed it. It hasn’t enjoyed a single parliament finish a full term for almost 30 years. A former Prime Minister and former President have both been sentenced to prison. Several MP’s have also served time. One can only be thankful that the judiciary there is so strong.

In general, before an election, each party’s members or in some cases their ‘inner council’ vote internally for their preferred candidates. This creates a party list, with those receiving the most votes running at the top end of that list. At a general election, the electorate then vote for a party not an individual. So an established party can be fairly certain anyone near the top of their list will be a member of parliament, regardless of the opinion of the electorate on that specific candidate; Israeli voters simply do not have the option of directly voting out an unpopular politician. If we can imagine such a situation in England; a Tory or Labour MP who had enough friends around him politically would be an MP in perpetuity even if he was the most reviled man in the land. He can make himself virtually untouchable. This lack of accountability creates not just tension and mistrust with the electorate, but an atmosphere and opportunity for corruption, allows for political gang warfare, double dealing and no doubt other such unsavoury elements. I cannot remember an Israeli politician being forced to resign for anything but a political motive. Because of these power blocks, politicians stay around forever; unlike the UK, a trouncing in an election isn’t always enough to remove unwanted leaders. The same faces – election in – election out – decade in – decade out.

So what about the coalition? Until the second Intifada broke out in 2000, Israeli politics had two strong blocks, those on the left and those on the right. In Israel the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ have virtually no economic connotations whatsoever; in simple terms the left tend to believe peace is achievable, the right do not; peace for each side isn’t so much a question of price but of a difference of opinion in the underlying assessment of the ultimate goal of the Palestinians. Theoretically, in Israel, a far right wing party can be (is even likely to be) socialist; a far left wing party can be more than half full of ardent capitalists.

After 2000, the majority of Israelis considered the outbreak of the intifada a fundamental breach of the understandings created in the peace process and the traditional left wing block disintegrated. Israelis simply lost faith in the process, the charismatic leaders deserted them and a block that could once muster nearly 50% of the electorate, can now only pull together 25%. This leaves 75% of the electorate voting for parties that are at best, somewhat cynical of Palestinian intentions.

This is crucially important. Whereas, the clear cut demarcations of pre-2000 Israeli politics almost disregarded economic considerations, the current divide is no longer focusing on what can or cannot be done in the peace process. So the right, the centre and the religious groups have now dissected themselves several times over, forming a large number of party’s with few immediately visible differences between them. The result is an election that brings ten or more parties of various sizes to the coalition negotiation table. None with a clear majority, few believing in the peace process and most regarding the other players as direct political rivals in future elections.

Coalition formation is the art of the temporarily possible. The leader of the largest party is expected to form a government by aligning the ambitions of several opposing parties together. In 2009 the largest party was Kadima, a party positioned to the left of the Likud having been created when Ariel Sharon split from the Likud in 2005, but Kadima proved incapable in 2009 of pulling together enough seats (at least 61 of the 120) to create a coalition and as a result the baton passed to the Likud and they formed the government. That failure is indicative of an underlying problem that will in all likelihood resurface in the upcoming elections.

If in the upcoming elections, the parties to the left of Netanyahu’s Likud can only muster 45 seats or less, the largest party would need to carry the entire block as one and add at least two parties from the right of the Likud (nationalist or religious) to form a government and even then, it would still be a relatively unstable one. Simply crossing the 61 seat threshold is never enough because in that situation even the smallest party becomes capable of holding the entire government to ransom over any issue it chooses. For a government to last beyond a few months it has to be carrying at least 67 seats and even then nothing is guaranteed.

Elections in Israel are not as unpredictable as pollsters and commentators would have you believe. Not because the share of the vote cannot change by a few percentage points, but because currently it needs a far greater swing than this to make a difference. In the UK, the election is fought in the marginal constituencies, with theoretically small swings, capable of changing the government. In Israel shifts of seismic magnitude are required to wrestle the grip the Likud currently has on power. Why is it so important? Because the Likud only have less than 20% of the popular vote and are dependent on bringing in the other 30%+ through coalition forming. Thus the major power is a minor power even within its own coalition.

Netanyahu said this week, that the government was impossible to run, and he is not wrong. As the large parties disintegrated post intifada 2, the need to combine mutually incompatible forces and then lead them, expecting to maintain cohesion whilst doing so, all from a position of inherent weakness makes each election simply a temporary staging post before the next election at some short point down the road.

Because the truth that is often lost on Western Commentators is that the Likud is not really an extreme party. True too that for the last several elections, Israelis have voted en-masse for political compromise with the Palestinians and in favour of a two state solution. If we total just the parties to the left and right of the centre and those occupying the middle space they would be able to form a united and relatively stable government every time. In 2013, the ‘Likud’, ‘Yesh Atid’ and ‘Labour’ collected 65 seats between them; in 2009, the ‘Likud’, ‘Kadima’ and ‘Labour’ collected 68 and in 2006 the same 3 parties collected 64. However 2 of those 3 operate much the same way as both the Tories and Labour do in the UK; they see themselves as political adversaries over and above almost all other considerations. Yes, there are differences and yes some are fundamental, but the differences are not as pronounced as those found in the very parties each side would be forced to unite with to form a coalition with anyone but the ‘Auld enemy’.

If a similar situation existed here in the UK (thereby creating several fringe parties) and then if the Tories would form a coalition with UKIP, the BNP a few other radical or extreme parties and a couple of religious movements simply because a Lib-Lab-Con coalition wouldn’t be seen as politically acceptable to the politicians. What sacrifices would need to be made ethically? And what direction would the government policies take us if not away from the centre, the moderate and the will of the majority? Our electorate wouldn’t abide by it and in turn such a scenario is unlikely, because our politicians remain directly accountable to the people who vote for them.

Unfortunately this is not the system Israel employs and I see little chance of change this time around. The same parties remain, with the same leaders and we will probably witness the same outcome. There is talk of party unification; Tzippy Livni, Yair Lapid and a newcomer Moshe Kahlon creating some kind of united front. But as with the earlier example, even if they over-perform this is unlikely to be enough and they would still probably require agreement with 2 from Avigdor Lieberman’s ‘Yisrael Beitenu’, Naftali Bennett’s ‘Jewish home’ or Eli Yishai’s ‘Shas’ to hold things temporarily together. All parties situated to the right of Netanyahu’s ‘Likud’

There is also talk of a challenge to Netanyahu from within the Likud, with commentators pointing to the possibility of  Gideon Sa’ar, Benjamin Netanyahu’s recently-resigned second in command, challenging Bibi Netanyahu in the upcoming Likud primary (creation of party list). Even if this were shown to be real, his chances are probably over-stated, because currently the media will not step past an opportunity to weaken Netanyahu’s hold. In fact, there is about to be a concerted media attempt to oust him. Every challenge will be spoken up, every alternative highlighted. New Messiah’s will be found daily, new reasons to vote for someone else….anything…’anything but Bibi’. From this point on, almost any ‘expert opinion’ you read about the Israeli election with some very potent salt.

The shame is that it isn’t directly Netanyahu’s fault, this isn’t what the electorate voted for and anyone who was to stand in his place would face the same failing system. The even greater shame is that what is at stake in Israel isn’t just VAT and tax hikes. Israeli politics is serious business.

This election will be everyone against Netanyahu. The vast majority of voters, all of the other parties, the entire media, the US, Europe and the vast majority of users on social media; all standing against a single man. The absolutely heart-breaking fact is, that given the political system that Israel employs, the Israeli public’s shift to the right and the current lack of a viable alternative…..all those forces combined probably still won’t be enough.