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The Israeli political system: outdated and ineffective (Second Part)

knesset.jpgOne thing is clear: Israel can’t afford to be plagued by the indecision that comes with unstable coalition governments. The system will be reformed sooner than might be expected.

(From Jerusalem) THE RECENT ISRAELI ELECTORAL campaign was best characterized by dullness and a lack of interest. The economic crisis did not allow for an increase in spending on two accounts.

First, it made it almost impossible to privately raise and spend the needed funds. Austerity imposed itself naturally on the respective campaigns of the 33 parties participating in the elections; each one had to claim that it had a cure for the economic ills, but could not appear to be lavishly spending on the election.

A NEW STYLE OF POLITICS

Furthermore, the corruption scandals affecting Olmert and others created a demand for a new style of clean-hand politics centered not only on personal honesty, but also on public modesty. This was a difficult exercise for politicians like Barak and Netanyahu, known as people that had not only enjoyed power in the past, but who also have a fond taste for its material fruits, having charged exorbitant prices for lectures, consulting and other activities while not in power. This point was very well understood and exploited by Livni, who has not yet served as prime minister, and could thus project a perfectly clean record and a relatively modest lifestyle to the public. She integrated all of this into her “new style of politics” campaign message, somewhat similar to the one recently used by Obama. “The main accusation against Tzipi Livni was again that she lacked security knowledge and decision-making ability”

Campaigning was interrupted for three weeks during the country’s military onslaught in Gaza. This was in total accordance with Israeli political culture: internal cleavages – and especially their magnification during a political-electoral campaign – should be ignored while the guns roar. This, coupled with the fact that the decision to deal militarily with Hamas’ threat in Gaza enjoyed almost total support among the Jewish sector of Israeli society, ending up costing the Left – the Meretz [1]party – and the Labor party, many votes. As a matter of fact, both are now seen as the big losers of the election.

The public’s interest was not reignited when, with very few weeks left, the campaign was resumed in mid-January. It appeared that things had changed, due to the increase in support that Ehud Barak and the Labor party were receiving in the polls. But this fact was delusive, because Barak –perceived by the public as Mr. Security, or the best possible minister of defense in the current circumstances– could not rid himself of the image he earned during his tenure as Prime Minister from 1999 to 2001, when his reputation as a political leader was greatly damaged, but his military know-how and ability was reasserted. This is why the declining Labor party could not effectively compete in a contested election in which the personal side of each party’s leader played a central role. Paradoxically, the characterization of Barak as a good and knowledgeable minister of defense pushed the Labor party back into fourth place, out of the leading troika and into a deep crisis.

The main accusation against Tzipi Livni was again that she lacked security knowledge and decision-making ability. Both the Likud and Labor parties played this card, asking the constituency a simple question: In a hypothetical major security crisis –for instance, an Iranian attack on Israel at three o’clock in the morning– who would you like to be on the receiving end of the army’s phone call to the prime minister?

LIVNI’S PRAGMATIC PLATFORM

Livni’s answer during the last months was to take a pro-active attitude towards Hamas in Gaza: not only pushing for a military operation, but being opposed to stopping it, in spite of international pressure. At the same time, Livni stressed the peace route through negotiations with the moderate Palestinian leadership –Mahmoud Abbas-Abu Mazen– which she herself had been conducting since the Annapolis Conference in November 2007. “The Labor party’s increase in popularity was fleeting, especially since after the strictly military success of Operation Cast Lead on the ground, Hamas and other groups continued to fire rockets and mortar shells into southern Israel” This line, working towards a negotiated compromise with the Palestinian moderates while taking a harsh military stance against the Palestinian extremists, was seen by Livni and Kadima’s leadership as the way to win the vote of the Israeli political center, chiefly composed of a middle class fed up with both war and terror.

Even though there were differences, in a certain sense it was a continuation of the pragmatic political platforms that had propelled both Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon into the Prime Minister’s Office. The other propaganda put forward by Livni was based on strengthening her security image by stressing her past service in Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence agency, and by asking the population to vote for a woman. Regarding this issue, Kadima did not stress the historical role of Golda Meir [2], but rather feminist ideas concerning the ability to perform the same tasks equally on a meritocratic, and not gender-based, approach.

The Labor party’s increase in popularity was fleeting, especially since after the strictly military success of Operation Cast Lead on the ground, Hamas and other groups continued to fire rockets and mortar shells into southern Israel. In other words, no political results –a ceasefire, the demise of Hamas, recognition of Israel by radical Palestinian Muslim groups– were achieved. The Likud used these points in order to strengthen its electoral campaign, but support for its leader slowly eroded during January and February 2009.

THE RISING STAR

Instead, the rising star on the Israeli political horizon was Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu, a radical right party supported by many immigrants from the former Soviet Union, as well as Likud defectors. Lieberman stressed four points.

“The indecisive results of the military operation in Gaza, coupled with international criticism marked by a spate of anti-Israeli demonstrations and Iran’s alleged role in supporting Hamas in Gaza, reawakened another feature of Israeli politics that worked in Lieberman’s favor: the existential threat” The first was his campaign slogan: no citizenship without loyalty. He was referring to loyalty to Israel as a Jewish State, claiming that the Arab population of Israel –Israeli citizens of Palestinian nationality–, and especially their representatives to the Knesset, constituted a fifth column and should be disenfranchised unless they declared themselves loyal and proved their loyalty to Israel through mandatory participation in a national civil service instead of military service.

He also stressed secularity, attacked the position of the ultra-orthodox Israeli parties —Shas [3], Agudat Israel [4] and Degel HaTora [5]— and demanded a broadening of the criteria that determine who is a Jew, and who is not. This is a very attractive point for both immigrants and secular Israelis, who would like to have civil matters settled outside of the rabbinical courts, and civil marriage.

Furthermore, he proposed a peace plan with the Palestinians based on a territorial-demographical exchange, in which Israel would keep the major concentrations of settlements in the West Bank, in exchange receiving two major concentrations of Israeli Arabs: the area between Hadera and Afula known as Wadi Ara, and the Triangle near Kfar Saba (northeast of Tel Aviv).

His final point concerns the reform of the electoral-government system from a parliamentarian one into a presidential one, in order to give the government the ability to solve the country’s major problems – but also to eliminate the influence of the orthodox Jewish parties, and marginalize the Arab ones.

The indecisive results of the military operation in Gaza, coupled with international criticism marked by a spate of anti-Israeli demonstrations (some with clear antisemitic undertones) and Iran’s alleged role in supporting Hamas in Gaza, reawakened another feature of Israeli politics that worked in Lieberman’s favor: the existential threat. Polls showed a dramatic increase of support for radical right ideas and their personification in the strong man: Avigdor Lieberman. In contrast, these very same poll results scared some sectors of the Israeli voters, and some claim that these were the voters that allowed Livni and Kadima to obtain the first majority in the Knesset.

Something interesting took place within the Arab parties and their electorate in Israel. In general, during the last elections there was a trend of growing apathy and decreasing participation amongst Israeli Arabs. The military operation in Gaza contributed to the feeling of political alienation of large groups of the Arab population of Israel, since the country of which they are citizens attacked their Palestinian co-nationals –and perhaps families and even brothers– in Gaza. Still, at the last moment, Israel’s various Arab political leaderships called upon their constituency to vote, and they responded, counteracting the aforementioned historical trends, but without creating a coordinated Arab bloc in the Knesset.

AND THE WINNER IS…

So, just who won the election? “In a system of high proportional representation, nobody really wins a parliamentary election, and the possible political coalitions are no less important than the total number of votes each party gets” This is a very difficult question to answer. We have already claimed that there has been a shift to the right –and even to the radical right– as a consequence of the ongoing problem between Israel and Gaza, and the Iranian link, which strengthens the existing feeling of there being an existential threat. The ambivalent attitudes of the left and center-left wing parties, Meretz and Labor, regarding the military operation in Gaza –total support at first, but increasing moral criticism and demands to stop the operation in light of the mounting Palestinian casualties and injuries– projected a confused imaged that cost them many votes. The already weakened and decadent image of the Labor party made it easy or many of its followers to desert and vote for Livni and Kadima as the only real option to prevent the right –including Lieberman’s radical right– from winning the election.

In a system of high proportional representation, nobody really wins a parliamentary election, and the possible political coalitions are no less important than the total number of votes each party gets. This has been proven once again, since Livni, after a brilliant end to her and Kadima’s electoral campaign, got the first majority in the Knesset, sending 28 representatives. Netanyahu and the Likud were only a hair behind, with 27 representatives, while Lieberman and Israel Beyteinu placed third with fifteen – 25 percent less than what the polls awarded them before the elections, but still a significant increase, since they had only sent eleven representatives the previous time.

Barak and the Labor party only managed to win thirteen representatives. Barak himself was elected –he was not a member of the Knesset in the previous period– but the Labor party lost a third of its electoral weight under his leadership, since they had had nineteen representatives in the Knesset during the previous period.

The coalition-forming process is in full swing, with President Shimon Peres holding consultations with the political leaders in order to decide who will be asked to form the next coalition government. Here, the right wing bloc, led by Likud and Netanyahu, has better chances than Livni and Kadima, since it has 65 of the 120 members of the Knesset.

Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu has become the pivotal political party, and it holds a great deal of leverage in the coalition formation unless Netanyahu, Livni and Barak decide to form a national unity coalition and exclude the party from power. This possibility is not as Utopian as it may seem, and it is dependent upon signals from the US and the rest of the world. Incorporating Avigdor Lieberman into Israel’s next government may exact high political costs in Washington, where President Obama has inaugurated a new era, proclaiming the Middle East peace process to be an important part of his foreign policy agenda, and showing no sympathy whatsoever for the radical right, at home or abroad.

COALITIONS ARE DIFFICULT TO FORM, BUT THEY FALL APART EASILY

Israeli political leaders, already traveling down a very bumpy political road and facing various crises at home, may decide to not add another controversial element to their already battered political situation.

“The possibility of a rotation coalition in which after two years the premiership will pass from Kadima to Likud or vice versa has been discarded” Anyway, if Lieberman joins the ruling coalition government, he will do so on the coalition agreement’s terms; and as we know, ideological principles, electoral political propaganda and governing pragmatism are three different things. Israeli coalition agreements are costly sets of compromises that lower the levels of governability and preclude the making of the most important decisions, such as hammering out compromises needed for peace, creating mechanisms for electoral and government reform, resolving religious-secular strife or drafting a constitution. In other words: coalitions are difficult to form, but they fall apart easily.

Netanyahu has better chances than Livni of forming the next government coalition with the right, or expanding the right coalition or a national union coalition centered around Likud-Kadima-Labor, able to pay lower prices to minor members like Shas, and exclude Lieberman. The possibility of a rotation coalition in which after two years the premiership will pass from Kadima to Likud or vice versa has been discarded.

All of these elements, added to the maturation of the Arab-Israeli conflict and Iran’s role in it, are signs that Israel’s hour of change is nearing, and it may take place sooner than it looks, due to a combination of international and internal pressure. Leaving things as they are would signify indecision, and it would only deepen the crises that no one wants to live through.