03-21-2021 CBN News Jerusalem Aliza Landes and Carrie Keller-Lynn
How is it possible that Israel, often touted as the only stable democracy in the Middle East, is going to the polls for the fourth time in two years on March 23rd? And has had the same Prime Minister in office since 2009? A man whose party, by the way, has never won more than 25% of the vote?
The Israeli political scene is in upheaval. Hand in hand with the unprecedented fourth election in two years, there hasn’t been a stable government since 2018. Prime Minister – Benjamin Netanyahu, or Bibi – has just surpassed fifteen years at the helm of the country, spread across 5 terms. Trying to explain what is going on in Israeli politics to friends and family back in the US, is challenging to say the least. Related
From the outside, Israeli politics seems messy and noisy. Spoiler – it looks like that from the inside too. American politics are a veritable bastion of restraint and orderliness compared to the boisterous hyperactive democracy on display in Israel.
In order to understand what is going on here, it helps to leave the mental framework of the American two-party system that conveniently places anyone and everyone on either the left or the right side of the aisle. Israel is a parliamentary democracy, meaning that Israelis vote for one of many parties – 39 in this election – and parties are apportioned seats in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, according to their voter yield. To form a government, parties representing a majority of Members of Knesset (61 out of 120 members), must come together as a coalition, which is what is referred to as a government.
The trick is in cobbling together parties in alliances in order to reach the majority and form a government. The complication is that, in practice, every Knesset is a mix of larger and small parties, but no party large enough to capture the majority outright. In fact, no single party in Israeli history has ever managed to get an outright 61 seat majority. As a result, even after election results are in, it’s impossible to know what a government will look like until the parties have negotiated between themselves. It’s not unusual for seven or eight parties, and their myriad interests, to make up a coalition.
Given that the name of the game is forming a coalition, it can be easier to think about the political map in terms of blocs – the right-wing bloc, the left-wing bloc, the Arab Israeli parties, and then the swing parties that could sit with either side.
With all these moving parts, there are two key things to keep in mind:
First, as absurd as four elections in two years maybe, the prior three Israeli governments failed for, ultimately, a healthy reason: they were not able to deliver on their core premise, a majority alliance for legislative progress. Let’s contrast this to Washington, whose stability can sometimes perpetuate years of legislative gridlock. In the Israeli system, gridlock has a natural escape hatch, in government dissolution. Take this last Israeli government, a “unity” government formed as an emergency measure, in the background of the May 2020s worsening corona crisis. While unity in name, it was anything but in function. This government was among one of Israel’s worst, producing no substantive legislation and failing to even pass a national budget. Yes, this new election will cost taxpayers additional billions in shekels, and yes, many of the core issues that toppled the previous three governments have yet to be resolved. But at least the Israeli system continues to provide an outlet for reshuffling the deck in hopes of unsticking the cards – without having to wait a mandatory four years.
Second, what is often pointed to as a weakness of Israeli democracy – the many small parties, the cobbled coalitions – can actually function as a source of strength, and one that gives minority groups the potential for more influence and power. In another system, smaller parties that represent specific groups, be it religious groups in the case of the Ultraorthodox parties, or identity groups like Arab Israelis would have little to no influence. In Israel however, because a coalition is often composed of at least four parties, small parties can negotiate outsize portfolios and wield significant political power. This can cut both ways – one of the reasons that we find ourselves on the eve of the 4th election in two years is because the Ultra-Orthodox parties representing 12% of the population have been able to control major power centers, appropriate significant portions of public funds to their constituents and essentially operate as a state-within-a-state for years because they are such critical coalition partners for Benjamin Netanyahu.
However, just as they have been able to wield outsized influence with the current administration, the pendulum can swing the other way. This cycle, some polls are showing that the ‘kingmaker’ party, may not be any of the usual suspects, but rather Ra’am. If during coalition negotiations Ra’am is the key to forming a government, even though they will have 4, maybe 5 seats in the Knesset, they will most likely be able to demand ministries and resources as though they were a much larger party.
We have no idea, of course, who will emerge victorious in next week’s election, or whether the stalemate will continue and lead to a fifth round. But regardless of how it turns out: Israeli politics are rowdy but robust, messy but efficient, and structurally inclusive. When reading about this election and the power plays that will inevitably follow, remember that while Israel’s democracy may look dysfunctional from the outside, it is a genuine reflection of the multitude of groups that live side by side in this small, but loudly diverse, country.
Carrie Keller-Lynn and Aliza Landes are co-hosts of the new podcast, Us Among the Israelis (Apple Podcasts & Spotify), an engaging and insightful look at what it is like to live in the world’s most interesting country by two American immigrants. Carrie earned her JD/MBA from Stanford and her BA from Yale. Aliza is a graduate of Sloan School of Management and Harvard Kennedy School. Experienced Israeli educators, Carrie and Aliza have taken a combined 400 American students to Israel.
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