Shaking the Israeli Political System

Shaking the Israeli Political System

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

There is a fascinating phenomenon that may be developing in Israeli politics. The Israeli political party system just might be on the verge of changing without realizing it is doing so. The chaotic multi-party system might actually see itself merge individual, strict ideologies and programs into amalgams of the various parties; something parties in Israel have resisted since its inception; in fact even since the First Zionist Congress in 1897.

This is not at all a consequence of the decision made by Bibi and Lieberman to run their Likud and Yisrael Beitanu parties together for the election. That move was merely a matter of expediency and power politics, which actually failed. This joint team won considerably fewer seats in the new Knesset than they had amassed in the previous one. The merged parties received 31 seats where they previously had controlled together 42 seats (Likud 27 and Yisrael Beiteinu 15).

The evidence perhaps of new era in Israeli politics, rather, is suggested by the political behavior of the two political novices in the new Knesset, Yair Lapid and Naphtali Bennett. How Lapid decided to join a governing coalition together with Bennett, as a team together, may indeed signal the beginning of a new behavioral pattern in Israel.  In truth, HaBayit HaYehudi and Yesh Atid have some positions in common especially with respect to making serious, substantive demands on the haredim including, but not only, military service. Yet, it appeared during the campaign and indeed when one considers the nature of their followings, that these two parties are strange bed-fellows.

Specifically the membership and followers of Bennett, which consist largely of right-wing, hardline religious Zionists as well as many from the settler movement in general, do not favor much movement, if any, on the peace process. On the other hand, Lapid and his supporters were clearly in favor of a two-state solution, although he admittedly displayed significant skepticism as to how much success could be achieved, at least at the present time. 

It was the strength of how forcefully this duo succeeded in forcing their demands concerning the haredim on Netanyahu in their negotiations to join the Government that suggested perhaps the beginning of a                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           systemic change. Their tenacity in holding firmly together under Bibi' s enticing offers was, politically speaking, unprecedented. The political implications of this action, should it indeed sustain itself or even grow, suggests the Israel party system may be on the verge of maturing. If these two groups can swallow their differences and make mutually acceptable compromises, then the entire Israeli political system could be in for a shock. Furthermore, if they also brought in under their umbrella someone like the former Shas maverick, Rabbi Haim Amsellem, their potential voter base could actually approach a majority. (In Israel’s almost 65 year history no party has ever controlled a majority of the seats without the need of coalition partners.)

Most scholars have argued for years that the multi-party insanity that constitutes the Israeli electoral system is totally unacceptable; despite the fact that no one denies that it is highly democratic. A system that is a contraction of the parties themselves would be revolutionary; but it means party leaders ready to sublimate their own rigid ideology for a more a more general goal.

Israeli parties are not there yet, but it soon may be time to start watching for a sign in how the parties start voting in the new Knesset.

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