Something New Under the Sun?

by the recent conflict in Gaza. The center-right Kadima Party and Tzipi Livni received a tiny plurality, with her party winning a mere 28 of the 61 seats in the Knesset. Former Prime Minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu and the rightist Likud Party, came in second with 27 seats, while the rabid nationalist (and some have said Arab-hating) Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beitenu Party increased its share to 15 votes.

JEWISH LIGHT EDITORIAL

Last week the people of Israel went to the polls to cast their ballots for a new Prime Minister and Knesset. In this 31st national election in 60-plus years of existence, Israel proves that it still has one of the most robust — and most unruly — democracies in the world.

ADVERTISEMENT
Ad for 'The Prom' at the Fox Theatre


Robust because there has always been an orderly transition of power from one government to the next. Unruly because the purely proportionate parliamentary system — which typically requires the building of a multi-party coalition — gives grossly exaggerated sway to fringe parties with strong and sometimes smelly agendas. A Financial Times headline last week tells it like it is: “Quirks of the system likely to usher in brittle coalition.”

But things may be starting to change. Emphasis very gingerly on the “may.”

The election results show a continuing trend toward the right in national politics, a trend exacerbated by the recent conflict in Gaza. The center-right Kadima Party and Tzipi Livni received a tiny plurality, with her party winning a mere 28 of the 61 seats in the Knesset. Former Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu and the rightist Likud Party, came in second with 27 seats, while the rabid nationalist (and some have said Arab-hating) Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beitenu Party increased its share to 15 votes.

Meanwhile, the support for the leftist Labor Party continues to wane. Ehud Barak’s group, which dominated Israeli politics for its first three decades of existence, won 13 seats, while the further left Meretz Party captured only three. Not the stuff of a movement on the rise.

As a result of the election, Livni and Netanyahu each lay claim to forming a new governing coalition. Kadima’s centrist stance, which cannot be effected without support from at least two of the other three leading parties, is clearly amenable to a continuing dialogue on a two-state solution. Bibi And Company, on the other hand, can cobble together a bloc with the help of Lieberman and the smaller rightist parties that would take a more hard-line, security-oriented posture.

In the Israeli system, the election is only the first step in creating a government. President Shimon Peres now has the legal responsibility to poll the parties and make a determination about which one will have the best chance of building a ruling coalition. The effective choices are limited — Likud, or Kadima or, as has happened sometimes in the past, a so-called “unity” government that brings disparate factions together in the absence of a clearly dominant bloc.

Regardless of the ultimate outcome, however, there’s at least some evidence that things are changing. Some aspects of the recent campaign suggest a subtle maturation in the way Israelis perceive their voting responsibility.

The campaign rhetoric itself pointed to it. Before Election Day, Netanyahu pleaded with voters to cast their lot with Likud rather than the smaller right-wing factions, for fear of Livni-Kadima commanding a lead coming out of the vote.

And during our Publisher’s recent visit to Israel, anecdotal quips from a variety of voters suggested they were going to vote more pragmatically this time. Alignment with a larger party seemed to some preferable to choosing a smaller faction that might better reflect their personal and idiosyncratic views. This more Americanized approach is reflected in a representative quote: “I’ve always voted for Meretz, but I’m probably going to vote Livni because I don’t want Likud to run the government.”

The results seem to reflect this growing political maturity by the electorate. Three weeks prior to the election, Kadima was losing in polls to Likud by a couple seats. By Election Day, Livni had made up that gap and in fact took a one-seat advantage. Compromise in action? Putting the greater good ahead of a niche party’s agenda? Very possibly. To be sure, there are some very serious rumblings about the limitations of the current system. The nation has tinkered with revisions in the past (e.g., direct voting for the Prime Minister, which was implemented, then abandoned) and other reforms are currently being discussed.

Whether the formal system changes or not, one thing seems clear. If Israel wants to build a truer national consensus around key issues such as security and defense — not to mention education, the economy, and other major domestic considerations — the electorate cannot continue to “silo” its votes into tiny parties with fragmented agendas. Giving up parochialism in favor of the common good is essential. And the country appears on the way to recognizing that reality.