Building the Zoo
Well, it can’t get more ironic than this. Despite his huge achievement in the elections, Netanyahu finds himself in a political drama that might very well result in one of the more fragile and weak coalitions that the Israeli political system has seen in quite a while. As things stand now, Netanyahu will be leading a coalition consisting of five parties and 61 members of Knesset. The irony indeed stands out, but more than anything, these political developments show the fallacy in the current electoral system.
Just a reminder – a month and a half ago Netanyahu defied all odds, and most projections, with a huge political achievement and 30 seats in the Knesset (the runner up Zionist Union party came in second with 24 seats).
“Against all odds: a great victory for Likud, a great victory for the national camp led by Likud, a great victory for the people of Israel,” Netanyahu told supporters at his election night headquarters, declaring victory even before final results were known. Two to three weeks were his estimate for forming a coalition.
With the benefit of hindsight, we can now say that this prediction was not only overly optimistic but also totally unrealistic. But realistic or not, and despite my inclination to blame Netanyahu for almost anything, we cannot blame him for the built-in illnesses of the Israeli electoral system.
The way the system is rigged now, to gain a majority, a coalition must typically include four or five parties, spanning a wide ideological spectrum. Usually at least one is a religious or populist party that makes its support conditional on expensive budget handouts. This means that ministers in the same cabinet publicly squabble all the time. More seriously, politicians are accountable to their party but not their voters. Parties that are brought in to make up the coalition numbers wield disproportionate clout, so extremists set the agenda. Pork-barrelling is rife. And important reforms are distorted by political haggling or taken off the table for good.
Israel wasted $2 billion, and months of parliamentary inaction, on an election with a result that almost certainly guarantees a political stalemate at the very best and more elections in the near future if things really go south.
Not only that, the deals woven to form the new coalition involved the retraction of a large part of what the former government achieved. Indeed, another great irony is that the Israeli public is only becoming aware of the parliamentary achievements of the past government, especially those achieved by Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, through the news of these achievements being thrown away to appease the new coalition members.
And yet there is an unexplained general apathy within Israeli society towards this awful political reality. An apathy that ignores the simple truth that real change can never take place with the existing system. Dramatic moves, such a peace initiative with the Palestinians, cannot be passed by a coalition comprising ideological opposing factions. If there was ever a justification for a public protest, surely this is it.
It is not as if there are no other alternatives. Sadly, there are other solutions out there but no one seems to be seriously considering them. There is no public debate, and there is definitely no legislative attempt or any show of leadership from the Knesset suggesting viable alternatives.
Netanyahu himself claimed it impossible to govern with the existing system, announcing plans for a two-party system. Other suggestions include a presidential or semi-presidential system, or electing Knesset members directly by constituency instead of by party list, to make them more answerable to their voters. Another solution that would be easy and simple to implement could be to make the biggest elected party form a government, rather than having to cobble together a coalition with a majority first. This would encourage parties to try to attract voters rather than other parties.
There is a simple reason why these options have never been seriously discussed by Israel’s legislative body and this is probably the saddest fact of them all – the people who would eventually vote for changing the system are not the voters but the politicians they helped put in place. Since the animals are building the zoo, it would be our turn to be optimistic or unrealistic for hoping that self serving politicians would bring about a change that risks their position of power and influence.
Where does this leave Israelis? No where great.
Without a real grassroots movement, I see no chance of bringing about a change in the electoral system. The 2011 social protest may have ended with no tangible achievement, but it did manage to set the political agenda for years to come, and it also became the ideological foundation and raison d’être for a number of political parties and movements.