Sunday 11 January 2015

Elections - Threat or Opportunity?

Israel is headed towards another general election, a little more than 2 years after the last elections.  The fact that Prime Minister Netanyahu's government was unable to complete even half of its scheduled 4 years in office, is clear indication of the difficulties that continue to plague governing the Jewish state.  It also shows the lack of agreement that exists among the population in dealing with the key issues.  Problems relating to security, to the economy and to the Palestinian issue are top of the agenda, and are also the most divisive issues.  The prime minister was simply unable to keep his disparate coalition functioning as a government, as each party in the coalition pursued its own special interests and agendas.

Most vocal in protesting against the actions and policies of the government have been Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni.  Prime Minister Netanyahu effectively announced his inability to manage his coalition by firing both ministers from his government, and giving a clear signal that elections would be his only alternative.  Once the election was formally announced, the prime minister acknowledged that he had been forced into the coalition with Livni and Lapid after the last election, and that his coalition was unmanageable almost from the beginning of its term.  This statement surprised many voters, and brought into sharp focus the almost impossible situation that Israeli politics finds itself in.  The issues that form the base of the election platforms are substantial, and some are even life-threatening in the determination of the future safety of the State of Israel.  The opinions on each issue are as diverse as the issues themselves.  While a split of voter opinion is a fairly standard occurrence in many western democracies, in most cases the split seems not to disrupt the effective governing of the country by the chosen government.  While it is well-known that coalition governments are notoriously less stable than governments that are comprised of a single party, this should not necessarily result in a total inability to govern.  For some reason, the combination of issues that Israelis are forced to confront, along with a total split of opinion as to how to deal with them, results in an ungovernable situation.  Not only is this situation enormously frustrating for the average voter, it also creates lack of stability in the government and comes at huge financial cost to the country.  Israel has had 33 governments in its 66-year history

Having resigned ourselves to the fact that an election is now unavoidable, the question is whether this election can be used as an opportunity to somehow improve the situation in which Israel finds herself.  Does this election present a real chance for change, or are we likely to get more of the same?  And is there anything that the new prime minister and new government will be able to do to change the status quo?  Most Israelis are seeking for an election result that can change the situation, particularly the security situation.  Along with the security threat that the country faces, there is huge frustration over the economy and over the issue of Israel's standing in the international community, where Israel is increasingly isolated.

When considering the political parties in the Knesset and the way in which the public views them, it is difficult to see any dramatic changes coming about in the next election.  Prime Minister Netanyahu is seeking a fourth term in office, and is currently looking like the only electable candidate for the office of prime minister.  Labour leader Isaac Herzog is doing all that he can to present himself as a viable alternative, but opinion polls show that he has been unsuccessful so far in reaching the Netanyahu's level despite these efforts.  He has little to show for his term as leader of the opposition during the last Knesset, and voters are sceptical about his ability to achieve anything as prime minister.  He is being roundly criticised for the concessions that he made to attract Tzipi Livni and her Hatnua party into a joint list with Labour, given that opinion polls showed that Livni was running the risk of not gaining even one seat in the next Knesset.  The question is being asked as to what concessions Herzog might make on behalf of the State of Israel if this is how he behaved with Livni?

The only political leader who has really enhanced his reputation and his standing in the last Knesset session was Naftali Bennett, leader of the Bayit Hayehudi (the Jewish Home)  Party.  Bennett succeeded in securing 12 seats in the Knesset in 2013 as a new party, which was a significant achievement.  Since then, he has presented himself as a voice of the people - somebody who is prepared to say out loud the things that many people are thinking but not saying.  He was, however, not really fully tested in the last Knesset session.  As Minister of the Economy, Bennett had the opportunity to make his views known without having a responsibility for which the public held him accountable.  It is expected that he is likely to increase his number of seats in the Knesset at the next election, and will have a position with greater responsibility in the next government that is likely to test him to a much greater extent than was the case until now.  For the upcoming election, Bennett is not presenting himself as a prime ministerial candidate.  It seems that he is setting the scene to be a possible prime minister following the next election, providing he can continue his ascent on the political ladder.

The three Arab parties that sat in the Knesset during the last session find themselves at an interesting crossroad.  In total, the Arab parties secured 11 out of the 120 Knesset seats.  This is despite the fact that Arabs represent around 20% of the Israeli population.  Even more concerning for Arab Israelis is the fact that two of the three Arab parties will not sit in the next Knesset if they don't increase the number of votes that they attract.  While they exceeded the election threshold of 2% that was set for the last election, they are well below the threshold of 3.25% that has been set for the 2015 elections.  This has driven the Arab parties to hold talks about the possibility of combining their lists in order to continue to secure at least the number of seats that they have held until now.  The Arab parties represent different constituencies of voters, each of whom believes in a different way of responding to the split identity that they have.  They wish to find a balance in supporting their rights as Israeli citizens, as well as responding to the Palestinian issue and Palestinian terror against Israel.  The different opinions on these key issues for them are also what is making it difficult for them to combine their lists.

The increase of the election threshold from 2% to 3.25% for the 2015 election is an attempt to somehow reduce the number of parties in the Knesset, and thereby also increase the stability of future governments.  There were a total of 12 parties represented in the last Knesset, and 13 if you split out the combined Likud - Yisrael Beiteinu list.  There were more than 30 parties who contested the elections, showing just how diverse Israeli views are and how many special-interest issues there are to be considered.  While this allows democracy to work in a more idealistic manner, it also creates great instability in the government.  Any reduction in the number of parties that this brings about will not be enough, however, to avoid the need to construct a coalition to rule after the election.  Prime Minister Netanyahu has recommended further amendments to create greater governing stability moving forward, but none of these will be in operation after the next election.  It seems doubtful as to whether greater could be achieved even after implementing the changes.

While the election issues are interesting, and some are critical for Israel's future security, safety and survival, there is no evidence that we will have greater governing stability during the course of the next Knesset, or even thereafter.  Some parties will come and some will go, but the main issues confronting Israel and its system of government seem to be with us to stay for now.  It seems that we will also have to live with the system that contributes to instability in the government, and accept that even the next government is unlikely to last the full distance under these circumstances.  The fact that there are so many special-interest groups and parties contesting the election, and substantial numbers of people to support them seem to point to more of the same in Israeli politics for now.

Israeli politics has never had a dull moment in 66 years, and the upcoming elections will be no exception.  At this juncture, there are many citizens of Israel seeking a little boredom in politics rather than more excitement.  If boredom spells stability, both in the government and in the security of the state, this would be preferred by many of the voters.  It seems, however, that more excitement lies ahead.

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