Politics of personality and Israel's election

Some 32 parties are on the May 17 ballot, with many smaller ones fueled

Each night on Israeli television, campaign advertisements ahead of the May 17 elections look like a cross between late-night infomercials hawking Ginsu knives and a public-access channel at the United Nations.

Vote for the handy-dandy Casino Party, and you'll help solve all the country's economic problems by legalizing gambling. Vote for the legalization of marijuana, the custody rights of fathers, or the use of communal meditation to achieve peace. Are you an oppressed ethnic minority within the Jewish state? Vote for one of the three Arab parties, three Russian parties, or the parties for immigrants from Romania, North Africa, or the Caucasus region. Or, if you have a hero whom you admire, chances are, he or she is running a party, too.

Never in Israeli history has it been easier and more attractive for anyone with a trifling cause, an ethnic advantage, or simply a brand name to found a political party. Any one of the 32 parties needs the support of only 1.5 percent of the electorate to win a seat in Knesset, Israel's parliament. And voters get to cast two ballots: one for a party, and one for prime minister.

Historically, Israel's multiparty system focused more on ideology, and the leader of any given movement was supposed to be - like the prime minister - merely first among equals. But today, the politics of personality matter more than ever before, with many smaller parties almost entirely by the popularity of their leader, rather than by an actual agenda.

With tensions now soaring between two of the most powerful ethnic parties - one representing new immigrants from Russia and the other, Jews with roots in the Islamic Middle East - some Israelis are concerned that politics here are growing more tribal. But others say it's more likely that they're simply becoming more egotistical.

Cosmetics magnate and former beauty queen Pnina Rosenblum, who launched a party in her own name to run for Knesset (see story below), rejects the notion that parties like hers are making Israeli politics too motley a mix. "There is no other choice. This is democracy, and they cannot force us to vote for someone else."

Others see it differently. "[Ms. Rosenblum's] party is just like the party of driving instructors," says Meir Shalev, a leading Israeli novelist and political analyst, referring to one of this year's more absurd parties, which has since dropped out of the race. "I hope there will be a higher barrier in future," rather than the 1.5 percent, "so we'll be able to deal with just right and left. The smaller parties just divide power in a very destructive way."

Direct elections in 1996

Political scientists attribute the proliferation in the number of parties mainly to Israel's introduction of direct elections for prime minister in 1996. That made Israel the only Western democracy where voters cast one ballot for a party and one for premier. It's a little bit like voting a Republican into the United States Congress and a Democrat to the White House. But where that only spells two-party gridlock, Israel's next parliament may have some 20 parties in it - a situation that retiring Knesset speaker Dan Tichon warned might be an "anarchistic jungle."

For years, proponents of the change to direct election of the prime minister argued it would decrease the influence of small parties and make Israel's government more stable. They also hoped it would strengthen democracy and accountability by allowing average voters, not a few party insiders, to decide who would be prime minister.

But the direct-elections law has had the opposite effect, encouraging splinter movements and the formation of new parties based on charismatic personalities. Even the smallest parties found themselves extraordinarily powerful, able to make or break coalitions and extract concessions such as key appointments and funds for special interests.

Arye Carmon, director of the Israel Democracy Institute, fears this is leading to the "Italianization of Israeli politics," with old governments falling and new ones forming as quickly as they have in Rome. He predicts that if the situation is not corrected, Israel will end up holding new elections in another year, when the next coalition proves untenable.

Many agree. The Knesset passed an amendment to the direct-elections law on first reading before voting to dissolve itself in December and hold new elections. There is a chance that the bill will be carried over to the next session, so that by the next election cycle, Israel could revert to the old system.

Ethnic identification

Though some here worry that Israel is witnessing a process of balkanization, others say that the new direct-elections system has simply made it easier to play ethnic politics. Part of the surge in ethnic identification may be seen as a backlash against Israel's early days, when immigrants were supposed to abandon other national origins and simply be Israeli.

This "absorption" process, as it is called here, often came at the expense of the distinctive traditions and languages of immigrants, especially Sephardic Jews from Muslim countries.

In 1977, Menachem Begin homed in on the resentment among Sephardim for inferior treatment, wresting power for the first time from the then-omnipotent Labor Party. The clash between the Sephardic working-class supporters of Likud and the European establishment represented by Labor has continued to boil beneath the surface of every election campaign.

This year, Israel's newly formed Center Party tried to provide a panacea for the fractured political landscape, gathering moderates in favor of peace with the Palestinians and placing ex-Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai, a Sephardic Jew from Iraq, at the helm. But the formula did not take: Mr. Mordechai's support in the polls is quickly slipping, down from the high teens a few months ago to just 7 percent in a survey published Friday. Political pundits suspect he will drop out of the race before next Monday's election.

"This battle is between tribes ... one is Likud, one is Labor, and the rest are religious tribes," says Shlomo Ben-Ami, a Knesset member. "The goal of the Center Party is to break the tie by putting forward policies that are traditionally identified with the left, but throw in new figures that can be more attractive to the right-wing tribe. [Mordechai represents] an attempt to break the solidity of tribal followings," continues the Moroccan-born Ben-Ami, a rare high-ranking Labor member who is not of European origin.

"I don't believe in their capacity ... to succeed, because I don't believe you can create a new political tribe in such a short period of time."

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