Israel's unity government: a bid to represent the majority

For decades, Israel's system of representation gave tiny parties an outsized voice, particularly on the issue of settlements. The unity government now has a chance to prioritize majority views.

By , Correspondent

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    Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (l.) holds a joint news conference with Shaul Mofaz, head of the Kadima party which will hook up with Netanyahu's rightist coalition, at parliament in Jerusalem May 8.
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Benjamin Netanyahu’s new unity government arrives with the implication that there is something even more fundamental and pressing for Israel than peace with its Arab neighbors: fixing an electoral system responsible for political instability and outsized influence of minority groups like ultra-religious Jews. 

Electoral reform was one of the four key goals that Mr. Netanyahu and his rival-turned-ally, Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz, in explaining their stunning 11th hour agreement to join forces in a unity coalition that averted near finalized plans for an election in September.

Symptoms of electoral dysfunction include a decades-old exemption allowing ultra-religious men to opt out of army service, and the inability of the government to evacuate settlement outposts built on property which even the government admits is on Palestinian land. 

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The culprit is Israel’s system of proportional representation. Experts say it has given rise to a tyranny of the minority that rewards narrow-interest parties representing ultra-Orthodox Jews, Israeli settlers, or Russian immigrants with veto on policy by threatening to implode coalition governments. 

“This means that the majority is under-represented in government and the minority is over-represented,” says Amnon Rubenstein, a law professor and former Justice Minister for the left-wing Meretz Party who is pushing a plan to reform Israel’s system. “This causes cynicism and loss of belief in democracy.”

Seven elections in 20 years

The power of the smaller parties has created notoriously unstable governments. In the past 20 years, Israel has been forced to hold seven general elections. And the last time an Israeli government finished out its term was in 1988. At the same time, support for mainstream big tent parties like Netanyahu’s Likud Party and the Labor Party have suffered a drop-off in support, and are more vulnerable to pressure.

That has created a situation in which Israeli prime ministers are more involved in the politicking necessary to keep their coalitions together rather than policy making or strategic planning.

“Government needs to be able to implement policy in a much more vigorous manner. An American president knows he’s going to be in power for four years, he doesn’t have to waste enormous energies the whole time on simply staying in power,” says Jonathan Rynhold, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University. “[Israeli] Politicians spend much too much time going to bar mitzvahs. They spend too much time on politics than policy. The public thinks they’re being cynical, but there’s no other way to govern.”

Israel uses a form of extreme democracy, giving parties with as little as 2 percent of the general vote seats in the parliament.

The upside to the system is that gives expression to the country’s mosaic of ethnic, religious, and ideological groups in the parliament, and then forces them to govern via coalition.

In practice, however, Israel’s parliament has become a jumble of small and medium size parties representing small population segments which have become the coalition kingmakers in the rivalries between bigger mainstream parties. 

Ultra-Orthodox priorities

That’s how the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, parties have been able to get government money to keep kids in religious seminaries and out of the compulsory draft or the work force. They’ve also been able to get government funding for autonomous school systems which have smaller class sizes and follow an independent curriculum that omits core subjects.

“The wholesale exemption of the Haredim [from military service] is a consequence of Israel’s distorted electoral system. The two issues are intertwined,” says Yossi Klein Halevy, a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. “It's our dysfunctional coalition system that allows a separatist minority to dictate policy to the mainstream. These are the issues that have to be unlocked.”

There are a myriad of proposals floating around to reform Israel’s electoral system. In the 1990s, Israel experimented with instituting a direct vote for prime minister alongside the contest between the parties to make the chief executive less dependent on small parties. But the number and diversity of small parties grew anyway. The system was eventually scrapped.

"We have to find measures for minority groups to be represented in larger political vehicles," says Ofer Kenig, a fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, a think tank which has also called for reform. “In the UK you don’t have a Pakistani immigrant party, they find their way to the Labor or Conservative party, and this is because of the electoral system that doesn’t make it possible for them to compete independently.”

If Israeli politicians and experts find the right formula, experts say, it should encourage a more inclusionary brand of politics that will result in policies to better integrate the ultra-Orthodox and Israeli Arabs into the mainstream through programs like national service.

Implications for Palestinians

It should also weaken the ability of the Jewish settlers in the West Bank to block steps toward a political settlement with the Palestinians.

“They would still have power, but it would be lessened,” says Mr. Rynhold. “You would cease to see new settlements popping up every Wednesday and Friday.”

As a result the reaction has been mixed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s mammoth unity coalition with more than three fourths of the parliamentary deputies. Some see it as more cynical coalition politics to survive for a year and a half. Others hope that not having to rely on the small parties will enable him to push through big reforms.

“Israel has a stable government with an enormous secular majority … we finally have a government that represents the Israeli majority which no sectoral party can extort,” wrote Ari Shavit in the liberal Haaretz newspaper. But “if this was the maneuver of the decade to win one more year in the Prime Minister’s residence, it’s all over for him. The public will not forgive or forget.”

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