Israel elections 101: Can country risk another fragile coalition?

The country must navigate an array of security and diplomatic challenges. But the weakening of Israel's largest parties has eroded coalition stability and policymaking.

Ariel Schalit/AP/File
Israel’s opposition leader and Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog, front, walks past Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset, Israel's Parliament, in Jerusalem, Jan. 20, 2014.

Israelis boast that their country is the only democracy in the Middle East. But many political experts say an increasingly fragmented parliament is deadlocking politics and compromising the government’s ability to formulate coherent policies.

The rival and once-dominant Likud and Labor parties have seen their control of the 120-seat Knesset plummet as voters increasingly look to upstart niche parties with charismatic politicians at the helm. While the political system is sometimes praised for giving voice to a wide spectrum, the unstable situation has real consequences for Israelis, whose leaders face an array of existential security and diplomatic challenges.

In March, Israel is holding its second election in two years – the shortest time between votes in 50 years – in large part because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party controlled so few seats in the outgoing parliament and could not manage a hodgepodge coalition of small and medium-size parties with clashing political agendas.

Political analysts said the outgoing coalition ultimately faltered because it lacked ideological glue. During last summer’s Gaza war, Mr. Netanyahu came under unprecedented criticism from his foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who is from a rival rightist party, for not being aggressive enough.

Ofer Koenig, a research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, says the fragmentation makes it more difficult for Israeli governments to push a fresh domestic agenda.

“The prime minister is more vulnerable and attacked more easily, and the ability to make coherent policy without interruption is much harder,’’ he says.

Reuven Hazan, a political science professor at Hebrew University, says that while most parliamentary systems produced stable governments, Israel’s version has turned out to be increasingly volatile.

“Parliamentary systems are built on forming a majority, but when that majority is fragmented, then it is dangerous. And when it’s also ideologically divided, then it’s unstable, and that could jeopardize the democratic system over the long term.”

For the first three decades of Israel’s existence, politics was dominated by the Labor party. The 1977 victory of Likud under Menachem Begin ushered in a generation of contests dominated by Labor and Likud. At their peak in 1981, the two parties between them shared 95 seats – nearly 80 percent – in the Knesset.

Charisma more than ideology

But in the outgoing parliament, Likud, the largest party, controlled only 20 seats. Polls suggest neither Labor nor Likud will win more than 27 seats in the next election. That means they would control a minority of seats within their own coalition governments and be more beholden to the legislative whims of smaller- and medium-sized coalition partners. 

“It’s not a good development,” said Shmuel Rosner, a fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute in Jerusalem. “Each party has to pick a topic or do something to prove to its voters that it was worthwhile to vote for it. So, you have a variety of parties searching for headlines and achievements, and then you have a competition within the coalition for praise – this is what we saw in the last coalition.”

What’s spurred the shift? Analysts say Israelis have become disillusioned with older ideologies of “Greater Israel” among Likud hard-liners on the right, and “Peace Now” champions among Laborites on the left. More are drawn to charismatic politicians in the center who strike out on their own to set up parties that target a narrow range of issues.

In 2013, for example, Yair Lapid, a popular television host, set up a secular party that focused on ending military draft exemptions for the ultra-religious. This year a popular former Likud minister, Moshe Kahlon, has set up his own party aimed at breaking up business monopolies.

“Over the years, people have become more individualistic, and more selfish, and the parties are reflected in the same way,” says Mitchell Barak, an Israeli public opinion expert. “It’s become a politics of personality. People are drawn to a charismatic leader who has an agenda they are trying to promote.”

Past reform was abandoned

Momentum toward the smaller parties was accelerated by a 1996 election reform that instituted a direct election for the prime minister. Ironically, it was designed to empower prime ministers and make them less vulnerable to “political blackmail” by smaller coalition partners. It allowed Israelis to choose twice: first for the leader of the government and then for a smaller party in the parliament. Though the direct election was scrapped by 2003, Israelis have never fully gravitated back to the large parties.

Leaders of both Likud and Labor are already warning voters that a fragmented parliament is liable to be a problem during coming years as well.

Arguing that the situation has rendered Israeli government ineffective, Netanyahu has promised to pass an election reform that would automatically confer the premiership to the party that gets the largest number of votes. That would take away from the otherwise-ceremonial president the discretion for selecting the political leader most likely to succeed in forming a viable coalition. The proposal is designed to encourage voters to choose only the biggest parties.

“It’s simply impossible to function as prime minister with a collection of small- and medium-sized parties,” he said at an election rally last month. “And it’s impossible to lead the country. Only one large Likud can rule.”

A higher threshold for representation

Though Yitzhak Herzog, leader of the opposition Labor party, hasn’t signed on to Netanyhu’s proposal, he’s also warning potential voters about voting for the smaller parties. Even though some polls forecast that Labor (which has been bolstered by the centrist Tzipi Livni and re-branded the “Zionist Union” for the campaign) might be the biggest party in the next parliament, the same surveys suggest that Mr. Herzog would have to manage a mash-up of secular and ultra-Orthodox parties, doves and security hawks.  “We can change the country only if we are big enough,” he cautioned at a town meeting Saturday night.

The Knesset has already taken a step toward reducing fragmentation: Last year, it passed a law raising the minimum threshold of votes necessary for parliamentary representation to 3.25 percent from 2 percent. That’s already borne results, prompting three small Arab parties that once ran separately to join into one unified list. But it hasn’t prompted larger parties to unify with Labor or Likud.

The Israel Democracy Institute, a think tank focused on Israeli governance, also supports the idea of giving the automatic mandate to the largest vote-getter, arguing that such a shift would make voters think harder before choosing a niche party in the center or at the extremes.

“It would more directly put the decision of who will lead the country in the hands of the people. Such a change would offer Israelis hope,’’ wrote institute spokesman Yehoshua Oz in the Jerusalem Post in December. “Securing 23 seats [in the parliament] is in no way a victory.’’

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