Israel´s unity government: a bid to represent the majority (CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR) By Joshua Mitnick TEL AVIV, ISRAEL 05/09/12)
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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.
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.
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.
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
“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
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
“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
“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.” (© The Christian Science
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