Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Editorial: Back to the Polls

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Colin Rubenstein


Twenty-two months into a maximum four-year term, Israelis are going to the polls again on March 17, after Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu dismissed two of his ministers - Justice Minister Tzipi Livni of Hatnua and Finance Minister Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid - and dissolved his governing coalition.

Few Israelis will be happy about voting again so quickly, but Netanyahu stated he could no longer tolerate the destructive criticism of his government from within his own cabinet.

This phenomenon of public criticism by cabinet members, almost unthinkable in most other Western democracies, is actually a regular feature of Israeli politics, due to the constant need to cobble together often highly disparate coalitions of convenience in order to govern. This in turn is the product of Israel's single-constituency proportional representation voting system, which inevitably results in a multiparty, fragmented Knesset. For example, in the last three Knessets, no party has been able to muster even a quarter of the 120 seats.

Meanwhile, the fluidity and volatility of Israeli politics only seems to be increasing. For example, the centrist Kadima went from leading the government after winning 29 seats in the 2006 election, to 28 seats in 2009, to only two seats in 2013. Similarly, with this coming poll, Livni will have represented different parties in four consecutive elections - the centre-right Likud, Kadima, Hatnua (a centrist party she formed after losing the Kadima leadership) and now an as yet unnamed party of the centre-left formed by her party's merger with Labor.

The merger between Hatnua and the Labor party led by Yitzhak Herzog was the first major development to shape the election campaign. At the time the election was called, Netanyahu appeared the favourite to be returned as prime minister, with his Likud expected to gain the most seats. Netanyahu reportedly hoped to be able to lead a predominantly right wing coalition incorporating Naftali Bennett's "Jewish Home" Party, Avigdor Lieberman's "Israel Our Home" party and two ultra-Orthodox parties.

The Labor-Hatnua merger, however, may realign expectations, with the first poll showing the new entity could win 23 seats compared to 21 for Likud. Of course, it's very early days in a constitutionally-required long election campaign and in any event, the party that wins the most seats doesn't necessarily ultimately form government. That comes down to which party can form a coalition of more than 60 elected members - as Livni discovered after the 2009 election, when her Kadima won one more seat than Netanyahu's Likud, but the latter was the party able to form a governing coalition.

While the Labor-Hatnua merger may make the election a clearer contest between a centre left bloc and a centre right bloc, there is still plenty of scope for confusion.

Jewish Home is challenging Likud to assume the leadership of the right.

Kulanu ("all of us"), a new centrist party created by popular former Likud minister Moshe Kahlon, could find a home in any potential coalition, as could Lapid's Yesh Atid.

Meanwhile, the ultra-Orthodox parties have in the past been prepared to join coalitions of the left or the right, on condition that their terms - government financial support of their sector and exemptions from armed service for the ultra-Orthodox - are met.

The reality is that politics in Israel cannot be reduced to a simple left/right divide. The three major fault lines are domestic issues such as the economy - perhaps the most important issue this election - the situation in relation to the Palestinians, (which is what most outside observers tend to focus on), and, more recently, the secular/religious divide. Parties that agree on one or two of these issues may strongly disagree on the third (For more on the policy issues dominating this election, see this analysis by Amotz Asa-El).

The inevitable result is that any governing coalition is diverse and potentially fragile. Often, one party can threaten to bring down the government if it objects strongly enough to a government initiative, which is a sure recipe for inertia in a country that can ill afford inaction - especially with the region in such turmoil, and the Iranian nuclear threat still looming.

It is clear why many observers have long suggested that Israel's political system is in need of significant reform. Since the last election, the threshold for representation in the Knesset has been raised from a mere 2% to a slightly higher 3.25%, bringing it closer to typical European levels. However, other changes, including single or multimember representation from local geographic constituencies for at least a significant number of Knesset seats, are also often suggested. Yet smaller parties that might be disadvantaged by such changes can usually veto them.

One final point. Many outside observers will be looking at this election in the hope that the new government will be more likely to advance peace with the Palestinians. Conversely, if a right-wing bloc is elected, to many this will be seen as proof Israelis aren't interested in making peace. Such simplistic views reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of the current situation.

Any step to the right would not be because the majority of Israelis reject a Palestinian state - years of opinion polls have consistently shown the opposite. It may be because, in the face of continuing Palestinian rejectionism, intransigence and violence, they despair at having a Palestinian peace partner actually able and willing to accept one of Israel's numerous two-state peace offers.

No Israeli government will be able to achieve peace with the Palestinians until a cohesive Palestinian leadership is prepared to negotiate in good faith, to compromise, and genuinely accept Israel's right to exist alongside an emergent Palestinian state. This, sadly, has not been the case thus far, and with virulent anti-Israel incitement from the Palestinian Authority, not just Hamas, continuing unabated, and its current avowed determination to achieve a state through unilateral, international steps, rather than negotiations, this unhelpful state of affairs regrettably shows no signs of changing.

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