OTTAWA — With Israel gearing up to elect its next Knesset on Jan. 22, it’s important for young supporters of Israel to understand the country’s democratic process, the Israeli embassy’s deputy head of mission Eliaz Luf said at a Jan. 8 discussion at Carleton University.
Luf spoke to roughly 20 students, mostly political science or journalism majors, as part of an informal lecture co-organized by the embassy and Ottawa’s citywide Israel Awareness Committee (IAC).
The lecture covered the basics of Israel’s electoral system, as well as Israel’s political history dating back to its first legislative election and a survey of the parties expected to win seats in the upcoming Knesset.
One key point of discussion was the vast differences between the electoral systems in Israel and Canada, which Luf said makes it difficult for many students to understand Israeli politics.
“The systems are very different, and if people are interested in Israel and want to understand [its politics] a little bit better, they should actually know about this system,” Luf said.
He explained how, unlike Canada’s first-past-the-post system, Israel uses proportional representation, in which citizens vote for a party rather than a candidate, and it also lacks individual districts known as ridings.
“Even Canadian MPs that I was talking to, people that are really into politics, find it very hard to understand how [the Israeli electoral system] works,” Luf said. “They keep asking me if [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] is going to get a majority. I’m sure [Netanyahu] wouldn’t mind to have a majority, but it’s not going to happen for him or for anybody else.”
The main reason majority governments are nearly impossible in Israel is due to the large number of smaller parties that are able to gain seats in Knesset, which forces larger parties to form coalitions in order to govern, Luf explained.
“Back in the 1980s, the major party, whether it was the Likud or the Ma’arach, had close to 50 seats [out of 120], so they didn’t need so many partners,” he said.
Currently however, Likud, the largest party in the governing coalition, has just 28 seats.
“They don’t even have 50 per cent of their own coalition,” Luf said. “It’s very hard to rule that way and it gives the smaller parties a much stronger position.”
Luf called instability “the sickness of our system,” noting that the average Knesset seems to last just 2-1/2 to three years, although the current one nearly made it to the intended four years.
Numerous issues could have an impact on the makeup of the 19th Knesset, including international pressure to negotiate with the Palestinians, settlements and security concerns, and what Luf describes as the need to replace the former Tal law, which spells out clear rules as to whether or not haredi Jews can be drafted into the IDF.
The more knowledge advocates for Israel have about these issues, the easier it is to discuss Israel with others on campus, Luf said.
“I think it’s important for [students] as the messengers to explain Israel as a solid democratic [state],” he said. “Democracy is very rooted in Israel, and it’s not like other countries in our region. The democracy of Israel is alive.”
Josh Ragosin, a second-year political science major, said Luf’s talk helped bridge the gaps in his understanding of Israel’s electoral system, a topic he said he enjoys studying.
“I like the fact that Israel has a very unique electoral system,” Ragosin said.
“Personally I wouldn’t choose it for a country. I think it creates more problems than it’s good for, in terms of instability and confusion,” he said. “I guess it really depends on what you grew up with.”
Lorne Geller, vice-president of Carleton’s IAC branch, said he was particularly captivated by Luf’s characterization of the process that takes place following the election itself, in which one party is tasked by the country’s president with forming the next coalition.
“Once the election is over, it’s really just starting,” Geller said.
“I very much liked how Mr. Luf came and put the Israeli flair into telling us how it all goes down,” he said. “[Israel’s] such a small country, but a major player on an international scale. This [election] is going to get huge coverage, and there are so many parties. It’s so confusing, and it’s just fascinating to observe.”