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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

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Israel’s democratic dilemmas on full display

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As Israel moves closer to general elections scheduled for Jan. 22, the    achievements of Israeli democracy, as well as its structural limitations, are on clear display.

There are 34 parties registered to compete for the 120 seats in the Knesset, covering the full range of public opinion – left, right, centre, religious, anti-religious, green, olim (immigrants mainly from the former Soviet Union), pensioners, militant Arabs that deny the legitimacy of Israel, etc. As many as 12 parties are expected to win seats, ensuring that a wide range of views will again be represented.

In this sense, Israeli democracy is thriving, under extremely difficult conditions and contrary to the public relations campaigns of Diaspora organizations that warn of imminent doom in order raise money and gain influence. Women head two of the major party lists – the newly revived Labor, which is expected to lead the opposition, and Tzipi Livni, who has formed yet another party.

At the same time, many young people and others outside the traditional political blocs and interest groups, are alienated from the mid-19th century eastern European system of deals and “machers.” Israelis vote for a single national party list, rather than for individual representatives.

There are no constituencies or ridings, and no Knesset member is accountable for a particular district or region. For the upcoming elections, Netanyahu’s Likud list merged with Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu, which gives supporters of one group no choice but to support the other or find an alternative. Some alienated voters are expected to go with the party formed by this round’s “new face” – Yair Lapid, a post-ideological media celebrity seen as outside the old system.

Based on past experience, a limited protest vote will not, by itself, force a change in the system or increase the level of democratic responsibility, which is one of the reasons for repeated corruption cases brought against top politicians (although this is by no means unique to Israel). With so many interests benefiting from an antiquated system, a long-overdue change will require a major change involving the large established parties.

The plethora of micro-parties, some with only two, three or four seats out of the 120 total, also leads to weak coalition governments that are unable to tackle core domestic and social challenges in a sustainable manner. In the 2008 elections, the two largest parties – Likud and Kadima – each received less than a quarter of the total seats. To form a government, (after Livni refused to join a broad coalition under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu), they had to negotiate and horse trade with numerous smaller parties – a process that gave Netanyahu a small but decisive edge, particularly in wooing the religious parties.

The price for their support, however, was more gridlock, particularly in dealing with unresolved conflicts in the revival of Jewish national self-determination (in other words, Zionism). The two critical issues that brought the present government to an end and forced elections a year earlier than necessary focus on military exemptions for the growing haredi sector and the difficulty in prioritizing budget cuts while reducing the gap between rich and poor.

Public opinion polls show that the majority of Israelis want to see an end to the special treatment and mass army exemptions given automatically every year to thousands of young haredi men. After different experiments failed, the Israeli High Court of Justice ruled that these exemptions are discriminatory and must not continue. But no prime minister or government, including Netanyahu’s, has been willing to risk the political cost of alienating haredi coalition partners. In addition, as Israel follows other countries in the need for economic belt-tightening, the subsidies provided to the haredi sector must clearly be cut. But this, too, would bring down a narrow coalition government.

Perhaps the results this time will finally allow for a broad coalition, in which small haredi parties would lose their veto power, and these core issues can be tackled. But there is also a realization that other democracies around the world are plagued by their own difficulties, and no system is perfect. Despite the imperfections, Israel’s democratic society remains a very impressive accomplishment.

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