Israel's Dysfunctional Political System

05/08/2012 02:23 pm ET | Updated Jul 08, 2012

Like other Israel-watchers, after the bombshell news that Benjamin Netanyahu suddenly crafted a new coalition government to avoid early elections, I now have to change what I originally intended to write about Israeli politics.

But I'm going to continue with the broad theme -- that of the dysfunctional nature of Israel's political system -- because it matters beyond this short-term development, and because it's this very troubled system that allowed Bibi to pull off what is clearly a stroke of genius.

First, though, a few words on who won and lost. Bibi is the big winner: he avoided the uncertainty of elections and having to fight off a renewed Labor, still-relevant Kadima, and fresh Yesh Atid (Yair Lapid's new party).

Ehud Barak also won big. Michael Koplow over at Ottomans and Zionists has a nice explanation why, but in a nutshell he staved off the strong possibility that his faction, Atzmaut, would have disappeared in the election without enough votes to enter the Knesset.

Shaul Mofaz also comes out a winner: he managed to enter the government without having to worry about an election; he did what Tzipi Livni was unable to do (join the coalition); and as a former senior general will now help shape the discussion over Iran and the peace process (he doesn't care that much about the social justice issues sparked by the J14 protests).

The biggest losers are: Tzipi Livni (having never met the expectations set out for her, she lost the leadership of Kadima to Mofaz, who then did what she couldn't do and took the party into government); public confidence in the political process (since Mofaz had railed against Bibi's leadership and insisted he wouldn't join a Bibi-led government); and Yair Lapid (because he had his legs completely cut out from under him).

Beyond this, it's hard to predict at this point how things will go. Much depends on whether the coalition partners can keep it together; on the American elections; on developments in Iran; and so on. We need a little more time to make durable arguments about the future.

Now to Israel's political system. In some ways, it's a bit of a surprise that it hasn't collapsed of its own weight. The thing that keeps saving it from doing so is developments like that of last night: when individuals and parties put aside their mutual antipathy, their electoral promises, and sometimes even their principles to jump into the government.

Here are four major issues that weaken the system.

Hyper-democracy: Israel is a hyper-democracy, by which I mean a multitude of parties -- and a party can mean no more than a tiny handful of individuals -- always compete in elections. Barring a platform that negates Israel as a Jewish state, incites racism, or supports armed struggle against Israel, any party can register. It's normal for tens of parties to compete in each election, and for over 10 to be represented in the Knesset, provided they pass a threshold of 2 percent of the national vote.

Because of this, no party has ever gotten a majority of Knesset seats (61 out of 120). Every government has, therefore, been a coalition of several parties. Until the 1970s this wasn't a major problem, but as Labor's dominance in the political system waned and Likud grew stronger, this system encouraged these two big parties, the ones closest to the center of the political spectrum, to forgo a governing alliance with each other in favor of fighting over the support of the multiple small parties (except for a brief -- and successful -- national unity government from 1984-1988). This, in turn, dilutes policy as the senior coalition partner "sells" its preferences in return for small parties' agreement to join its coalition rather than the opposition's.

Voting system: Closely related is the voting system: proportional representation, with the country designed as a single district. This has strengthened the role of the party in elections and policymaking, and undermined the relevance of individual candidates.

At the same time this has been coupled with the rising power of central committees in the major parties. Here, influential party officials are able to barter for votes for party leadership and to determine which candidates will be placed where on the party's electoral list (the higher up on the list, the more likely that candidate will make it into the Knesset). Politicians and policy platforms, then, are determined more by the rough-and-tumble politics of bargaining than serious policy discussion.

Power of the religious parties: A "religious" party has served in almost every government since the establishment of the state. For a long time it was the National Religious Party (NRP), a staunchly Zionist party. In the 1980s, the non-Zionist Shas party burst onto the scene, determined to trade its political support in return for resources for its religious and Sephardic electorates (funds for social services).

As Labor and Likud tried to avoid sharing a government, they each sought to buy the support of Shas, so that they could form the coalition. This pushed both the NRP and, later, the third religious party, United Torah Judaism (itself a merger of two other parties) to follow Shas' example, strengthening the centrifugal forces in the political system. Moreover, both NRP and its contemporary off-shoots (National Union, Jewish Home) and UTJ take a harder line on settlements and relations with the Palestinians, posing a constant threat to a government in which they sit and which advocates more movement on those issues.

Personalization of politics: An over-focus on individuals has undermined normalization, stability, serious policy debate, and institutional memory. In the non-religious parties, personalities have come to play an out-sized role in determining party politics, particularly in terms of stability and coalition bargaining. Since the 1980s, but especially the 1990s, party leaders have faced struggles to maintain their position in the face of consistent challenges from would-be leaders. Labor is the worst: between 2001 and today, the party had six leaders. All of them were forced to defend their tenures in the face of challengers' efforts (usually successful) to unseat them.

At the same time, party leaders have made it their priority, in the face of party principles and public declarations, to enter government. Hence Mofaz's agreement last night; Ehud Barak's splitting off from Labor in 2011 to form a smaller faction so he could take up Netanyahu's offer of Minister of Defense; and so on.

The religious parties are not run by central committees but rather are subject to the individual authority and direction of their prominent rabbis. And, of course, there is the tendency to form new parties around individuals, rather than ideologies or policy goals: Lapid, Barak, Yitzhak Mordecai, Ariel Sharon -- they've all believed that they represent something new in politics, and can drive, by sheer force of their will and their appeal, their parties and their goals. Their record is primarily one of weakening the bigger parties, by siphoning off their votes; typically they don't last more than an election or two. Freud would have had a large pool of subjects to study.

There are reports that the new coalition is working to change the political system, presumably to strengthen the big parties and undermine the smaller ones. If so, this would go a long way to stabilizing and de-politicizing the system. If that happens, last night will have been worth it.

First published at Mideast Matrix.