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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Elections for the 19th Knesset

Israel has a multiparty electoral system based on proportional representation.  Each party chooses a number of candidates for elected office and the percentage of votes cast for the party will in theory be equal to the number of its candidates that receive seats in parliament. The closer to the start a person is on the list the greater is their chance for election.  It is not necessarily because the person has any tolerance that they are selected.  It is usually personal ties to influential members of the central committee that determines ones position relative to others on the list.

Israel’s electoral system allows anybody to open a party, splinter a party, steal candidates from a party, destroy a party… although I think that the smaller parties are often formed out of sheer exasperation and frustration with the more seasoned parties (and after all, that’s what democracy is all about).

The meaning and effect of all the factions, especially the extreme ones, both on the left and the right; their policies, agendas, and their modus operandi are not far behind Balad and Ta’al (the two rejectionist and separatist Arab parties). They don’t preach the destruction of the State, but they may as well do so, because their divisive tribalism has the same impact and if we follow them then that is what will happen.  Their party’s sanitized extremism enunciates an uncompromising vision. If their rhetoric is less violent it is only because they do not need it to attract their followers. 

The problem arises when we view the function of the smaller parties as pressure cookers that absorb disquiet and bleed dissatisfaction away from the main parties. In a standard democracy the marginalized citizen may become radicalized but usually they will simply disassociate themselves from society.  In Israel, at least one new social protest party is founded in time for each election.  It is effective because the election provides the disillusioned with a voice. Their more media savvy members are soon co-opted into the halls of power. Few of these prostituted political parties last more than two elections. Their members either quit politics or are subsumed within the major establishment system.  The ‘Protest Parties’ are the reason for political paralysis.  Their existence is the proof of the failure of the main parties to create a narrative that engages all of its citizens.

But increasing political isolation and the threat of an imposed solution to the conflict could force a more imaginative template to be cast.   There is a new regional dynamic and it does not bode well for regional stability.   Israel - Palestine may be viewed by some as little more than a festering sore that unjustly targets only Israel, but it is a canker that prevents the world from dealing with the greater threat of the emerging global Islamist order.

Israel can live with a conventional military threat on its Southern border because the Sinai desert separates Israel from Islamist Egypt. US dependence on strong Turkish ties in order to defend Europe’s south-eastern flank from theoretical Iranian aggression requires that it also ignores Turkish war crimes against the Kurds. Turkeys failed policy of “Zero problems with its neighbors” has alienated every one of its neighbors and made its attention starved, personality based Islamist government hungry for a successful demonstration of its power; and that makes it fundamentally unstable.  Israel has no natural border along its north and only a demilitarized Palestine will ensure peace between uncompromising enemies to the east.  An inherent militancy in Islam makes this final barrier to co-existence achievable only if the rest of the world is willing to force it upon the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) and Gaza.

In spite of the global threat to peace and security, President Obama is on record as declaring that he sees Islam and America as essentially compatible with “overlapping principles of justice and progress; tolerance and dignity, for everyone.”

It is because of this emergent regional dynamic that it is all the more important for the multiplicity of political entities within Israeli society to cohere but it isn’t happening.

As extracted from Wikipedia: 43 parties registered for the February 2009 election, 34 parties submitted a list of candidates, and 33 parties ran on Election Day. On 12 January 2009, Balad and the United Arab List–Ta'al alliance were disqualified by the Central Elections Committee on the grounds that they failed to recognise Israel as a Jewish state and called for armed conflict against it. Balad and Ta'al were also disqualified from the 2003 election, but the Supreme Court rejected this disqualification. On 21 January 2009, the Supreme Court again revoked the ban. They received 3 seats and 4 respectively in the 2009 election.

Then as now I do not believe that democracy can thrive in chaos.  It is why we have laws to protect us against violent disorder. The ‘right’ to commit violence we assign to the State with the understanding that by transferring this aggressive impulse to institutional control, it will be commissioned sparingly and in a manner that is measured, but only when all other avenues for our protection have been exhausted. Chaos includes political chaos and Israel’s political system, having descended into farce, is chaotic.

And so what are the choices?

There are 120 seats on offer for election to the 19th Knesset to be held on the 22nd January 2013.   There are 34 parties contesting those seats.

The Likud joined with Yisrael Beiteinu to form Likud Beiteinu. The former is supported by a traditionalist, right leaning and largely poor constituency while the latter is essentially a secular, culturally Soviet political party.  It is therefore wary of any enemy, particularly one as duplicitous as Israel’s Arab neighbors.  The Likud has become more extreme in publicly articulating an annexationist ideology that would be diplomatically catastrophic if applied but may also attract voters that have become disillusioned with Netanyahu’s inept style of government.  The combined parties received 42 seats in 2009. They are currently predicted to receive 27 votes or 33 if they receive a proportion of the 21 seats (18%) that are currently undecided.

The Labour Party lost out to Kadima in the 2009 vote.  It has 8 mandates in the current Knesset.  It could gain up to 10 more seats but that includes an allocation for undecided voters (3 seats).  It is a marginalised party that is receiving votes from an electorate that does not trust it but trusts the right even less and from principle, will not vote for any parties on the margins. Its leader (Shelly Yachimovich) has foolishly already lost votes by stating that she would ‘never’ join a coalition headed by Netanyahu.

Jewish Home (Beit Yehudi/National Union) is led by modern religious, charismatic, Naftali Bennett.  He is a successful high tech businessman and he took the near-defunct national religious party, merged it with another small party, re branded it and once more, provided it with a voice. But he has also hemorrhaged support from the Likud and other parties.  From a combined 7 seats in the current Knesset he could have 12-14 without a share of the unallocated votes this time round. But his problem is that he is also a divisive figure in spite of his protestations that he supports secular – religious rapprochement.  In a recent interview he replied to his questioner that if given the order to vacate settlements he would ask to be relieved of his command and this was immediately distorted by the press to show that he advocated soldiers disobeying orders.   This is unconscionable for a mainstream political leader to declare, if that is, he is serious about unifying the nation. If he is trying to reach out beyond the religious settler community, this ruins his credibility and it could damage him on the day.  His electable list holds too many people whose extreme public statements may alienate anyone secular who otherwise might wish to vote for him.

Yesh Atid is a new party that will take votes away from the left and the centre. It is led by a former television personality, Yair Lapid. It is secular. It could receive between 9 and 11 seats at a current reading of the polls.

Hatnuah is also new and was formed by a breakaway faction of the previous protest party “Kadima” (which had 28 seats at the last elections).  It is led by two failed, secular-left politicians, Tzipi Livni and Amir Peretz.  Projected seats 7-8.

Shas (ultra-orthodox) has already stated that it will only join a Netanyahu government if Bibi Netanyahu agrees to its pre conditions which, would maintain the status quo on ultra-orthodox hegemony over all matters of personal choice within Israeli society.  But the status quo is already fractured so any attempt to ‘fix’ it will create more severe social tensions than those that already divide secular and religious Israelis.  Shas currently has 11 seats it could lose 3 or remain the same if unallocated votes are in their favour.

Meretz is the far-left Zionist party (as opposed to far-left Arab or Communist parties). It is perhaps a measure of the polarisation of the Israeli political landscape that a party that is seen to be on the fringes of Israeli society could double its seats (3 to 5 or 6).

UTJ (United Torah Judaism) is an Ashkenazi (Western European), ultra-orthodox coalition party. Its sole guides are its twin rabbinical leadership councils. It has maintained a steady 5 to 6 representatives in parliament throughout its 20 year history but it, along with Shas (above), provoked controversy amongst its female voters by excluding them.

Hadash is the Communist party – its 4 seats are unchanged from 2009

Raam/Ta'al (4) and Balad (3) are also unchanged.  They are both divisive, anti-Zionist Arab parties with controversial Members of the Knesset. One party leader was accused of treasonable activity during war time and based on the evidence presented, did not return to Israel.  A second MK was an active participant in the Turkish flotilla created by the anti-Jewish Turkish IHH.  A recent poll found 75% of the Arab sector expressing no confidence in any of the Arab parties.  How can we interpret this figure?  Most people simply want a quiet life, without fear or insecurity.  The Arab parties, like their Israeli non-Arab counterparts have betrayed their constituency by attempting to separate and isolate rather than integrate their public into the national fabric.  Seventy-five percent is both a mark of shame for the Arab parties and a sign of hope for Israel as a nation.

Other parties: Kadima (28 down to 2 this time; Am Shalem formed as a break away faction of Bennett’s party, it could receive up to 2 seats).

A week before the elections are to take place President Obama was today revealed to have said that “Israel doesn’t know what its own best interests are” and Netanyahu “is moving his country down a path toward near-total isolation” and finally “I have become inured to Israel's self-defeating policies.” President Obama’s lack of faith in the Israeli electorate is an act of condescension, and insulting to all Israelis, but it can be ignored.  His dismissive opinion of Israel’s prime minister cannot however be set aside.  It should set off alarm bells throughout the political estate. The timing of the release of this earlier conversation is probably payback by the US administration for Bibi’s public support for the Republican Party during the last US elections.  It is a concrete attempt by the USA to influence the Israeli elections to Bibi Netanyahu’s disadvantage.

Sloganeering is arguably the greatest curse of Israeli electioneering.  It allows the fringes to take the centre stage.  With less rhetorical grandstanding and more statements that were carefully considered to create discussion rather than inflame emotions the electorate might begin to see hope for the future.
Surveys were carried out by two separate, respected Israeli research institutions.  The issue the Right refuses to discuss (according to the polls) is that two thirds of Israel’s public support a peace agreement that would create an independent demilitarized state of Palestine.  And they would divide Jerusalem once again (as it was for the 19 years of Jordanian misrule). In both polls, a majority on the Right supported this.  But with influential rabbis openly talking about returning women to the home, disenfranchising them in practice if not in law, and Arab leaders in Israel demanding separate development, the main issue is that the extremes of society have taken control of or are becoming more vocally extreme in their demands on the state.

If Netanyahu is viewed as being politically, a coward (according to commentary by JJ Goldberg); he will willingly acquiesce to a coalition of rejectionists. If he is serious about moving forward and tackling the issues that divide Israeli society he must abandon his traditional partners for those who are willing to compromise. It will mean shutting out the ultra-orthodox parties and convincing the centre and the left that it is in their interests also to be part of the national project.  It may mean that initially he will be forced into minority coalition government.

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