Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fiddling with the Israeli electoral clock in order to dissolve the Knesset in anticipation of snap elections will be the effective opening salvo of a seasonal spectacle unlike anywhere on Earth. Prime ministerial fiat will magically transform 2012 from ho hum to humdinger and the chattering class is agog and abuzz over probable causes.
Is the move meant to avert a coalition crisis over the Tal Law that exempts thousands of full-time yeshiva students from military service?
Is Bibi looking to launch a preemptive strike at the possibility of a second Obama administration by solidifying his hold on the premiership before the U.S. elections in November?
Or is it the Persian war elephant in the room? Conventional wisdom maintains that a Likud victory would bolster Netanyahu’s campaign for a military strike against Iran’s nuclear programme.
The answer: A hint of the first, a dash of latter and a sprinkling of the second – or any other combination thereof. Thing is, no matter what special ingredients actually comprise this latest political potboiler, it’s the sharp acrid smell of a deeply decayed Israeli electoral system that wafts up to sting the nostrils.
It didn’t have to be this way. The original sin of Israel’s parliamentary system of governance can be traced to David Ben Gurion’s pushing through nationwide proportional representation in 1948. At the time, Israel’s first prime minister vowed that this was but a stop gap measure and that the fledgling nation’s electoral system would be modified in due course. Ben Gurion never did succeed in ushering in these promised reforms.
And Israelis have reaped the whirlwind ever since. While the world’s oldest and most stable democracies have been tethered to either majority or less pure but more effective versions of proportional representation electoral systems, Israel remains mired in an extreme, Weimar-like state of perpetual chaos.
The Big Top of Israel’s political circus has given us fire breathing fringe parties and feckless political jokesters, who must juggle multiple torches lest one fall and set alight an already volatile governing coalition. And if the ringmaster of this Circus Maximus blinks or twitches even just once, he or she may well tumble from the heights of this tightrope into the sharp, piercing teeth of a no confidence vote. While endlessly interesting, Israel’s brand of democracy has produced decades of prime ministerial impotence and governmental stagnation.
One chronic characteristic of Israel’s political malaise is the hodgepodge of small, ideologically exotic parties that have effectively radicalized the policies, if not the platforms, of the major parties.
Yet this factionalism is but a symptom of a cancer that’s been eating away at the Israeli body politic for decades. Israel’s party list system has effectively severed the crucial relationship between the elected and electors. As a result of this ‘voting by lists’, elected Knesset members are answerable only to their own party leadership.
Widely perceived as a den of mediocrity, if not worse, citizen involvement in politics has long since given way to the relentless machinations of the professional politician and special interest groups.
Prime Minister Netanyahu would of course be acting within his authority should he move up Election Day by almost a full year – it having been originally scheduled for October, 2013.
Yet, the whole idea behind holding elections at regular intervals is to insulate government from the fierce yet ultimately fleeting passions of the governed. By doing so, reason is allowed to trump passion when citizens hold their leaders to account.
A ruling coalition governed by such volatile emotions will ultimately be engulfed by them. And so it is that in sixty-four years of parliamentary rule, only six assembled coalitions have served out a full four-year term. All others have disintegrated as a result of internal power struggles.
Yet, the greatest resource for change, the Israeli public, remains remarkably interested in rehabilitating its severely hamstrung electoral system. According to the Israel Democracy Index 2011, compiled by the non-partisan, independent Israel Democracy Institute, Israel ranked third in political participation in comparison to 27 other countries. Israel attained a “…high score… at the top of the scale, between New Zealand and Canada.”
There’s a plethora of good ideas on how to at least begin the process of reform, including holding district elections for individual candidates, allowing the prime minister to choose his or her own cabinet, raising the bar in the Knesset so that at least 75 members would be required to call for early elections and raising the minimum amount of votes a party must receive to qualify for a Knesset seat (currently, It’s around 2%).
Sadly, the sound reasoning behind such proposals has to date not effected significant change in a system where logic rarely acts as a prime mover. The smaller parties aren’t in a hurry to pass legislation that will in all likelihood bring about their demise. And the larger parties aren’t in a hurry to antagonize their valued coalition partners.
And so it goes. As Israeli citizens, we can take pride in the fact that since the establishment of the State of Israel, there has been not a single attempt at a coup d’état or takeover by military junta.
Yet, a viable, effective democratic system is based on a government being able to take on the tasks and challenges placed before it while simultaneously remaining responsive to the people.
Until this delicate balance is struck, Israel’s exercise in democracy will tend towards the farcical, giving us improbable situations, fast-paced plot twists and elaborate resolutions.
Shouldn’t the theater of the absurd be left for stage and film?