Something’s Rotten- In the State of Israeli Democracy

As one who has written about and taught American Constitutional history, I have always been concerned about Israel’s lack of a constitution and the political system that has evolved as a result of this absence.  While most parliamentary systems lack the checks and balances familiar to Americans, this deficiency has always seemed more pronounced here in Israel. Many constitutional guarantees that Americans take for granted such as Habeas Corpus, no ex post facto laws (laws written after an event), and the right to a jury of one’s peers are unknown here. The political events of the last few months, that culminated in Sunday night’s political quake have undermined the ever-dwindling confidence that I had had in the system.


Let’s review the sequence of events. First, Shaul Mofaz challenged the incumbent Kadima chairman Tzvi Livni in a primary fight for the leadership of the party. Livni is vastly more popular with the public, but Mofaz is a better party organizer. With the help of what is euphemistically called ‘voter contractors’, he managed to get thousands of votes in Druze villages and other places, where Kadima had never previously garnered election support. He won the election and unseated Livni. And let’s not forget his campaign promises: “He will be the real opposition, and will never enter into a Netanyahu government “.


Next, Yair Lapid finally formed his long-anticipated party. He promised “new politics” and then proceeded to present a party constitution that stated he cannot be challenged for party leadership for at least eight years, and that he gets to pick the future members of the Knesset without even a hint of a primary.


Prime Minister Netanyahu went to the Likud Convention only to be embarrassed and shouted down by a room filled with settlers and others who have made it their mission to influence internal Likud policy by joining the party and being vocal, while having no intention to actually vote for the party (since Likud is not right-wing enough for this group.)


Last Saturday night, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman warned on TV that passing a replacement for the Tal Law is more important to him than maintaining the coalition. Suddenly, Prime Minister Netanyahu who had been saying publically that he has no intention of calling new elections and that he plans to serve out his term, announces his decision to have elections. Moreover, Netanyahu immediately cancels the summer session of the Knesset, so that neither the Tal law, nor anything else can be discussed. All of this was seemingly decided in a matter of hours.


Finally, at virtually the very last moment — as the Knesset is busy debating the law that will dissolve it — members of the Coalition and Kadima literally ran in to make a dramatic announcement: Everything that had been going on to that point was rendered irrelevant. The newly-minted leader of the opposition — the one who had pledged not to enter the Netanyahu government — entered into a coalition agreement with Prime Minister Netanyahu. The elections were off.


What is the effect of the events of the last few weeks? One, those who voted for Kadima and made it the largest party in the Knesset, are in fact now without representation. These voters had, by and large, voted for Livni, as an alternative to Netanyahu. Instead they now find themselves with Mofaz, the man they would never have voted for, and a party that is now aligned with that self-same Likud government they did not support. In return, they received nothing, no change in government policies, and no fresh faces. These voters who, as much as anything, had voted against Netanyahu, hoping for different policies, now find themselves with a Likud-led government boasting more than 90 seats in Parliament, without even the semblance of an effective opposition. Yes, there is a small chance that the new coalition might keep its promises. But we try to teach our children that how you play the game is almost as important as who wins. No achievement, (not that one is likely), is worth this kind of subversion of democracy.


Regardless of one’s political views, it should be clear that a system such as this one that permitted the events of the last weeks to occur, is fundamentally decayed and needs Constitutional root canal. Small political reforms, such as increasing the number of votes required for a party to achieve a Parliamentary presence will be akin to merely rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

About the Author
Marc Schulman is the editor of -- the largest history web site. He is the author a series of Multimedia History Apps as well as a recent biography of JFK. He holds a BA and MA from Columbia University, and currently lives in Tel Aviv. He is also a regular contributor to Newsweek authoring the Tel Aviv Diary.