Tomorrow, Israelis go to the polls, in an election called by the sitting prime minister to strengthen his hand, and that looks increasingly likely to weaken it, and possibly to cost him his office. But the true import of the election may lie elsewhere. Herewith five matters to consider about the upcoming election.
1. This election is not about the rise of the left or the fall of the right, but about a reshuffling of the left and right into new configurations. Currently, Labor and Hatenuah (“The Movement”), a moderate party founded by a Likud defector, have 21 seats between them. These two parties are now running as an alliance, the Zionist Union, projected to win about 25 seats. Meretz, the most left-wing Zionist party, has 6 seats, and Yesh Atid (“There Is a Future”), a centrist (on security and national questions), secularist and liberal party has 19 seats. These are the most-plausible coalition partners for the Zionist Union, and they are projected to win about 5 and 12 seats respectively. In other words, a coalition currently totaling 46 seats is expected to drop to 42 seats, plus or minus.
The right is a mirror image. Likud currently has 18 seats. Yisrael Beiteinu (“Israel is Our Home”) has 13 seats, and Habayit Hayehudi (“The Jewish Home”) has 12. In the new Knesset, Likud is projected to have around 22 seats, Yisrael Beineinu to shrink to 5 seats, and Habayit Hayehudi to 11 seats – but a new center-right party, Kulanu (“All of Us”) founded by a breakaway Likud MK, is expected to garner about 9 seats, and is a likely partner for a Likud-led coalition. So a bloc currently numbering 43 seats is expected to grow to 47 seats.
Meanwhile, in the same polls that show the Zionist Union outpolling Likud, Isaac Herzog, head of the Labor party that forms the largest part of the Zionist Union, trails Benjamin Netanyahu by 14 points on the question of who was the “most appropriate” candidate to be prime minister.
And that’s supposed to be a big left-wing victory.
2. This election is about the fickle center. What’s wrong with the above analysis is that Yesh Atid and Hatenuah were both members of the 19th Knesset governing coalition that Netanyahu lead, but now they are expected to be part of a center-left government. As a result, both parties are projected to lose seats – but their rumps will be better coalition partners for the left. So this election does mean a shift to the left: a shift of centrist party-leaders who now prefer a center-left coalition to a center-right one.
More to the point, for the first time in a while these centrist parties are not running as alternatives to left and right, but as logical partners for the left. Yesh Atid expects to join a Labor-led government. Hatenuah is running on a joint list with Labor. The typical pattern recently is for such parties to collapse completely – as Kadima and Shinui did. If that doesn’t happen, it’s a kind of victory for the left.
So perhaps the better way to describe the election is: the left was so weak going into this election that even a significant set of defections from the center-right is not enough to get them close to being a governing coalition.
3. This election is about the rise of the Joint Arab List. Israel’s Arab citizen have full political rights, and there are several parties representing largely Arab voters in the Knesset, including an Arab nationalist party, two Islamist parties, and a formally non-sectarian party that has some Jewish members and leadership, a descendant of Israel’s old Communist party. This year, for the first time, all of these parties have united into a single joint list under the new leadership of Ayman Odeh of Hadash (the former Communists).
These diverse (indeed, ideologically contradictory) parties have united because of a new law raising the vote percentage threshold for inclusion in the Knesset. Every one of them was at some risk of not clearing the new bar; if they did not hang together, they might very well hang separately. As a result, the joint list, though projected to win not many more seats than the collection of constituent parties currently hold, may wind up being the third-latest party in the Knesset.
Does that matter? In terms of coalition politics, probably not. The list has said they would not serve in a Zionist government, and the major parties have all ruled out including the list in their governments anyway. That doesn’t preclude the Arab-dominated parties from supporting a congenial governing coalition from the outside – but if would do so together they would likely have done so separately.
The real significance will be if the parties are able to work together over a longer period of time, and thereby transform Israeli Arab politics into something with a bit more heft. There are really only two plausible happy futures for Israel’s Arab population: recognition as a national minority and concomitant greater autonomy for Arab-dominated areas within Israel; or greater integration into an Israel that has evolved in an explicitly post-Zionist direction.
Hadash, the leading partner in the joint list, explicitly advocates the latter, but either goal will require the existence of a party with substantial heft that can put itself in a position to make demands of the Israeli state. Whether the joint list evolves in that direction remains to be seen.
4. This election proves the Israeli electorate doesn’t really believe Netanyahu’s scare-mongering on Iran. If there were any validity to that scare-mongering, and Israel faced an unprecedented risk to its very existence, many things would be happening, none of which are. The major parties would be talking about the necessity of a unity government. There would be across-the-board support for the prime minister in his efforts to rally international support for Israel in its hour of crisis. There would be grim debate about what Israel will do if it cannot rally that support, and must act alone. You would see, in other words, all the signs Israel exhibited in the run-up to war in 1967.
Instead, Netanyahu has been undermined by economic discontent, but even more so by a sense of fatigue with his schtick, which hasn’t changed over his entire tenure in politics. Netanyahu’s pitch has always emphasized warning of the enormous threats Israel faces, and the unreliability of all other candidates in standing up to those threats. He has made no progress in actually addressing those threats because, from Netanyahu’s ideological perspective, progress is not actually possible; the threats are permanent and need to be faced with implacable resolve forever. Unless one exercises the kind of totalitarian control of a North Korean god-king, this is a viewpoint that wears thin after some time, even if the objective threats are significant and longstanding.
5. The election proves that parliamentary systems aren’t all that. Matt Yglesias made a bit of a stir a couple of weeks ago predicting the doom of American democracy because we have a presidential rather than a parliamentary system. Under a presidential system, you have two branches – executive and legislative – that each have substantial authority, and that each get a mandate directly from the people. As a result, when they clash, there’s no “principled” way to resolve the conflict, raising the specter of endless gridlock, extra-constitutional attempts to do an end-run around that gridlock, and finally civil strife between partisans of each opposing faction.
The fact that France’s presidential fifth republic has proven much more stable than the preceding two parliamentary republics should have been enough to raise real questions about this thesis, but Israel provides another useful counter-example. Because of proportional representation, Israel has always had a riot of parties representing distinct demographic segments or ideological interests, and has never had a majority government (every government has been a coalition). But in this next election, the most popular candidate for head of government (Netanyahu still is that) may lose the election, the winning party may prove unable to form a government (because of a lack of plausible coalition allies), and any coalition that does form may well have to reject the views of a substantial majority of voters on certain crucial issues (for example, the relationship between religion and state) in order to build a functional coalition.
Moreover, apart from the parties representing discrete segments of the population (ultra-Orthodox Jews, settlers, Israeli Arabs), no party will be able to identify a constituency to which it is accountable, as would be the case in a district-based system. This is one reason for the perennial instability of Israel’s political system: the voters do not have any clear way of assigning blame and punishing those who have failed to deliver on lunchbox issues, and so increasingly vote on identity-based questions.
Israel tried to resolve these longstanding problems two decades ago by switching to a quasi-presidential system involving direct popular election of the prime minister. This, of course, only made the problems worse.
All of which suggests that, relative to the underlying social structure, institutional design may not be quite as important as some political scientists think.