Friday, September 24, 2010

Waiting for a Political Messiah

Israelis are not scheduled to go to the polls until October 2013 though no one would be astonished if some political upheaval forced new elections to be held earlier.

Several high profile contenders are already letting it be known that they could be enticed to provide the political deliverance Israelis habitually crave – either by starting new parties or taking leadership roles in existing ones. The saviors waiting in the wings include the photogenic television personality Yair Lapid, who is promising to stand up to the "settlers" and "ultra-Orthodox." His late father, Tommy Lapid, trail blazed a similar path.

Then there is the magnetic Aryeh Deri, once the top vote-getter of the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox Shas party and now staking out a politically centrist position. Lastly, though this hardly exhausts the list, is Dan Halutz. Feeling unappreciated, he belatedly resigned as IDF Chief of General Staff in 2007 in the wake of official criticism over his handling of the Second Lebanon War.

Perhaps more than voters in other Western democracies Israelis go to the polls with a smorgasbord of choices. The country's proportional representation system encourages new parties to crop up all the time. Why? Because "winning" a parliamentary seat requires crossing an electoral threshold set at a mere 1.5 percent of the total vote (1% until 1992). The proliferation of parties means that all Israeli governments have been based on coalitions; no single party has ever achieved an outright majority in the 120-member Knesset.

In the country's early years, elections were essentially competitions among left-wing parties for supremacy, and mostly won by Mapai (a precursor to today's Labor). Only in 1977, with the victory of the right-wing Likud party did power become more diffuse – though the basic rules of the political game remained the same. Minor parties continued to come and go impelled by personality clashes within existing parties, ethnic or religious grievances, or demands for ideological rigidity. Two with an atypical shelf-life were Ratz which broke away from Labor in 1973 to champion a more dovish security line and eventually morphed into today's Meretz, and Shas which quit the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox amalgamation in 1984 to become a Sephardi powerbase.

As early as 1976, however, voters were looking for a viable major party alternative to Labor and Likud. Liberal voters in particular were dejected over Labor's often corrupt stranglehold on power, yet were uncomfortable with Likud's perceived stridency about the West Bank. The Democratic Movement for Change, founded by archeologist and soldier Yigael Yadin met their yen for a "third-way" that backed a pragmatic middle ground. But Yadin's party fragmented and by 1981 he had retired from politics.

Still other third way aspirants appeared: The Centre party, founded by general Yitzhak Mordechai (1996), and Avigdor Kahalani's Third Way Party (1996), actually mostly a single-issue movement committed to retaining the Golan Heights. In 1999, columnist Tommy Lapid – Yair's father -- captured the third way mantle in a big way with his Shinui ("Change") party, that presented itself as secular and centrist, but which achieved most of its traction by lambasting (sometimes tastelessly) perceived ultra-Orthodox religious coercion in the public square. By 2006, this party, too, had devoured itself in internecine power struggles.

Then came Kadima founded in 2005 by Ariel Sharon – ostensibly as a third way movement – and bringing together politicians from both Labor and Likud. In reality, the party was a necessary vehicle for Sharon who had repeatedly failed to obtain Likud support for his determination to disengage from the Gaza Strip. In any case, Israeli third way movements have been closely tied to the personalities of their leaders whether Yadin, Lapid or a rebranded Sharon.

This fixation with new personalities and parties promising change continues. Political scientists have called for, and politicians have even paid lip-service to, restructuring the current hyper-pluralist political system beginning with electoral reform. This would weaken the power of parties whose commitments are to ethnic, religious or single-issue causes rather than to broader societal interests. Alas, the present system is designed to perpetuate itself. Even David Ben-Gurion could not pull off electoral reform back in the 1950s – which goes a long way toward explaining Israelis' fascination with ephemeral political saviors.

-- July 2010

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