Israel: The Practicality of Ever Seeking Consensus

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Israel: The Practicality of Ever Seeking Consensus

Gabrielle Calmy

Beloit College

Israel's political system and history are analyzed in relation to Israel's majoritarian and consensus features. The state's majoritarian aspects include its status as a republic with a unicameral parliament; Israel's dominant consensus characteristic is its proportional representation (PR) electoral system. As a result of PR, the formation of multi party governments has been common in Israel, with no fewer than ten parties participating in every elected parliament. PR's roots, advantages and disadvantages are explored. The state's cleavages, including its diverse ethnic groups and degrees of religiosity, are discussed in regards to their influence on Israel's political scene. Israel has moved towards consensus by taking steps towards developing a written constitution and judicial review. Additionally, electoral reforms, significantly the quickly abolished Direct Elections of the Prime Minister (DEPM) and the increase in the national threshold of PR, have attempted to diminish the disproportionate power that small parties hold under the PR system. This essay studies these developments and finally examines the current Knesset and Israel's political outlook in the future.
It has become increasingly challenging for the Israeli parliament to execute its policies and its electoral promises while adhering to a mostly consensus based structure. Israel’s proportional representation (PR) electoral system has resulted in multi party governments with none securing majority alone; thus, coalitions have always formed. However, Israel also includes several majoritarian characteristics; it is a republic, its parliament is unicameral, and there is mostly a fusion of powers (Dowty, 16). While at its founding Israel did not write a constitution (thus representing a majoritarian aspect), it put Basic Laws to written form in 1995, marking a beginning to devising one. Alongside the constitution, judicial review was slowly introduced that same year (Edelman, 10; Aronoff, 92). Israel's choice to abide by a PR electoral system seems surprising when considering the common Jewish affiliation of the majority of its population. This essay will discuss the roots, advantages, and disadvantages of PR in Israel; the state’s cleavages and their influence on Israeli politics; the influence of the British system on Israel’s political system; Israel's electoral system reforms, including the introduction and quick abolition of direct voting of prime minister and the increase in the national threshold; Israel’s steps in developing a written constitution; finally, it will briefly discuss the current Knesset and political outlook for the future. To gain better insight into the development of politics in present Israel, a turn to Israeli government’s immediate predecessor, the Yishuv, is necessary.

Israel's leaders continued the structure of the Yishuv due to its success in uniting the Jewish society. The Jewish community had organized to form the Yishuv in Palestine in the late 19th Century. As waves of immigration came in after 1880, the Yishuv successfully united the growing diverse (in regards to religiosity and national backgrounds) Jewish voices by seeking a common ground between them (Diskin & Diskin, 33; Peretz & Doron, 76). The collectivist spirit of Jewish society also played a part in this consensus seeking choice (Edelman, 2; Dowty, 16). Following the formation of Israel, its leadership continued to seek to represent its state's diverse voices. An immigration of over two million people from 1948 to 1992 brought additional political perspectives that influenced the political makeup of the country (Edelman, 3). Culture and religion constituted the two main cleavages during the Yishuv that have continued to be a source of division in Israel (Peretz & Doron, 276-8).

Religion and culture divided the Yishuv leaders’ viewpoints. The orthodox and secular Jews conflicted in regards to the role that Judaism (i.e. religious law) should play in the Jewish state. In fact, this divide was one reason why the Israeli parliament did not write a constitution at its founding. This decision was not due to the influence of the British mandate. Rather, religious conflicts between the Orthodox and secular Jews as to the role of Judaism in Israel resulted in the government’s decision to postpone devising a constitution (Dowty, 64; Edelman, 9-10). PR thus helped Israel administer its democratic intentions of creating a balance between religion and state without limiting Israel's status as a democracy (Edelman, 6). In addition to the religious rift, divides on ethnic grounds between Ashkenazi (Jews with European backgrounds) and Sephardic (Jews from Eastern countries; mainly Arab states) grew in part because of the perceived privileged status of Ashkenazi Jews in the eyes of Sephardic Jews. These religious and cultural issues have continued to play a cleavage in present day Israel (Peretz & Doron, 276-8). While relations among the Jewish Israeli groups have been strained, similarly but more deeply was the division between the Jews and non-Jews, particularly the Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs.

Relations between the Jewish Israelis and Arab Israeli have been tense not only because of lack of religious unity, but also due to the continued state of war between Israel and most of its neighbors. While the newly independent Israeli government declared its guarantees of the rights of Arabs in the UN partitioned Israel, its guarantee was “undermined” by the Israel’s ensuing War of Independence (Peretz & Doron, 57). Following the end of the war the 125,000 Arabs remaining in Israel were initially viewed by the government as a hostile population. Thus, while Arab Israelis gained equal legal rights in comparison to Jewish Israelis during Israel’s first years, they also faced military government controls (Peretz & Doron, 55-8). In addition to the security concern, Israel’s initial attitude towards the Arab minority may be understood due to its government’s roots in traditional Jewish politics (predating the Yishuv), whose main weakness was that they did not deal with treatment of people outside its community (Dowty, 33). As Israel's security improved, loyalty of Arab Israelis was demonstrated, and at growing pressure of Israeli Jews, the military government was abolished and with it the military controls of Arab Israeli citizens. Certain divisions continued; Israel’s Jewish symbols and character challenged Arab Israelis' ability to identify with it (Peretz & Doron, 54-60). Yet Arab Israelis were able to exert some political influence due to the PR system (Peretz & Doron, 276-278). While choosing to administer PR at Israel’s founding was not influenced by the British parliament, the Israeli system resembled it in other aspects (Mahler, 133).

The Israeli government was initially based on the British Westminster parliamentary model (Mahler, 133; Edelman, 5). This was reflected in four similarities: first, two chiefs of state headed Israel, a president and prime minister. The prime minister held most of the power; the president played mostly a symbolic role (Peretz & Gordon, 186). Second, “the chief executive and cabinet [made] up all the members of legislature. Third, the chief executive and cabinet [carried] out executive powers. Finally, the chief executive and cabinet [were] responsible to and [could] be removed by legislature.” Importantly, the legislature took place in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament (Mahler, 133). Similarly to Britain, party discipline in Israel has been quite high (Mahler, 145). One hundred and twenty members made up this body that was to be re-elected at least every four years. The whole country was considered one district (Edelman, 6). This choice was likely made due to the country's small size and population (O’Malley, 153). Proportional representation cultivated an environment of multi parties and consequently, coalitions.

While a government with varied political views (i.e. secular Jewish, religious Jewish, Arab Israeli parties) represents the diverse population, it comes at a price. No government has had less than ten parties represented (Edelman, 4). On the one hand, the low PR rate of 1.5% (raised from 1% in 1992) established during the early years of Israel has encouraged a high turnout of a little under 80% of the Israeli voters throughout its elections. On the other hand, as a result of PR the winning party has never had majority (Peretz & Doron, 138). Thus, the winning party has always had to form coalitions. Coalitions' weakness is that they are less likely to be able to act on their policies and execute significant changes, both domestically and abroad. In fact, it becomes time consuming and difficult to carry out most political actions. A smaller party may also maintain a status quo on specific issues, for example concerning religious affairs, thus cultivating resentment among the Israeli secular majority (Dowty, 75). However, the shortcomings of the Israeli political system, notably its PR, only became a real concern during the 1980’s. Prior to 1977, one party dominated the Israeli map: the left wing Mapai (predecessor to Labor). A change in zeitgeist moved the tide of support from left wing Mapai-Labor to right wing Likud (Edelman, 6; O’Malley, 152).

The shift from a collectivist approach of early Israel (1948-1977) to a more individualist attitude resulted in the replacement of the left Mapai with the Likud party in 1977 (Edelman, 3-4). Mapai supported a status quo of religion and state; “remained neutral or pro West foreign policy”; and supported a mixed economy (Peretz & Gordon, 79). O’Malley (152) argues that until 1977, the Mapai party enjoyed strong representation in the parliament and was able to lead stable coalitions. Due to its size it was able to choose its partners freely from the various political parties in the Knesset (Peretz & Gordon, 70). Despite Mapai's dominant status it is noteworthy that it still did not have a majority; coalitions were still necessary (Peretz & Gordon, 79). The change in zeitgeist towards individualism caused the right wing Likud party to emerge and grow popular with Jewish Israelis. Its support of the free market appealed particularly to the more educated Ashkenazi Israeli sector (Edelman, 4; Shamir & Arian, 270). Along with its market approach it also cultivated “an aggressive nationalist approach to security matters that was attractive to Sephardim.” Growing increasingly popular, the Likud eventually replaced Labor in 1977 as the largest single party in the Knesset (Edelman, 6). However, it never superseded the popularity of Mapai. By the 1980’s neither Likud nor Labor were able to lead the parliament as strongly (Peretz & Gordon, 80).

Since 1984, the alternating winning parties, the right-wing Likud and left-wing Labor, have struggled to gain a majority in the Knesset (O’Malley, 152; Edelman, 7). Towards the mid-80's the left and right blocs, led by Labor and Likud respectively, held an equal share of the Knesset's seats. The left bloc included Labor, Meretz, and the Arab parties, while the Likud, religious, and ultra-nationalist parties made up the parties in the right bloc. As a result of the equal proportions of both blocs, orthodox parties became increasingly crucial to coalitions (Edelman, 7). Prime ministers often found themselves at a position where they needed to “concede to factions” (O’Malley, 153; see also Diskin & Diskin, 36). Arab parties have been until present excluded from participating in coalitions; a reason for this may have be the hesitation at the prospective hefty demands the Arab parties would put to enter a coalition. Another argument stipulates that the state's security concerns against its Arab states and Palestinians “made it impossible to include Palestinian Israeli citizens” (Edelman, 27). Thus, religious parties remained the third partner, and although the Likud and Labor parties may not have openly stated so, they “were interested in reducing their reliance on small 'religious' pivotal parties”. However, they did not join forces and change the political system so that smaller parties would hold less power. Several factors slowed down the process of reform (Diskin & Diskin, 36).

While Labor and Likud realized they would both be able to benefit from a reform in the long run, they were also aware of the short term benefits of having the support of the smaller parties. Thus, they found themselves in a “prisoner’s dilemma.” The parliament's inclination to consider politics through a short term lens reflected the influence of Israel's continued state of war with its neighbors and its subsequent sense of urgency and focus about the immediate and less on the long term. The aforementioned turning point of the 1984 elections resulted in equal seats for the left and right bloc. Neither Labor or Likud were able to form a majority with a coalition. Thus, the two parties opted to come together in a national unity government including only a few small parties (Diskin & Diskin, 36). Israel's economic turmoil of the 80's, characterized by high inflation, pushed the two parties to this decision as well (Mahler, 114-5). For the first time, the Israeli government did not need the smaller parties to have a majority. Political experts expected that the two parties would change the political system to decrease the disproportional power of smaller parties. The two parties formed a committee to devise a reform; however, its conflicting recommendations, based in part on too large emphasis on appeasing a large number of politically diverse voters, eventually failed to change the system. This failed attempt helped bring into light the difficulty of passing reform affecting proportional representation in order to decrease smaller parties’ power. Parliament decided to seek and pursue an alternative method to achieve the same result: the Direct Elections of the Prime Minister, or DEPM (Diskin & Diskin, 37).

The DEPM law (passed in 1992 to take effect in the 1996 elections) aimed to resolve the imbalance of power between large and small parties by allowing Israelis to directly vote for their prime minister as well as to cast a separate vote for their party of choice. This slight departure from pure consensus aimed to increase the stability of the parliament in regards to the elected party’s ability to execute its political policies without the support of smaller parties (O’Malley, 137). A number of rationales supported the positive effects of DEPM: First, it would lend more legitimacy to the chosen prime ministers, ideally affording them more stability in the parliament (O’Mallery, 144). Second, Israel would develop a two party system where the moderates of the left and right would be most frequent, because voters would vote for the party of candidate of their choice (O'Malley, 146). Third, DEPM would give more executive power in the hand of the prime minister.

Despite its intention, DEPM failed to increase the leverage of the prime minister and through this eliminate negotiate coalition agreements with smaller parties. Bargaining with smaller parties did not stop (Peretz et al., 588-9). Smaller parties actually gained power as a result of this change. After the administration of DEPM Israelis were able to vote for their preferred party as well as their chosen prime minister. As the prime ministers represented the Labor and Likud parties, a voter who would have chosen Likud simply to have a Likud prime minister was able to choose the specific prime minister as well as the party he felt more ideologically close to (O’Malley, 154). The reform failed to diminish (consensus seeking) coalitions because the prime minister still needed the majority of the Knesset to pass major policies; additionally, parliament could pass a “no confidence” vote in the prime minister and thus dissolve the legislature, the Knesset (Edelman, 7; Peretz et al., 589-90; O’Malley, 137-49). Concluding DEPM was not working through the process of trial and error, the Knesset canceled the direct PM voting in 2001 (Rahat, 45). The 1992 DEPM law had failed, but it wasn’t the only law of that year that attempted to reduce PR (O'Malley, 153). Another was the increase in threshold for political parties to enter the Knesset.

The minimum threshold for political parties to be included in the Knesset rose by 1% to 1.5% after 1992. The law after 1992 intended to weaken the PR and give more power to the winning parties. The immediate result was that 10 parties participated in the Knesset in 1996, a decrease from 15 parties in 1992 (O’Malley, 153; Diskin & Diskin, 32). However, this law did not cause significant long term effects: as noted earlier, at least 10 parties continued to be represented in the Knesset. Currently, twelve parties serve in the parliament (Spyer, 14). Towards the mid 90's Israel made another step towards consensus and began to write a constitution.

Israel's initiative to begin writing a constitution in 1995 increased the power of its courts. It is true that since 1949 Israel had a number of written Basic Laws, but these expanded after 1995 to include Basic Laws that related in part to human rights. As a result, Israeli courts’ power grew and they began to exercise judicial review similar to the American model (Aronoff, 92). Prior to changes of 1995, the courts had found it difficult to rule on issues due to lack of a written constitution. When judges deliberated on cases they had referred to Israeli law that had been only passed by the Knesset. The administration of judicial review increased the separation between legislative, judiciary and executive (Aranoff, 106). Developing a constitution created a framework for the legislative body to work from and continued to shape the Israeli state's character while cultural and religious divisions continued to be causes of conflict. A constitution would ideally force an eventual resolution of this issue. Additionally, it promotes a form of checks and balances on the Knesset. However, it may lead to gridlock as well. The legislative body may overturn Knesset's laws that have by themselves taken long to deliberate. These concerns remain a source of debate in various forms in the Knesset.

The recent spring 2006 elections brought a new political party to power but still reflected the limitations PR puts on major parties. Notably, 12 parties were sworn to parliament, continuing the trend of multi party governments (Spyer, 14). However, the winning party Kadima, barely six months old, succeeded to partially change the face of the Israeli political map. Following Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, Sharon broke off from his party, the Likud, and founded Kadima. Prior to elections, Sharon was hospitalized with a stroke and Olmert took his place in leadership. Kadima continued to win the Israeli elections, gaining 29 seats (Spyer, 14). One reason for Kadima's success relied on the majority of Israelis preferring the middle road in regards to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. That is, accepting the formation of a future Palestinian state, while not believing Israel has a true peace partner on the Palestinian side. Kadima aimed to serve the interest of this majority, by, for example, stating during elections that it would continue unilateral withdrawal from parts of land in the West Bank gained during the 1967 War. Labor maintained its power with 19 seats, while the Likud suffered a considerable loss of 26 seats, losing its dominant power. Limitations of PR again became evident, however, as Kadima, despite its victory, still needed the support of smaller parties in order to form a coalition. Kadima's reliance on the support of these smaller parties hindered its ability to execute its electoral promises, such as unilaterally withdrawing from land in the West Bank (Spyer, 10).

It is true that proportional representation has succeeded in providing an outlet for a plethora of political views in Israeli society. However, this system also allows smaller parties to hold a disproportionate degree of power comparable to larger parties. Important policies have passed due to compromise and co operation between Israeli parties, but this process is often time consuming and arguably inefficient (Dowty, 76). Israel would thus benefit from modifying its PR system and increasing its cut-off percentage for elected parties to enter the Knesset. This would allow larger parties a greater extent of freedom in carrying out decisions while in government. As a result, the Israeli government would be able to execute its policies more quickly and smoothly without the needing the support of smaller parties.

The status quo of Jewish orthodox and secular co operation will not likely change quickly. Despite the disagreements between the two sectors they are generally united in their shared Jewish background; this commonality relates to the dual role that the Jewish faith plays in Israel, as a religion and as a doctrine of nationalism (Dowty, 159). The large, winning parties may also fear losing the support of Orthodox parties in the future if they unite with a similar large party (like Labor with now Kadima, for example) and make significant domestic policy changes relating to Jewish role in Israeli life. Unfortunately, despite the government's intentions to give voice to the Israeli population, in effect PR prevents the government from making considerable changes. The large parties have the option of forming a national unity government in order to gain leverage in the Knesset without the support of the smaller parties. In fact, three national unity governments have formed in Israel, namely in response to political or economic crisis. While the formations of national governments may have created an ideal setting to lead to reform, past experience has not shown success in such a government passing a law that effectively limits the power of smaller parties. Domestically, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir opted to return to a national unity government in 1988 after the Shas, the orthodox Haredi party, encouraged by its nearly doubling size in the Knesset, made heavy demands on the Israeli government (such as “Sabbath observance”). After the government broke apart in 1990 and Shamir turned to form a coalition with the right bloc parties, the Haredim did not ask again for such high demands (Dowty, 169). Thus, national unity governments may be a stabilizing force; however, one problem is that it is nearly impossible to agree on foreign policy in light of Likud and Labor's ideological differences. This aspect typically 'freezes' during such governments (Edelman, 8-10). Nevertheless, the setting may remain more susceptible for Israeli governments to form unity governments because of the perpetual state of war and thus in order reaffirm domestic unity (Dowty, 76). As Israel continues to seek a delicate balance of appeasing its various cultural and religious groups and operate as a Jewish democratic state that supports the rights of its citizens, it must continue to deal with the limitations of a consensus system and the possible ramifications of diminishing this consensus, by tackling PR or through other means.

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