In his most recent column – which was published at Newsweek’s site on the 60th anniversary of the convening of Israel’s first parliament, or Knesset — Fareed Zakaria discusses the steady increase in the number of Arab citizens in the Jewish state (pointing out that demographers predict they will comprise 25% of the nation’s population in about fifteen years) and the impact it has had on the nation’s electorate.
As Zakaria points out, the elections this month marked the sharpest downturn in support for the Labor Party in its history; the voters are clearly disillusioned with its recent pattern of offering increasingly accomodating settlements to a Palestinian National Authority that is inclined to dismiss them as insufficient.
Faced with repeated rocket attacks from Hamas that wreaked death and destruction along Israel’s border with Gaza, the electorate mostly opted for one of three choices. One was the Kadima party founded by Ariel Sharon and now led by Tzipi Livni, which favors keeping Israel a predominantly Jewish state even if it means giving up half of the nation’s territory post-1973 (not only the West Bank and Gaza, but perhaps even portions of the pre-1967 land).
Another choice was Likud, led by the irrepressible former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who, with his customary skill for outsmarting his opponents and producing the unexpected, ran a campaign which made considerable use of the Internet-based techniques pioneered by Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008. Likud, however, used this approach to promote a platform which espoused determined opposition to Hamas and the need to confront Iran on the nuclear issue — a platform considerably at odds from President Obama’s approach to the Mideast situation so far.
The third party supported by the voters was Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, which takes a much harsher view toward Israel’s Arab citizens than Kadima or Likud, arguing that they should take a loyalty oath to remain citizens. Lieberman, who emigrated from the then-USSR in the 1970s, enjoys considerable support from Russian emigrants.
Although Likud is ideologically closer to Lieberman’s party than Kadima is, at the moment it is still uncertain that Yisrael Beiteinu will join forces with Netanyahu. The possibility remains that Lieberman will reach an accomodation with Kadima, which won a one-seat plurality in the Knesset. This is quite in the tradition of Israeli politics.
Since the founding of the Jewish state in 1948, its electoral system has been based on proportional representation. At the start of Israel’s existence, there were already several dozen political parties of varying size, most of which had been in operation for years; the two-party system that took root in the United States in the early 1800s never had its counterpart in Israel, whose system bears a closer resemblance to France in the Fourth Republic or to Italy, though never quite as chaotic as France was in the 1950s or Italy in the 1970s.
Under Israel’s constitution, the Knesset is assembled for a term of four years after an election, although just as often — frequently following a no-confidence vote — elections have been called early, usually after three years. Cabinets are put together by several parties that form a governing coalition. Quite often parties quit a coalition for one or a number of reasons, in which case the cabinet must be reassembled by the Prime Minister even if this does not result in another election.
In the early days of Israel its dominant political organization was Mapai, an acronym for Land Of Israel Workers’ Party. For most of its existence (it was founded in 1930 in what was then Palestine) Mapai was led by David Ben-Gurion, the nation’s dominant political figure in its first fifteen years. Following a dispute with his colleagues, Ben-Gurion left Mapai in 1965 after leading it for over 30 years and set up a smaller party, Rafi. Three years later, when Rafi’s leadership voted to join with Mapai to form the Labor party, Ben-Gurion quit it and started yet another party, the National List. In the 1970s, a few years after Ben-Gurion permanently retired from politics, the National List joined forces with Likud, and it was partly thanks to this support that Likud leader Menachem Begin, Ben-Gurion’s perennial arch-foe in Israel’s early decades, finally succeeded in becoming Prime Minister in 1977. Of such paradoxes are the electoral history of the nation made.
(It’s worth mentioning that early in 1969 the Labor party joined with Mapam to form the Alignment party which briefly held a narrow majority of seats in the Knesset — the only time in Israel’s sixty years of existence that one party did so.)
Though Mapai was always a thoroughly secular-minded party, to maintain its leadership it usually had to count on the support of at least one religious party and two or three small parties representing minorities such as the Arabs or immigrants from Morocco or Yemen. This remained the case when it became part of the Labor party, and Likud in turn, when it gained power, had to accomodate smaller parties, frequently ones leaning toward ultra-Orthodox voters.
Although Lieberman’s party gained seats in this election it is still not large enough to form a majority with any other individual party in the Knesset. It is probable that three or four more parties will figure into the equation needed to assemble a Cabinet and to get legislation passed in the Knesset. Israel has long prided itself on being the only true democracy in the Middle East (until Iraq became the second in recent years) and, though the results are sometimes remarkably unpredictable and disorganized, the recent elections show that the Jewish state will always find a way to move into the future.