Israeli politics in search of good governance

Yossi Mekelberg
Yossi Mekelberg
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Many years ago one of the most respected political science lecturers in Israel, the sorely missed Professor Gideon Doron, described the political arrangement in Israel to his class, as shifting from a nominal democracy to a minimal democracy. When one looks at the present situation in Israel, it would seem that some of the politicians from within the coalition are endeavouring to minimise Israeli democracy even further. Last week the Israeli Knesset endured one of its most difficult and surreal days in its history, as the coalition was pushing through its controversial Governance Bill just before the Knesset adjourned for its summer recess. In a rare show of unity among the opposition, members from the Left, Arab, and Ultra-Orthodox parties took turns standing on the rostrum in silence in protest of the bill. Their main grievance was against the part of the bill which raises the entry threshold to the Israeli parliament to 4 percent.

For the supporters of this bill, mainly from within the ruling coalition, the new bill would provide the government the much needed stability in a very fragmented political environment, which in return would enable an elected government to govern. However, this sentiment was not even remotely shared by the opposition.

There is a strong sense among those who oppose this bill, that it is a governmental ploy to concentrate more power in the hands of fewer people, and a move that would harm Israeli democracy. One of the parliamentarians, Zahava Gal-On from the Meretz party, broke down in tears while speaking. She described the bill as creating a “terrible sense of tyranny” and said the bill has nothing to do with better governance. She was followed by the leader of the Labour Party Shelly Yechimovitz, who proclaimed that the bill was “impertinent, brutal, dictatorial, and hypocritical.” The success by the coalition to pass this law in its first reading might look like a victory for the government, but more than anything else it underlined how divided the political system is in Israel.

One of the most disturbing, though ridiculous, accusations levelled at the Arab parties, is that it will be their fault if they do not pass the newly set threshold, as they split the Arab vote by running in three to four parties.

Yossi Mekelberg

Clearly the two most vulnerable communities affected by raising the entry threshold to the Knesset are the Arab parties and the Haredi (ultra-orthodox); hence both of them feel victimised by this measure sensing that it was a deliberate attempt to exclude them from political life in Israel. One of the leading Arab MKs, Ahmed Tibi, stood silently with his back to the plenum, describing his act as symbolic of the attempt to silence the voice of the Arab voters. Another MK bluntly accused the bill's initiators of “the political transfer of the Arab population.” No one can blame either the Haredi or Arab parties for being suspicious of the motives behind the bill considering that the party that introduced it was Israel Beitenu, which is fundamentally anti-Arab and secular in its ideology. Yet, both communities believe that time is on their side because the Haredi and Arab communities are the fastest growing in Israel. The sudden alliance between these two parties is ironic in that both have had very different political experiences regarding access to power in Israel. While the Haredi parties have been extremely privileged and over-represented in past Israeli governments, Arab parties have always been excluded from the corridors of power, and were consequently deprived equal share of access to resources.

Admittedly the Israeli political system suffered from the presence of multiple parties in the Knesset, following each of the elections, and lack of stability, which led to 33 governments in 65 years. However, the mushrooming of small to medium size parties represents the failure of the bigger parties to attract support from certain segments of the society. The existence of small parties generally represents deep divisions within the social-political-economic system. While bigger parties in the Knesset and the forming of a government with fewer parties might be desirable, it should not be at the expense of allowing a voice for all citizens in the political process.

One of the most disturbing, though ridiculous, accusations levelled at the Arab parties, is that it will be their fault if they do not pass the newly set threshold, as they split the Arab vote by running in three to four parties. This is argument is subliminally racist, as it assumes that the Arabs in Israel are not entitled to have diverse opinions. There is an implied expectation that the Arab-Israeli community is monolithic in thinking and aspiration, and therefore should not have more than one party in the legislature. This is of course complete and utter nonsense. Yet, one of the positive outcomes, if this legislation is passed, might be re-alignment of the political system and rethinking of the nature and function of parties in Israel. The constant decline among the big parties in Israel epitomises the failure of the catchall parties to build trust with the electorate. They often fail to represent significant segments within the Israeli society and provide for their needs. The new legislation may provide a temporary solution, but not a long term one for the array of divisions within the society along religious, ethnic, ideological and socio-economic cleavages.

Quick fixes to chronic flaws

The controversy over the raised entry threshold diverts attention away from other parts of the bill, which are a mixture of quick fixes to chronic flaws in governmental structure, as well as an attempt to limit the Knesset’s ability to oversee and check government’s activities. For instance, few would argue with the need to limit the number of ministers in government as the bill suggests, considering the inflated number of ministers and the expensive ineffective Israeli governments in the past. On the other hand, the new legislation also requires an absolute majority in the Knesset (61 votes) to bring down a government in a vote of no confidence, and makes it harder for the opposition to replace the prime minister during the life of the parliament. This mishmash of legislation cannot guarantee either stability or more democratic arrangements in the Israeli society because it addresses the mechanics of the democratic system, and not the values of such a system.

What is missing from the new legislation is a constitution-like comprehensive approach. Such an approach will not only create a more efficient and streamed line government that can shape and execute policies, but will also include checks and balances to protect basic rights. Since its inception, Israel avoids a holistic approach to this problem by constantly delaying the writing of a constitution. The approach of resolving political crisis or short term difficulties through legislation has failed time and again. This might also be the case with the new Governance Bill unless it is amended in order to avoid minimising democracy in Israel even further.

Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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