Israel: A Strange Little Democracy
Most of the news coverage people in Britain, Europe, or the United States will see about Israel will inevitably focus on the conflict with Palestine, and perhaps this is how it should be. But it is not what most Israelis care about, what most of them discuss at the table during Friday night Shabbat dinners with their families.
No, come this Friday, and every Friday for the next few weeks, children, husbands and wives, friends and family will be talking about the election. For the first time in this country’s history, there will be two elections in a single year. Israeli elections are unpredictable in the best of times: nobody has any idea how this one will turn out.
Here are the rules: The Israeli parliament, or ‘Knesset’, is comprised of 120 seats — a number inspired by the number of seats in the ancient ‘Great Assembly’ of Jewish religious leaders in 200 B.C. To sit in the Knesset, a party must attain 3.25% of the vote, and as a result of this low threshold, there are usually over ten parties or factions represented in the Knesset. No single party has ever, in the entire history of the State of Israel, gained enough seats to form its own government. Instead, even the largest and most popular parties in the nation’s history have risen and fallen on the backs of smaller fringe organisations.
For the past decade, Benjamin Netanyahu of the right-wing Likud party has governed Israel; recently, however, the prime minister has been hampered by a persistent investigation into charges of bribery and corruption which led to formal charges being filed earlier this year. Despite winning more seats than any other party last election, Netanyahu was unable to piece together a government.
Strangely enough, it wasn’t the prospect of imprisonment that broke the PM’s coalition but the question of the ultra-Orthodox. By law, the ultra-Orthodox are, like Israeli Arabs, exempt from mandatory service in the Israeli Defence Force. Netanyahu’s former defence minister Avigdor Lieberman, of the secular-nationalist (and very right-wing) Yisrael Beiteinu party, said he would not join any Likud coalition without a promised increase in the numbers of ultra-Orthodox serving in the military. Netanyahu couldn’t concede without losing the support of the equally-vital ultra-Orthodox parties, and his prospective government collapsed.
Normally this would have given the main opposition Blue and White party, led by the centrist former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz, a chance to form its own government. Instead, the wily prime minister dissolved the Knesset and called a new election for September, buying him some time to negotiate a new settlement.
The nuances of Israeli democracy and society can be a little difficult for the average Westerner to understand. Though it is often described as a nation of European immigrants in the Middle East, the truth is a great deal more complex. Estimates vary, naturally, but it seems that well over half of all Israeli Jews are Misrachi — that is, descendants of Jews from Middle Eastern countries like Iraq and Iran. Misrachi Jews are generally poorer than their European counterparts and have suffered historic discrimination in Israel because of their differences in ethnic background and skin colour. Ashkenazi Jews are descended from European Jews; generally, they are wealthier than their Middle Eastern counterparts and enjoy a higher socioeconomic status. This is not to mention the millions of Russians, Ethiopians, and Israeli Arabs who constitute the rest of this strange little country’s demographic makeup.
It might shock you to learn that in Israel the poorer, discriminated-against Misrachi vote right-wing (Likud) while the well-heeled Ashkenazim are rather lefty (traditionally Labor, now Blue and White). The million-strong Russian community which arrived on these shores en-masse after the fall of the Soviet Union are about as right-wing on security issues as the Misrachi but, being highly secular, have a disdain for the outsized influence held by the ultra-Orthodox in Israeli society (they make up the bulk of the support for secular-nationalist parties like Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu). The ultra-Orthodox themselves vote for whomever their rabbis tell them to, and vote very reliably.
Israeli Arabs, meanwhile, vote for dedicated Arab parties, none of which have ever agreed to join a sitting government. These parties, keen to avoid their past mistakes, are campaigning together as part of a ‘Joint List’ this election, hoping to wield greater influence over Israeli politics. Many Arab parties are anti-zionist, and in this respect, some of their closest Jewish parties are actually the ultra-Orthodox, who have always been rather tepid on the question of a Jewish state.
(A further clarification: ‘right’ and ‘left’ in Israel don’t really mean the same things as in other countries. It is taken for granted that Israeli is a quasi-socialistic country, or at the very least a nation with a very generous welfare state, even amongst ostensibly right-wing parties. Additionally, aside from religious parties and the governments forced to cater to them, everybody pretty much agrees on social issues. The only real ‘left-right’ debate is the question of Palestine: lefties are doves, right-wingers are hawks.)
In all this talk of ethnic groups, voting patterns, and political parties, you might notice one glaring elision: actual policies. Sure, Lieberman wants more ultra-Orthodox in the army, and it goes without saying that the ultra-Orthodox parties want the opposite. But what are Likud’s plans for the nation? Blue and White’s? Labor’s?
The single most important issue in Israeli politics has always been the question of Palestine, and perhaps for the first time in the country’s history, there is no longer any real debate. The Israeli left has been hollowed out in the years since the brutal Second Intifada — a wave of deadly terror attacks instigated by Hamas in the Gaza Strip which lasted for years. Blue and White brands itself as a centrist party, but, in effect, its only claim to legitimacy is that it is Likud sans Netanyahu, sans corruption. By and large, Israelis feel that the only way to stay safe is to maintain the grim status quo; there is little hope for peace or of a two-state solution. There remains only a tense ceasefire pockmarked by sporadic and desperate outbursts of violence.
The past election and the ongoing one are mostly focused on issues on character rather than content: Blue and White say that Netanyahu is corrupt and must be ousted while Likud say that he is the only man trustworthy enough to lead the nation through its perpetual crises. Meanwhile, Lieberman hopes to drive the two parties together into a massive ‘liberal-national’ coalition government (Blue and White have firmly ruled out that eventuality as long as Netanyahu remains in Likud and is under indictment). Likud have, for their part, rather implausibly accused Lieberman of being a closet lefty.
Blue and White, Likud, Gantz, Netanyahu, Lieberman, the ultra-Orthodox, the Arabs, the Misrachi, unstable coalitions, criminal indictments, tensions on the Gaza border and in East Jerusalem, the cynical, bloody geopolitics of a violent and war-torn region… Israel is now more than ever the victim of that ancient Chinese curse: ‘May you live in interesting times’.
At the time of writing, Dylan Springer is a third year student at the University of St Andrews studying Modern History. He is particularly interested in modern European history and politics and the history of revolutions.