Feb 11th 2009

The Morning After Israel’s Vote

by Fania Oz-Salzberger

Fania Oz-Salzberger is Professor and Chair of Modern Israel Studies at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, and Director of the Posen Research Forum for Political Thought at the Faculty of Law, Univeristy of Haifa, Israel. Her books include Translating the Enlightenment and Israelis in Berlin.

TEL AVIV- "The voters", said Binyamin Netanyahu in his strange victory speech, during Israel's bizarre post-election night, "have spoken." And so they have, in a multiplicity of self-contradictory voices.

Welcome to the mad world of Israeli parliamentary democracy. The world's most multifarious political system has just crashed-landed into a dead-end.

A local joke claims that Israelis have more parties than voters. If other democracies boast Right, Center and Left, we have Jewish and Arab parties, secular and religious, peacenik and hard-line, socialist and free-market. Each group is finely divided among itself in a dynamic crisscross of creeds and interests, ideals and appetites.

What is a paradise for political scientists is a nightmare for anyone trying to rule the country in earnest. But these elections have brought Israel to the mother of all deadlocks.

Therein may lie a blessing in disguise, but the curses are more obvious. The greatest curse is Israel's inability to raise a leadership strong enough to make peace. Even weak prime ministers can wage war, but it takes a Menachem Begin or a Yitzhak Rabin to go the opposite way. Such leaders are thin on the ground, and the electoral system is partially to blame.

Israel has lost its few capable leaders - Sharon alongside Begin and Rabin - to assorted calamities. Other prime ministers, who win elections by a whisker, end up with cat-and-dog coalitions.

For years, this democracy hobbled on stilts, with big and small parties shooting up, crashing down, vanishing and reincarnating time and again. Few governments lived to their natural term of four years. Right and Left swapped seniority around a barely-existent central pole. Even Ariel Sharon's break from Likud and the establishment of Kadima, a genuine embodiment of moderate Middle Israel, did not undo the stalemate.

Take the brand new political map: Tzipi Livni's Kadima with 28 Knesset seats, Binyamin Netanyahu's Likud with 27, both leaders giving triumphal orations during one dizzy night. "Tzippy" claims victory for leading the largest party, "Bibi" for heading the largest bloc. He has a point, of course: all six right-of-center parties, often at each other's throats, are behind his candidacy. But she has a point, too: Kadima won more seats than Likud, disproved prophecies of doom, and emerged as the only major party with an optimistic and peace-seeking message.

This election's maverick, Russian-born, secular and hawkish Avigdor Lieberman, got 15 seats for his hardline Yisrael Beitenu party. In the wake of the Gaza war Lieberman deftly rode a hawkish tide, demanding 'declarations of loyalty' from Israel's Arab citizens. He is now likely to act as kingmaker, propping the underperforming Netanyahu with a solid right-of-center bloc.

Ehud Barak's Labor follows with a 13-seat low. Unless it teams up with Kadima, Likud, or both, Labor will head for soul-searching in the desert. It will not die any time soon: in the Israeli aviary both doves and hawks are capable phoenixes.

If the numbers seem too small for the major players, here's the catch: Knesset's 120 seats will fill up smaller parties, each comprising anything from two to 11 fervent politicos. Arab parties are among them, as well as fractions of the far right and left.

Thus have Knessets been comprised from Israel's beginning: the messier the merrier. Never before, however, have the major parties stalemated so neatly.

So will Livni or Netanyahu be called by the President and charged with building a new government? Shimon Peres, seasoned political wizard that he is, could give his largely ceremonial role a fresh edge by helping all sides out of the muddle.

Peres could, for example, make both Livni and Netanyahu prime ministers, using a two-year rotation formula. Thus, Israel might scrabble out of the present political mud through job-sharing at the top. Alternatively, Livni could concede victory to Netanyahu despite her small electoral advantage, serve in his government, and pull her weight in favor of moderation.

Livni, at last widely accepted as a leader worth her salt, spoke loudly of peace with the Palestinians in the last day of her campaign. It did her no harm at the ballot box. She embodies the meager good news of this election: Middle Israel is alive and large, though not as effective as it could be. Tel Aviv, who voted Livni and Left of her, should finally be able to stand up to Jerusalem, who voted Netanyahu and Right of him. This election may sound a wake-up call to the moderates, and Livni is their tested leader.

Even more important is the constitutional wake-up call. All three major leaders now agree on the need to revise the ramshackle political system. Even Israelis, they say, should be able to work in a two-party system. Okay, three parties. To be realistic, call it five. But that's that.

Israel must learn to speak in fewer political tongues. It's the only way out of a dangerous impasse at a dangerous historical moment. Its democracy would not grow weaker by becoming tidier: rather, it would grow up. Fewer choices are sometimes the hallmark of maturity, and not only in politics.

Is it doable? Yes. Plans for constitutional reform are already on the table. The bigger parties must ignore the vested interests of their junior partners, go back to the drawing board, and raise the Knesset entry-level substantially.

Voters will learn to compromise, replacing tailor-made niche-parties with a couple of solid off-the-shelf options. Prime ministers will be able to rule full-term with comfortable majorities. Difficult decisions will at last be made rather than quirkily postponed: on the peace with the Palestinian and with Syria, on the economy, on social justice, on education.

Only then would Israel be able to speak to the world, especially to its Arab neighbors, in a clear and practical voice. I hope, but cannot promise, that it would be the well-tempered voice of Middle Israel.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2009.

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