Many commentators have placed the blame for the seeming leadership paralysis in Israel on “the system”.
As we all know, there is no such thing as a democratic system that always operates smoothly and easily.
Israel is not alone in this, indeed just look at the problems that Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott have had in governing Australia when dealing with a mixed bag of parties and characters in the Senate.
Israel’s electoral process has many drawbacks, but it was born at a time when people were migrating to Israel from very diverse backgrounds and in a real sense even from different centuries of culture and political development and needs.
The system was designed to give all groups maximum representation and hence maximum buy in to the fledgling State.
Despite being under constant existential threat, or perhaps in spite of this, Israel’s electoral process has been modified over time and that process continues.
For a while Israel experimented with the direct election of the Prime Minister whilst sitting within the Knesset itself, a system so unique that it could only have been designed by a Jewish academic.
Netanyahu being very telegenic and believing in his chances under a presidential style process, was a big supporter of this experiment. However in the 2001 election with Likud having been reduced to only 19 seats, (Labor 24 and Shas 17) out of 120 in the Knesset, Netanyahu decided not to run as he judged that it would be too hard to govern in “the system” with such a small block of 19 seats even if he did win the direct election for Prime Minister.
The Likud turned to the non telegenic Ariel Sharon.
This was at a time after the collapse of the Camp David process, Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount and the obvious unpopularity of Sharon with the USA and Israel’s allies generally.
And yet Sharon won the direct election with 62.39% of the vote, the sort of majority no other western leader can claim, but only dreams of and he went on to lead a stable government, again, even with only 19 seats in the Knesset.
The next election was in 2003. Israel did away with the direct election for Prime Minister and went back to a general full Knesset election. Sharon led the Likud to 40 seats (once Sharansky’s failed Russian party merged its 2 seats into Likud) with, importantly, the next closest party Labor-Meimad gaining only 19 seats.
Again, under “the system”, leadership and ability to govern were well demonstrated.
In Australia, when an election is called, it is held fairly quickly. In Israel as we see, an election is called but will only take place in 3 months’ time. And a lot can happen in 3 months anywhere, but especially in the Middle East.
Under “the system” that will take place in 2015, the main game is not who will “win” the elections.
It is not even necessarily which party will gain the most votes.
And here the role of President of Israel is critical. It is the President of Israel who decides who to invite to first form a government in the certain event that no party wins 61 seats.
The President is supposed to canvas all parties to determine who has the best chance of forming a government. As the process is in camera, and as most if not all parties have no ideological objection to joining any government, the President has a lot of discretion in the matter.
In the 2009 election Tzippi Livni’s Kadima party won 28 seats to Netanyahu’s 27. Yet President Peres invited Netanyahu to form the government.
So the main game is to win enough seats so that the President will either not have any ethical choice if there is one party clearly ahead of all others by a significant margin, or to win enough seats so as to be able to attract sufficient coalition partners after the actual election to convince the President to “pick me”.
And although the President this time is Likudnik Ruby Rivlin, relations between him and Netanyahu are not exactly great, especially seeing as Netanyahu did everything possible to block Rivlin’s run for the Presidency.
In the 2013 election Netanyahu took the Likud back down to only 20 seats, but because he had formed a coalition before the election with Lieberman (11 seats), the coalition came out of the election with a combined total of 31 seats. The nearest rival was Lapid’s Yesh Atid party with 19 seats and so then President Peres was quick to offer Netanyahu the Prime Ministership.
The problem for the Likud in the last election was that whilst it had won the race for Prime Minister, it had been reduced to merely 20 seats in the Knesset. In a sense Bibi had won, but the Likud had lost.
These numbers are the real source of the current instability.
The other is that despite the rhetoric, the forthcoming election is not so much about substance as about style.
On the Palestinian issue the vast majority of Israelis want a 2 State for 2 People resolution but just cannot see how that can be done as history continually demonstrates that the Palestinians want 2 States for 1 People.
Notwithstanding what their apologists inside and outside the Jewish world say. This is a reality that most Israelis see very clearly.
So on this issue the stylistic question is whether the Israeli leadership appears more or less sincere about still wanting the 2 State for 2 People solution. For Netanyahu that is both a battle between Likud and other parties, as well as a battle within the Likud itself.
On the so called social justice issues, which actually focus on better bang for buck for the middle class in terms of cost of housing and cost of living generally and which was the main impetus for the dramatic arrival of Yair Lapid, to be blunt, nothing has changed.
Lapid’s main landmark proposal was zero VAT on first home buyers in the next budget.
As the election has been called there is no next/new budget for some time, ergo no zero VAT before the election. Ergo he has nothing to show for now.
Of course all parties will claim to have proposals to bring in at some time in the future to address middle class economic concerns. The electorate is hopeful but sceptical about promises.
The Haredim refused to provide Likud with a lifeline to avoid elections now and are punishing Netanyahu for joining with Lapid and Bennett in passing the Draft Law which in any case has no punitive measures until some time well into the future. It is also clear that everyone knows the price the Haredim will demand after the election and they will join with anyone who will pay it.
Bennett is the wild card. He seems to be the only party head with clear policies which at the same time makes him both attractive and unattractive to different parts of the electorate. But he has cross demographic appeal – his personal story is what many of the younger generation want to emulate; his savvy use of social media gets his messages across; and his vision is simple to follow and fits the mood for many after the Gaza war.
He too has problems within his own party where he has some degree of trouble keeping his own MK’s in line.
Last election he disappointed somewhat with 12 seats despite earlier more promising polling but looks set to increase his party’s seats at the next election.
Whilst the Haredim can go with any party into government, Bennett’s looks like the only significant party that cannot, so how his party performs could end up being the bell weather of the next election.
Two final points.
A change that has been progressively growing is to raise the threshold for party entry into the Knesset. Long gone are the 1 person parties that bedevil recent Australian governments – well here we call them independents.
The next election will see the threshold raised to 3.25% of the vote. As voting in Israel is voluntary we are not yet sure how many minimum seats that will translate to in the next Knesset, but it will probably be 3, 4 or 5. The difference is significant. There are currently 3 Arab parties in the Knesset with 3 seats, 4 seats and 4 seats respectively. Whether or not they will merge and whether or not the Israeli Arab voters will turn out on the day could determine direct Israeli Arab representation in the next parliament.
There was a lot of noise about the so called “Nationality Law”. As outlined in my previous column there was no actual law proposed by the government at all. But there was a lot of heat generated. The most that Netanyahu actually did was to outline a series of benign status quo guidelines.
The calling of the election has meant that anything resembling a Nationality Law will now likely not see the light of day for quite a while, if ever.
Yes it is tough being the Prime Minister of Israel and yes it is tough running in an election when one is never popular enough for a decisive victory.
And yes, some changes to the electoral process would be of benefit.
But to blame “the system” is just to take the easy way out.
What is really missing is leadership and the ability or desire to articulate clear policies that the electorate will have at least some faith in being fulfilled.
Should that happen, “the system” will deliver.