Israeli elections hardly offer a chance to replace governments. This is because the Left is doomed to lose elections and because the Right is doomed to be denied victory.
The Left had a stable majority in the Knesset between 1949 and 1977. Since then, the majority in the Knesset has gradually switched to the Right. The Labor Party shared power with Likud between 1984 and 1990 and was able to run a narrow government between 1992 and 1996 as well as short-lived one between 1999 and 2001. But the likeliness of a Labor-led collation has nearly faded.
This historical change is mostly due to demographics: over the years, Israeli society has become more conservative, more oriental, and more religious. In a way, a Labor Prime Minister in Israel has become as unlikely as a Republican President in America for similar reasons: immigration and demography have dethroned WASP domination in both countries (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants in America, White Ashkenazi Sabra Paratroopers in Israel).
Precisely because it has chronically lost its electoral base, the Israeli Left has jealously maintained its grip over powers that are beyond voters’ reach: The Supreme Court, the civil service, the media, and academia. The nomination mechanism of Supreme Court Justices perpetuates ideological continuity, and the High Court of Justice repeals laws that do not meet its liberal standards (such laws are officially dismissed as unconstitutional despite the fact that Israel still lacks a formal Constitution). The State Attorney’s office typically refuses to take orders from its boss (the Government) and to defend it in Court. The political narrative of Israel’s opinion-makers, both from the media and from academia, is highly monolithic. So the Right might have the upper-hand electorally, but it is mostly unable to implement the will of its voters.
The separation of powers in Israel is quite different from the one Montesquieu had envisioned. In effect, there is a separation of powers between, on the one hand, a Legislature and a Government that are generally run by the Right and, on the other hand, a Judiciary as well as an intellectual leadership that are dominated by the Left.
The chances of new parties to challenge this status quo are slim. In 1977, respected academics and public figures established the “Dash” party to provide an alternative to the discredited Labor leadership and to reform Israel’s political system. Dash did fairly well in the 1977 elections, but it failed to have an impact on Israeli politics. It vanished after four years. Two decades later, Tommy Lapid led the pro-market and liberal “Shinui” party to electoral victory. But after Lapid’s stint as Justice Minister, Shinui evaporated just like Dash. Tommy Lapid’s son, Yair, is now following his father’s steps with the “Yesh Atid” party. Like Shinui, Yesh Atid aspires to improve the lot of a struggling middle class.
Like its predecessors, Yesh Atid has sensible ideas and a commendable program, especially on electoral reform. But why assume that it will succeed where its precursors have failed?
The reason why outsider parties have so far been unable to challenge the status quo is that reforming Israel’s political system is a catch 22. You need a majority to pass electoral reform into law, but such a majority has never coalesced because small parties will not vote for a reform that will eliminate them, and because large parties fear to upset their junior coalition partners, whom they need to stay in power.
The only way to reform Israel’s electoral system is for large parties to get together and defy the threats and blackmail of the small and religious parties. Such an opportunity existed during the short-lived coalition between Netanyahu and Mofaz a few months ago. Unfortunately, this opportunity has been missed.
The only coalition that could advance electoral reform is a coalition between Likud-Israel Beitenu, Yesh Atid, and the Jewish Home –a coalition that would exclude the ultra-orthodox parties. Such a coalition would be similar to the one formed by Sharon in 2003. The same way that the 2003 coalition enabled the government to pass the necessary budget cuts, a similar coalition ten years later might make it possible, for the first time, to reform Israel’s political system.
A government led by Netanyahu, Bennet and Lapid would also pursue a responsible economic policy and lower the cost of housing. Such a government will continue to manage the unsolvable conflict with the Palestinians: Netanyahu will continue to give good speeches around the world, Lapid will say that he’d love to solve the conflict but that conditions are not ripe, and Bennet’s semi-annexation plan will be shelved. Tzipi Livni will continue to claim that she could have solved the Arab-Israeli conflict had she been given another chance, and Shelly Yahimowich will continue to preach the virtues of socialism.
For such a coalition to hold, however, Likud-Beitenu would need 40 seats, while Bennet and Lapid would need over 10 seats each. This scenario is not unlikely according to the polls, provided that Likud-Beitenu convinces more voters that it deserves their votes. But for this to happen, Likud’s leadership needs to clearly state that it intends to form the next coalition with Yesh Atid and the Jewish Home, and without the ultra-orthodox –a coalition whose three main targets will be to implement electoral reform, to maintain economic growth through a fairer share of the economic burden, and to pursue its relatively successful management of the unsolvable conflict with the Palestinians.