Israel’s Democracy Is Broken

Israeli lawmakers voted on Wednesday to call a third election after negotiations to form a unity government stalled. Credit Gali Tibbon/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Israeli lawmakers voted on Wednesday to call a third election after negotiations to form a unity government stalled. Credit Gali Tibbon/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

It’s official. Israel will hold another election in March, our third national vote in less than 12 months. With trust in Israeli political parties already at a historic low, this election will only reinforce how broken Israeli politics have become.

Israel faces a twin crisis: structural deadlock in our political system and a rapid descent into divisiveness within our social fabric. This is by no means a fatal course, and with the removal of a number of political obstacles, it could be reversed.

To understand the origins of these crises, we must go back to Israel’s origins. Ours is a young state comprising an ancient people. The Zionist visionaries who laid the groundwork for Israel’s existence, including Theodor Herzl, Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion, wanted to create a modern nation-state out of a people who had spent some 2,000 years in exile. The work done in the 72 years since Israel was formed has been impressive: From all corners of the globe, a kaleidoscope of migrants have been united, and millions of Jews have built a new society. But the sad fact is that the founders of the Jewish state — diasporic in their core — never contended with the practical meaning of such concepts as “statehood” or “political sovereignty” (as did, for example, the writers of the Federalist Papers at the dawn of the United States).

Israel’s Declaration of Independence, enacted in May 1948, directed that a constitution be drafted by October 1949. In fact, the country’s first elections, held in January 1949, were for a constitutional assembly. But Mr. Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding father, opposed the drafting of a constitution at that juncture. The elected assembly declared itself to be a house of representatives, the Knesset. After two years, the Knesset decided to draw up a set of basic laws, intending them to be the basis of a constitution. Despite that intention, to this day we still don’t have one.

Because we lack a constitution, the very nature of the Israeli political system can be altered almost at a whim. For instance, in the early 1990s, the Knesset amended the electoral system to introduce the “direct elections of the prime minister” — an awkward system that split votes for a prime minister from votes for his or her party in the Knesset. The immediate victims of this experiment were the two major parties, Labor and Likud. Until 1996, Labor and Likud together made up two-thirds of the Knesset. Since 2000, governing parties have not received more than about 25 percent of the vote.

The Knesset repealed the amendment in 2003, but its scars are deep. Large parties never recovered, and single-issue small parties learned to exploit their power and extort the system. Ultra-Orthodox parties often put the interests of their constituents — big budgets for their schools, exemption from military services — above those of the country. Still other small parties demand the repeal of those privileges for the Orthodox. Because small parties can maintain strangleholds on coalitions, their demands take priority over other national needs. Unsurprisingly, the small parties have prevented badly needed electoral reform.

The legacy of direct elections also helped personalize politics: Israelis no longer vote for party platforms; they vote for personas. The outsize power of small parties coupled with this severe personalization of politics has resulted in a “politics of survival,” in which the immediate survival of a politician surpasses national interest.

During his decade-long premiership, Benjamin Netanyahu has elevated these politics to the extreme. Since the middle of this decade, in the face of possible indictment, he has exercised political maneuvers that would be defined as unacceptable in a normal democracy, including overt criticism of law enforcement agencies (such as the police, the chief prosecutor, threats to the Supreme Court) and harshly divisive rhetoric. On Nov. 21, Mr. Netanyahu was indicted on charges of corruption. Four days later, and with an eye on the coming election, he held a rally in Tel Aviv at which thousands of his supporters chanted slogans accusing the attorney general of selling out the country.

Because Israel lacks a Bill of Rights, the distinction between “freedom of” and “freedom from” religion was never planted within Israeli political culture. As a result, the Orthodox denomination has stepped into the void and monopolized religious life to the detriment of other denominations such as Conservative or Reform. Mr. Netanyahu, to secure his own survival, has become the sworn defender of the Orthodox parties. They see their advantages as a matter of survival and have no interest in political compromise.

As Israel heads to the polls again, there are clear ways out of the impasse. Likud could choose a new leader. Mr. Netanyahu has a majority of the party behind him, but small cracks in his support are emerging. Only one cabinet member, Miri Regev, the minister of culture and sport, showed up to Mr. Netanyahu’s post-indictment rally. And Gideon Sa’ar, a former minister from the upper ranks of the Likud, has appeared as a challenger for the leadership.

Another scenario would be that the Supreme Court forces the attorney general to decide whether Mr. Netanyahu, as a caretaker prime minister who is under indictment, can legally form a government. If Mr. Netanyahu is blocked by the court, Likud would be forced to choose a new leader.

The best-case scenario would be that new elections result in a coalition formed of Likud — without Mr. Netanyahu — and the Blue and White political alliance, which together acquired barely more than 50 percent of the vote in the past two rounds of elections. Ideally, small parties could be kept at bay, and badly needed reform could be achieved. Any reform should include the strengthening of a system with two large “mother parties” at its core to avoid the fractured politics of small parties we see today.

But Israel needs long-term solutions, too. First and foremost, Israeli society must reject the forces of division and start the process of identifying the values and ideals that could serve as the underpinning of a nation that is Jewish and democratic: a constitution. Before the Netanyahu era, between 2000 and 2008, the Knesset took up the challenge of debating a constitution that contained more than 200 clauses and a Bill of Rights. This draft constitution still exists. The next Knesset could continue that work.

One of Israel’s anomalies is the fact that for the past 70 years, its house of representatives has also been wearing the hat of a constitutional assembly. Perhaps the traumatic effect of our current crisis will finally spark reconsideration and a grand coalition of new leadership to finish what our founding fathers started.

Israel is still a young country, still in a genesis phase. It must explicitly define and codify a role for religion in the public square that is inclusive and democratic yet cognizant of Israel’s Jewish identity. Only by addressing this long-neglected challenge can we consolidate our democracy.

Arye Carmon is the founder of the Israel Democracy Institute and the author of the forthcoming Building Democracy on Sand: Israel Without a Constitution.

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