The Question in Israel: What to do with a Super-Majority?

With the merger of Likud and Kadima, Israel now has the largest governing majority in the nation’s history. Naturally, because this is Israel, the discussion quickly focuses on questions of war and peace – so let’s dispense with them immediately.

Politics & Peace
First, is the argument that Israel is united in order to prepare for the international blowback from an attack on Iran. Yes & no – there are important questions about the efficacy of an Israeli strike on Iran. It would require the Israeli Air Force to operate at the extreme range of operational effectiveness and many of the key targets are buried deep in the ground. Further, Iran has developed a significant technology base so that there are limits to how far back the program can be set. An American strike would probably be more effective, but even that would have no guarantees. What’s more, the Israelis (and probably several other players) are having some success in a covert campaign against the Iranian program. The Stuxnet virus was one example, along with the misfortunes that keep befalling Iranian nuclear specialists. Presumably, whatever actions are making the news represent only a fraction of the total operations. In a cost/benefit analysis it is unclear that a strike would be that much more effective then the current path.

Further, a strike would put an end to any chance of negotiations, which cannot be ruled out as potentially effective. International sanctions are taking a hard toll on the Iranian regime and there are some signs that the leadership would consider an agreement. But a strike would reinforce the hardliners, and possibly lead to a lifting of international sanctions.

An Israeli strike may not be useful, but the threat of an Israeli strike is extremely useful. Many international actors (China say), while ambivalent about the Iranian nuclear program do not want to see further instability in the Middle East (which leads to higher energy prices.) Thus, the threat of an Israeli strike provides an enormous incentive to the international community keep the pressure on Iran and a broad coalition reinforces that impression.

The second question is whether or not this coalition government will lead to some forward motion in the peace process. Probably not: outsiders always over-estimate the extent and power of the Israeli peace camp. While everyone in Israel wants peace, the population that is willing to meet Palestinian requirements is quite small. The Laborites who sought peace back in the 1990s were not misty-eyed doves, they were Zionist shtarkers who saw peace in very hard strategic terms of relieving the IDF of police duties (a strategic hassle) and improving Israel’s international standing. Since that stratagem did not succeed the general Israeli attitude appears to be the construction of wall and a divorce from the Palestinians. Doing this in the context of a settlement is preferred – but not essential.

Reducing Political Fragmentation
About a year ago, I gave a presentation on Israeli politics. Rather then focus on personalities which are fun, I talked about institutions – because quite often that is what shapes the outcomes. The presentation slides can be seen here. Israel has a proportional representation system, which favors larger numbers of parties. However, the entire country is a single district. The slides explain the math, but with each vote effectively voting for 120 seats there are enormous opportunities for lots of small parties. A very narrow constituency can get representation in the Knesset and be courted in order to build a coalition. Party leaders, unhappy with the party’s direction can split off and found their own party. Both of these circumstances have occurred innumerable times in Israel’s short history.

Overall, a stable number of political parties are crucial for a functioning democracy. While a rigid party structure can squelch, too flexible a party structure can make effective governance impossible. Israel is getting close. A recent book on Israeli counter-terror strategy cited a senior Israeli national security official who noted, “the prime minister must strike a deal with the minister of defense every morning.”

Technically, the mechanism for reform is simple. Currently a party needs on 1.5% of the vote to sit in the Knesset. Raising that, even to 5% would vastly reduce the number of political parties and change the incentives for political entrepreneurs. A higher threshold would be even better – but may not be practical.

Israel just turned 64! As it happens, I am currently studying Martin Van Buren and the Age of Jackson (for my PhD on the vice presidency.) the United States celebrated its sixty-fourth year in 1840 when Van Buren was President. He believed that the United States suffered in the 1820s when personal and regional faction dominated, and devoted his efforts to establishing a stable party system in which the parties represented clear principles. He was, on the whole, quite successful.

What of the Israeli-Arabs?
One of the “advantages” of Israel’s system is that it ensures minorities a voice. Most of the coverage of this has focused on how Haredi (ultra-Orthodox Jews) have manipulated the system so that the males of the community are not required to serve in the military and can spend their days studying. But other small groups have also manipulated the system.

One group that has not been terribly successful at playing this game is Israel’s substantial Arab minority. They have representatives in the Knesset, but these representatives often espouse extremist positions on national security and identity issues that make them poor candidates for coalition partnerships. One caveat, by some measures the progress of Israel’s Arab community by most socio-economic indicators is extraordinary – nonetheless, although they have equal rights under Israeli law, they do suffer discrimination.

There may not be as many Israeli-Arab representatives in the Knesset when the threshold is raised – but they may find the government serves them better. In effect, with a low threshold an Israeli-Arab voter can vote for a radical party that will have a minimal number of seats in the Knesset. With a higher threshold, this tiny party will not be seated. The voter won’t want to throw their vote away, but if the mainstream parties can make a compelling case – promising improved services then that may become the pragmatic choice. In effect, the Arab communities could become the beneficiary of this system.

The situation is not unlike that in the American south, where gerrymandered districts have ensured a substantial number of African-American congress people but may have contributed to increasing political divisions.

The State Grows Up
It is important that the super-majority move forward on this crucial issue. Israel is growing fast, in population and economically. This will present a number of benefits and challenges. A government that can adequately face these issues is sorely needed.

In particular, Israel is on the verge of becoming an energy power. There are many potential benefits to this. Cheap energy is good for the economy overall, and can make desalinization a realistic option, which would in turn relieve a major stress point for Israeli domestic affairs as well as for Israeli-Palestinian relations. Israeli could become an energy exporter. This is both a potential source of revenue as well as an opportunity to cement strategic alliances. However, governments suffering from political fragmentation have a great deal of difficulty implementing major, complex policies (and economic policies are almost always complex.)

Finally, the IDF has long been Israel’s primary source of large-scale organizational experience. But a developed natural gas industry also requires extensive planning and logistics. I am second to none in my admiration of the IDF, but a cadre of managers and executives from an alternate sector would serve Israel well and offer new perspectives on the nation’s major issues.

It should be emphasized, that there is no golden future free of challenges. No system will allow any country to neatly come to ideal solutions. Life is a challenge and full of trade-offs. But Israel would benefit from a coherent political system and it may be coming. This, like the Age of Jackson in the United States, could prove to be a crucial moment for Israeli democracy.

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