ISRAEL'S politicians have been burning the midnight oil since
late March, when Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud bloc won the biggest
number of seats in the parliamentary election. The leaders of the
nine parties that came behind Likud have been trying to cajole or
pressure Mr Netanyahu to accept them as partners in the next
coalition. In the high-decibel world of Israeli politics, the
election itself is the easy bit; only afterwards do the gloves come
It was not always like this. From the establishment of Israel in
1948 until 1977, the political stage was dominated by the Labour
party. Its largely secular Zionist supporters had led the fight for
the creation of the Jewish state, and, as its architects, they felt
that it was their natural right to govern it.
But the 1977 shock victory of Menachem Begin's right-wing Likud
bloc changed the face of Israeli politics. Large sections of
society who had been marginalised by Labour - notably the Sephardi
Jewish immigrants from Arab states, and far-right Jewish religious
groups - found a platform in Likud. From then on, elections would
become a slogging match between these two powerful blocs, Likud and
The problem, however, is that neither has been powerful enough
to deliver a knockout punch at the polling stations. This has
forced them to seek the support of smaller parties to build
governing coalitions. Or, to put it another way, a fringe group
with just a handful of seats in the Knesset can find itself holding
the balance of power.
OF COURSE, shrewd politicians in both the major blocs have an
eye on potential coalition candidates even before voting takes
place. In the most recent campaign, it was noticeable how Mr
Netanyahu's rhetoric became increasingly hard-line in respect of
the Palestinian issue.
In 2009, shortly after becoming prime minister for the second
time, he had declared in a speech at Bar Ilan University: "In my
vision of peace, in this small land of ours, two peoples live
freely, side by side, in amity and mutual respect."
Shortly before the March 2015 election, in what the New York
Times described as "a blatant appeal for votes from the right
wing", he announced that his Bar Ilan remarks were "null and void"
and vowed that he would never allow the creation of a Palestinian
state. This latter intervention, in the view of many commentators,
tilted the balance to the Right and knocked the centre-left Zionist
Union (including Labour) off course.
AS A condition for their backing of Likud, the smaller parties
will make demands that specifically address the interests of their
Groups on the far Right, for example, will insist on an
expansion of the Jewish presence in Arab East Jerusalem, and the
establishment of still more settlements in the West Bank.
Ultra-Orthodox religious leaders will want, among other things,
exemptions from army service for those studying full-time at
yeshivas (institutions for the analysis of Jewish texts)
to be restored.
Broad coalition governments, it could be argued, provide more
opportunities for a wider range of voices to be heard than is the
case with single- or dual-party rule. But the danger is that the
wishes of the majority of voters are ignored in the process, as
politicians, constantly preoccupied with keeping coalitions alive,
balance the desire to pursue broad long-term strategies with
meeting the specific needs of crucially important small parties. So
coalitions of the kind experienced by Israel are, by definition,
frail. The next government, to be formed by Mr Netanyahu, will be
the 34th in Israel's 67-year-life.
From the public's perspective, those supporters of small parties
with a chance to hold the balance of power will clearly push for
their particular issues to be put on the national agenda. But among
the electorate at large there is no applause for the shameless
horse-trading that inevitably follows each election, where
pre-ballot pledges are put to one side in the frantic and confusing
tussle for power among a growing range of political parties.
The Israeli political commentator Haviv Rettig Gur, writing as
the previous coalition government led by Mr Netanyahu collapsed in
December last year, said that "when two major parties dominated the
Knesset, there was a clear-cut divide between left and right."
Over recent years, with peace talks with the Palestinians in
collapse and the economy in trouble, the system has fallen apart,
"leading to a proliferation of small parties, growing cynicism
among voters, the rise of a new political class, and a sense of
confusion on key issues - all of which contributed to the current
An emergence of small parties and the creation of broad
coalitions inevitably lead to a weakening of the social contract
between the government and the people. The latter are increasingly
tempted to support parties campaigning on a single issue, or on the
basis of ethnic groupings (for example, the Israeli Arabs' Joint
List; or Shas, which has strong religious Sephardi support). By the
same token, the big parties are less inclined to take bold
initiatives that benefit the country at large, for fear of losing
their junior partners.
ISRAEL'S voting complexities need to be seen in the regional
context. Most other Middle Eastern states don't have the luxury of
discussing the merits of one form of coalition over another.
Elections in countries, such as Iraq, without the experience of
political discourse end in power grabs involving ethnic and
sectarian groups seeking as big a slice of the cake as they can get
for their particular communities - mostly at the expense of
policies for the country's common: a red flag warning to all
democrats to avoid the dilution of strong majority politics.
Israel, by contrasts, remains a robust democracy. But politics
in its broadest sense is gradually being undermined by the growing
influence of small parties that at times punch far above their
weight. The Israeli experience in this respect is not a pattern to
Gerald Butt is the Church Times Middle East