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A stone aimed at the head of democracy

10 April 2015

Coalitions favour minorities, but at the expense of the majority, says Gerald Butt. Just look at the State of Israel

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 off.

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 Labour.

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 constituencies.

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 crisis."

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 be followed.

Gerald Butt is the Church Times Middle East correspondent.

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