Wednesday, January 09, 2019

Political Stability? Or Political Chaos!

Some of the Charedi Kenesset members (TOI)
Republicans and Democrats. That is how our system of government has evolved. We are basically a 2 party system that more or less reflects the political makeup of this country. Republicans tend toward more conservative views and Democrats are more liberal. Although the definitions of each have changed considerably over the years 2 opposing sides remain. And they reflect the political divisions of the vast majority of Americans. This is not the case in Israel. More about that later.

It is interesting to note that issues that used to define Democrats are now mostly the ones that define Republicans. Both parties have moved to the left. Although there are individual exceptions - Republicans are generally more centrist and Democrats more leftist. That can be seen on how they viewed issues then compared to how they view issues now.

Back in the days of JFK almost 60 years ago, I was far more at home as a Democrat. I saw Republicans as upper class self centered snobs that were generally somewhat racist and antisemitic. 

Back then it was the Democrats that stood up for Israel. Republicans saw no value in that - seeing appeasing the Arab states as more important to US interests. 

Republicans tended to support the Sunday Blue Laws whereas Democrats opposed them. Republicans favored quotas for Jews in top universities... restrictions on where Jews could live... Which country club they could join... or which hotel they could stay at... Democrats opposed all quotas and restrictions.

Now it seems that things are just the opposite. Republicans are where Democrats used to be. 

Republicans are now far more supportive of Israel. Democrats are far more critical of Israel. 

Republicans tend to favor religious rights over civil rights. Democrats see civil rights overriding religious rights.

Democrats now support quotas in the form of affirmative action while Republicans oppose it. 

Democrats will find antisemitic hate speech from among their ranks in congress. To the best of my knowledge  Republicans do not have anyone like that in congress. 

Republicans tend to support anti BDS legislation while Democrats see that as a denial of free speech. 

Be that as it may, our two party system has worked out pretty well for us. Although there are occasional exceptions ( might argue that we are in the midst of one of those now) our form of representative government with direct elections for President seems like the best combination of democracy and efficiency in governance. While it is not the best version of either. It is the best possible combination of those two.

Which brings me to Israel. They may be more democratic then than we are by virtue of the fact that there are so many diverse political parties. That allows voters to be more precise in choosing which party represents their political views.  But they are far less efficient.  

Here is how their system works in practice as I understand it.The political party that wins the majority of  seats in the Knesset chooses who will be Prime Minister. Which is the head of their party. The 120 seats in the Kenesset are filled by the proportional representation of its population. The more votes a party gets. The more seats it gets. When there are a lot of political parties that produces a state of near chaos in governance. 

There are currently so many that it is rare these days for any party to win a majority of the seats. What usually happens then is the party with the most votes will be asked by the titular head (i.e. the Israeli President) to put together a coalition of parties that will consists of the majority of seats and generally the largest party’s leader becomes Prime Minister. 

The problem is that coalition partners make strange bedfellows. So strange that coalitions often break up over the very thing that made them distinct parties in the first place. 

Very inefficient.

And if that weren’t bad enough the parties themselves often break up into splinter parties. Adding to the chaos. This is what is happening now in Israel. For example, the very successful right wing ‘Jewish Home’ party was founded on the ‘corpse’ of the Religious Zionist party by Naftali Bennett. But now Bennett has left his own party and taken his top ‘lieutenant’ with him to form a new party that will combine the right wing of the Religious Zionists that  formed his base with the right wing of secular Zionists. His hope is that he will get even bigger numbers that his old party. He might be right about that. 

There are other parties doing similar things. Not the least of which is the Charedi parties. Which to me is mind boggling

You would think that the religious parties have a lot more that unites them than what divides them. That a block of all the religious parties in Israel would be a force to reckon with – rivaling the largest parties in Israel. If Shas, Degel HaTorah, Agudat Israel, and a united religious Zionist party (consisting of the left and the right) would unite to become a single united entity dedicated the religious principles they all share, imagine what could be accomplished. 

But what is happening instead is they is more splintering off than ever. It is their differences they focus upon rather than the their similarities.  Those differences are so important to them that they are are often practically at war with each other.

So much for unity. And so much for efficient governance. Too many political parties equals chaos.

Israeli politicians are not unaware of the problem of too many parties. The Kenesset  has tried to do something about it by legislating a minimum threshold of winning at least 3.5 seats in the Kenesset in order be part of it. 

I don’t know what happens to the 3 or less seats that are won if that party cannot serve.. But I believe this law takes them in the right direction. Israel needs to do what major democracies of the west do and find a way to reduce the number of political parties to two. Countries like the US, the UK, Canada, and Australia (to mention the few that come to mind) have that kind of system and are far more efficient in their governance. 

A two party system will certainly add stability. It would eliminate the tactic of breaking up a ruling coalition by a small party leaving it. Because there would be no small party. Maybe Israel should consider raising the threshold from 3.5 seats to 10 or more seats.

The religious parties would obviously be opposed to something like that. It would probably eliminate them all for serving. Or maybe – just maybe – it would incentivize them to form one big religious party that would be able to achieve or surpass that threshold. And achieve a great deal more  for religious Jewry than they could have ever imagined.

Of course this will never happen. But it should.