A Black Hole at Core of Israeli Electoral Politics

At the center of today’s election lies the weakness of the two big parties, Likud and Labor. The lack of a dominant ruling party is the standout characteristic of the Israeli political system. That is what led to the implosion of the coalition after less than two years, and, according to the polls, what will also dictate the election results and define the composition of the next government.

The big parties don’t excite the voters, and the voters don’t identify with them. This is why they can’t reach the size of the ruling parties of the past. When the ruling core of the coalition is 19 Knesset members, like it is today, it collapses under its own weight or is completely paralyzed by the mutual vetoes of its members.

The problem isn’t the leaders’ personalities. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a deep voice, a talent for television and rich experience, and the polls show that most of the public view him as a fitting candidate to lead the country. But all that isn’t enough to prompt voters to support the Likud in droves, and give Netanyahu a dominant party with 40 to 50 seats like his predecessors from David Ben-Gurion to Yitzhak Rabin enjoyed. Netanyahu’s rival in the election, Isaac Herzog, is seen as the anti-Bibi who makes up for his lack of charisma with diligence and modesty. But even the public disgust with the current prime minister isn’t sending the masses out to vote Herzog and give his Zionist Union slate an overwhelming number of Knesset seats.

The public isn’t easy for them to excite, because the larger parties are viewed as power-hungry entities with only minimal differences between them. Netanyahu negotiated with the Palestinians to withdraw from most of the West Bank, but now he declares “not one inch”; Herzog and Tzipi Livni served as ministers under Netanyahu until they were forced out of their seats; larger parties tend to join together after the election (Kadima and Labor in 2006, Likud and Labor in 2009, Likud and Yesh Atid in 2013) instead of presenting clear differences between the coalition and the opposition. The political rivalries are simply moved inside the government, and all that can be agreed upon is going to war in Gaza.

The result is that the swing voters, who determine the election result, are indifferent as to who the next prime minster will be, and they throw their decisive weight to Yair Lapid or Moshe Kahlon, solid members of the establishment who dress up as revolutionaries before the election. The parties on the extreme right and left have no choice but to support their camp’s candidate for prime minister. The further you go toward the political center, the more principles are replaced with pure optimism.

The big parties want to revert back to their historic status by changing the government system to weaken their smaller adversaries. Two changes are already being discussed: allowing the leader of the largest party to automatically form the government, and making it more difficult to dissolve the Knesset, ensuring that it lasts for four full years. Netanyahu and Herzog both support the “biggest party law,” and the Likud leader even declared that changing the system of governance would be a major objective should be win another term. That message was abandoned, probably due to lack of public interest, though it is likely to resurface in whatever government is formed.

The chances of actually changing the system are slim. If these changes were to pass, the small parties would be obliterated, as they would lose the source of their political power: their recommendation to the president on who should form the governing coalition, as well as their ever-present threat to tear the coalition apart. But in each government since 1999, the two largest parties combined did not constitute a Knesset majority. The smaller parties are always sure to guarantee themselves veto power over any major changes in any coalition agreement. It’s hard to believe that after an election, especially this election, the small parties would agree to commit suicide.

The solution that will bring the larger parties back to power, and guarantee governmental stability and action, will not be found in systematic changes, but rather in improving the product itself. As long as Likud and Labor present unclear messages, and focus their campaigns on demeaning the rival party’s leader and the publisher that supports him, they will continue to send the ideological voters straight into the arms of the fringe parties, and the swing voters to the centrist parties. Israel would be best served by large ruling parties that compete against each another over clear ideological platforms, and that stand at the center of large, stable coalitions. It’s not likely that this will come to pass after the ballot boxes are opened this evening.

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