Raise the Bar in Israeli Politics

By Robert Schulman

Published July 22, 2005, issue of July 22, 2005.
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On a warm evening in June 2004, I attended a wedding held on Kibbutz Ma’aleh HaHamisha, in the hilly countryside outside Jerusalem. It was a smallish affair by Israeli standards, just 300 guests. Those seated with me included a radio journalist, an accountant, a social worker and a Brazilian immigrant who teaches dance. I also met an investment adviser, at least one lawyer and a couple of people I had known during my undergraduate years in Jerusalem, which was how I came to know the bride’s parents.

That we were sitting almost literally a stone’s throw — surely a loaded phrase in this context — from the West Bank was remarked upon once or twice in a matter of fact way. Most of the chitchat was about jobs and politics, about children in the army and their plans for post-military travel or university studies. The wedding went unreported by the media because it was just part of normal life, which by definition is not news. If it were, newspapers would be filled with stories about people checking the kids’ homework and deciding what to have for dinner.

What makes Rachel and Yishai’s wedding worth mentioning was the Israelis who were there. They were the kind of people who serve in the army, work, pay taxes and do reserve duty for 20-odd years — pretty much like middle-class people elsewhere, except for near-universal military service.

What may be most interesting about middle-class Israelis, in fact, is that they have continued on in their quotidian fashion for more than half a century, despite living in a country where screamers and intransigents of various stripes continually demand attention and special handling.

Two things can be said about Israel’s middle class. First, it is the reason this nation exists and the reason it is prosperous to a significant degree. Without the middle class, Zionism would be a footnote in history, an Austrian journalist’s wacky and unworkable idea. The footnote would have mentioned a congress in Switzerland and the founding of some agricultural settlements but would have noted that the enterprise just never got off the ground.

The second thing one can say is that Israel’s middle class was taken for granted when the country’s electoral system of strict proportional representation was established. The result was that practically every shade of political opinion was represented in the Knesset, but the ensuing cacophony all but drowned out the middle class.

Like similarly situated people in other democracies, most middle-class Israelis are in the political mainstream. The mainstream can be defined as the broad swathe of opinion that includes pragmatic middle-of-the-roaders and those who incline moderately left and moderately right. They may view politics through an ideological lens, but understand that reasonable attempts at persuasion followed by accommodation and compromise are hallmarks of democracy, not signs of weakness.

For the first two or three decades after Israel was established, the electoral system worked, in an idiosyncratic way, because the three large, moderate parties — what are now called Labor, Likud and the National Religious Party — held enough Knesset seats to anchor coalition governments. But in the last 20 or so years, the big parties have shrunk, losing power to a congeries of small, ideologically rigid parties for whom politics is an exercise in unbending obstructionism or an occasion for large-scale extortion upon the public treasury.

The reason the tail wags the dog in the Israeli system is the ridiculously low percentage of the national vote that is necessary for a party to be seated in the Knesset. Originally 1%, it was raised several years ago to 1.5%. The change was meaningless.

The low threshold is the reason no single party has ever held a majority in the Knesset and why Israeli coalition governments have always been inherently unstable, even when there were fewer parties in the Knesset. David Ben-Gurion, for one, was vocal about the need to raise the threshold percentage. At one point he advocated raising the bar to 10%, double the 5% figure usually cited as sufficient to force the small parties to amalgamate into more responsible, larger groupings. Looking at the current Israeli political mess, at a Knesset with 19 parties arranged into 15 factions, one can see the sense in Ben-Gurion’s suggestion.

Some may wonder why an obscure provision of the Israeli electoral system is worth worrying about when so many big issues are front and center — issues like the Gaza withdrawal, the future of settlements in the West Bank, completion of the fence and how to deal with the Palestinian leadership. The answer is simple: Israel has big decisions to make, and in democracies big decisions are ratified by the parliament. It is important that such decisions reflect a national consensus and carry the moral authority conferred by the imprimatur of a truly representative legislature. They should not be the result of political payoffs or of arm twisting by a prime minister leading a pick-up team of legislators because his own party refuses to follow him.

So here we come back to my fellow wedding guests and the rest of Israel’s middle-class moderates, people who have a variety of opinions but share the sensible conviction that vigorous, informed debate should be followed by negotiation and compromise. They are the solid, workaday people who make the Jewish national home a continuing reality. Disenfranchising them has had deleterious effects on Israeli democracy. Power has been ceded to zealots and political blackmailers, complicating decision making and sapping the moral authority behind important decisions when they are finally made.

In some weeks Rachel and Yishai will be parents. They and their baby are entitled to safety and security in their own country. But it must be a truly democratic country in which the broad mainstream is appropriately represented — not one in which screaming fanatics drown out the sensible middle-of-the-roaders who serve in the army, pay the bills and keep Israel open for business.

Robert Schulman is a former deputy commissioner in the New York City government.

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