Being a Prime Minister is not an easy job. The first assignment of any Prime Minister, even before taking the oath of office, is putting together a coalition. In order to rule, one must ensure a majority of 61 votes in the Knesset, piecing together agreements with the many political parties, who represent the many different, extremely vocal, sectors of Israeli society.
The 17th Knesset, due to make way for the 18th this coming February, for example is made up of 12 different lists (some of which included more than one party). Forming a coalition in Israel is not an easy task, which necessitates meeting the demands on various interest groups in return for their support.
Recently, upon the tendering of Olmert’s resignation, Kadima held their primary elections. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni won, and was tasked with the formation of a coalition, based on the makeup of the current Knesset. Shas demanded that Livni rule out any compromise on Jerusalem in any future negotiations. Livni refused, and decided not to form a narrow, left-wing coalition.
Within the past decade, however, Israel has been moving away from the current system of an extreme multitude of parties, pulling the government every which way. Coalitionary politics in Israel today, along with no-confidence votes forcing new elections, do not allow for a stable government. In fact, in the State of Israel’s short history, only one government has ever completed a full four-year term (the 7th Knesset, with Golda Meir as PM).
A somewhat limiting factor in the number of parties represented in the Knesset is the election threshold, which does not allow for a party to be elected to the Knesset with only one seat. This historic instability of Israeli government is, in many ways, a testament to the vibrancy of the Israeli democratic process. It does not, however, allow for governing to take place. Policies are changed more quickly than socks, and the governing party must constantly take into account the sectoral interests of various parties.
Increasing the election threshold is not, however, a viable long term solution. Over the past 16 years the threshold has been raised, albeit at very gradually, from 1% in 1992 to 2% today. A change to, say 10%, as it is in Turkey, would probably not last very long. The public would cry out that the larger parties are stifling unpopular opinion and claim that such a change amounts to limiting free speech. Israel already has a history of making changes to the political system and reverting back to the original in the face of public opinion (the shortlived period direct elections for PM comes to mind), and the threshold would probably be lowered back to the current level fairly quickly.
Within the state’s history, there have been as many as 15 different lists (and even more parties) represented at once in the Knesset. Every time this number seems to shrink a bit (no lower than 10, though), another party, serving a narrow sector of society, becomes the temporary favorite. In the last election it was Gil, just like Yisrael BaAliyah in 1996 and Shinui in 2003.
This year there seems to be a movement on the politicians’ side to consolidate electoral support within a smaller number of parties. The attempt at forming a right-wing political party, made up of the many factions in the far right, is nothing new, however there are interesting developments within the large parties.
Historically, the Knesset has been dominated by two political parties that have developed into today’s Labor and Likud. In 2006, Kadima changed that, winning the largest number of seats, and premiership. Nevertheless, Kadima was always an artificial party, yet another breakaway party formed by Ariel Sharon (this time from the Likud). He succeeded in taking many Likud members with him, as well recruiting a few politicians from Labor. There was never any ideology, a common theme for most attempt at a “center” party in Israel’s history. Olmert rode (comatose) Sharon’s coattails to victory in 2006, and even with the fairly popular Livni at the helm, it appears that Kadima’s success will not be repeated and that it is a bubble waiting to burst (like Shinui). Nonetheless, this is not likely to happen in 2009, and Kadima will probably remain a formidable force in the Knesset for the next few years.
Currently, the two legitimately “large parties” are in the midst of a massive recruitment drive. This is not surprising; parties have always tried to recruit “celebrity” public figures, in the hopes of this converting such figures’ support into electoral gains. What is somewhat surprising is who has been joining this year.
Ha’aretz journalists, Daniel Ben-Simon and Avi Shaked have recently announced their intention to run for Labor seats in next month’s primaries. Yariv Oppenheimer, Secretary-General of Peace Now, has also announced that he will run for a seat in the Labor primaries. This is notable, since Oppenheimer’s views are more aligned with the far left parties, such as Meretz. Nevertheless, the left does not appear to have truly adopted this trend, with politicians such as Ami Ayalon leaving Labor, possibly for Meretz for another far-left party.
The Likud has seen much more activity lately. The return of the popular Benny Begin and Dan Meridor, as well as former IDF Chief of Staff Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon represent a significant reinforcement for the party that only tied as the third largest party in the 2006 elections. It is not only popular politicians that are joining Likud, however, as Efi Eitam has also announced his desire to join Likud.
In any case, if recent developments are any sign, Israel will experience a significant reduction in the number of political parties in the Knesset, and possibly a slightly more stable government.