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Archive for the ‘Knesset’ Category

Since last week’s elections, I’ve been thinking about the size of political parties in Israel. We have gone from a Knesset in which the largest party has as many as 56 seats (Mapai in the seventh Knesset), or one in which two parties have over 40 seats (the Alignment and Likud in the tenth Knesset) to a Knesset where the largest party has as few as 26 seats (One Israel in the 15th Knesset). The last time a party passed the 40-mark was in 1996, the last elections before the change to direct prime ministerial elections.

Why has this happened? To further complicate the question, look no further than the election threshold. Today, in order to have any representation in the Knesset, a party must win at least 2% of the vote, meaning the minimum number of seats for any party is two. However, the election threshold has not always been at this level, and for most of the state’s existence the figure was only 1%. Indeed, in the eighth Knesset, the Alignment had 56 seats, but there was also a party with only one seat. One would think that with the raising of the threshold, fewer people would vote for smaller parties. Yet, the opposite has happened. Today, when representation by a single seat is not even possible, the representation of smaller parties in in the Knesset is far greater than it was in the past.

After reading Avraham Poraz’s piece in Haaretz (which I could not find in English), I think I finally have the answer. His overall point is irrelevant here (he has some weird, inconsequential idea of how to change the electoral system), but he does make one important note. Opponents of the direct elections experiment (1996-2001) based their claims on the fact that such a system would destroy the large parties, and give too much power to smaller parties.

They were right. In the Knesset before the first time Israelis voted directly for PM, the largest party had 44 seats, which dropped to 34 in those elections. The two largest parties have historically been the major players in any Knesset. In those elections that figure dropped from 76 to 66 (a decrease of 13%). The average combined size of the two largest parties, including every single Knesset since 1948, is 69.77. However, when calculating the same figure pre-1996 (the first direct elections), the figure jumps to 75.77. Since the implemention (and subsequent cancellation) of direct elections, the average combined size of the two largest parties is 54.2.

The public used to be very committed to either Labor or Likud (in any of their incarnations), and the average voter wanted to vote for the prime minister. Along came the wonders of two-ticket voting and people realized they can vote for a party without a candidate for prime minister. What seems to have happened is that a greater percentage public has fallen in love with voting for smaller party, and unlike pre-1996, they have simply decided not to give up that habit.

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In light of Labor’s dismal showing at the polls, Amir Peretz thinks he can win back the chairmanship of the Labor Party. This is the former labor leader who shut down the country at whim, turned Defense Minister and cost Israeli lives and a failed war.

I hope he wins. It will truly spell the end of Labor. The public is not that stupid. My prediction is that Labor would be forced to merge with Kadima, forming one Left-wing political party, and bringing Israel back to the right-left bi-polar system.

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Shmuel Rosner, whose analysis is generally very good, has been pushing a theory over the last couple of days regarding the will of the Israeli electorate, claiming the elections were “a victory for the center,” and that the public wants a national unity government. Rosner argues that people did not vote along ideological lines, rather most were motivated by their personal preferences among Israeli politicians. With one caveat, I agree with that assertion. Israelis did vote mostly by personal preference, but within their general “camp.” In fact, I would say the strongest “personal” vote was the רק לא ביבי (Just not Bibi) vote, resurrected from Barak’s 1999 campaign.

Many pundits have been saying that the elections results show that the public has realigned itself further to the Right. While the public may have taken a step rightward, there was no real change in public opinion since 2006. In the last elections most still voted for “Sharon’s party” and still viewed Likud as a corrupt machine.

Most importantly, however, Kadima’s image was a right of center party. Kadima has since, pretty clearly, placed itself on to the left. People who see themselves as moderate left voted for Kadima, and fewer voted for Labor, leading to its collapse. That, however, does not account for all of Kadima’s 28 seats. As mentioned, Bibi is a rather polarizing figure in Israel, and the “Just not Bibi” vote helped Kadima immensely, but not enough.

Back to the issue of the public’s desire for a national unity government. There was a significant “Just not Bibi” vote, add to that massive disgust for Kadima and its corruption, and what you get is a significant concern in the “National Camp” (the religious Right). The Jewish Home party and the National Union party only have seven seats between the two of them, down from nine in the 17th Knesset, because many who traditionally vote for these parties (whichever versions are running that year) voted for Likud, concerned that Livni might be the next Prime Minister.

I do not see any strong desire for a unity government. What I do see is a very polarized society, made of many camps, each of which despises the other camps’ ideologies. That being said, I do think the press has been successful in scaring much of the public with their illustration of Lieberman, to a degree that many would prefer any government to one in which Lieberman holds high office.

In any case, the prospect of a national unity government is still pretty unlikely. For one, if Livni sits in this government she will be relegated to the position of Bibi’s sidekick. Next time around, she will be nothing but a has-been, and she doesn’t the stature, or the history, to forge a comeback (even Barak wasn’t able to do so). There is nothing particularly remarkable distinguishing her from others in her party (Meir Shitrit, Roni Bar-on, Avi Dichter, just to name a few). If Livni realizes this, she will not allow herself to disappear into oblivion. And it seems she has, as Kadima members have leaked that if Likud first forms a Right-wing coalition and only then turns to them, they will remain in the Opposition.

However, assuming Kadima does want to join Likud. With who else? The Jewish Home party is rumored to be mulling a merger with Likud – that’s 30 seats, along with Kadima, that makes 58. National Union has already said they will not sit with Livni, and Labor seems determined to remain the Opposition, leaving three parties that would even consider joining such a government: Shas, UTJ and of course, Yisrael Beitenu. Livni’s claim to fame was that she stood up to Shas before the elections, how would that look if she now joined a government that met Shas’ demands?

That leaves Lieberman. Setting aside Livni’s enormous personal price, if she does join a Netanyahu-led coalition, the government’s term will probably play out in one of the following ways:

  1. With Lieberman – Large stable government for a full term, that will get nothing accomplished (Extremely unlikely).
  2. With Lieberman – Large Stable government for 12-18 months until it implodes, and either Livni or Lieberman resign, leading to new elections, yet again. (Still unlikely – Israeli politicians are selfish).
  3. Without Lieberman – very, very unstable government, leading to either new elections, or to a realignment of the coalition in fairly short period of time. (If Peres puts a lot of pressure on Bibi, this is somewhat likely).

I still think the most probably outcome is a 65-seat Right wing coalition, which will not be extremely stable, and is likely to implode over religious-civil disagreement between the Haredi parties and Lieberman, in 1-2 years.

Does anyone have a more optimistic prediction?

EDIT: My math was a bit off, and the only way options 1 and 2 are even feasible is if the Jewish Home-Likud merger does happen. In this scenario a “large” Likud-led government with Kadima would be 78 seats, with both UTJ and Lieberman and a “narrow” one would be 63 seats, with UTJ (even less stable the Right-wing government Bibi can put together).

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Livni + Lieberman?

There are two ways in which Kadima and Yisrael Beitenu will be members of the same coalition. Either under Livni or under Bibi. As I’ve already said, the only way Livni can form a coalition is if Lieberman sells out. Yes, Bibi could join a Livni-led coalition, but if Lieberman holds his own, I don’t see that happening – Netanyahu has a stronger hand right now.

The other, only slightly more likely, possibility is that Netanyahu actually manages to convince Livni to join a government under his leadership. Any future government in this Knesset will almost surely include Avigdor Lieberman, as a senior member of that coalition. And since Netanyahu has already claimed he wants to form a the largest possible coalition, we might see all three parties in the same government (total number of seats of those three: 70). I do not think this will happen, for reasons I will explain, but in case it does, it might be the best option.

Traditionally, in Israel, the government is very ineffective. I don’t see this changing any time soon. However, Israeli government have also usually been very damaging to Israel. Thus, if Kadima joins a Likud coalition, there will be so much infighting that the government will probably be, just as ineffective, but will also be relatively powerless – too hamstrung to do any real damage. The status quo will remain the staus quo, and I can think of much worse things than that.

Nevertheless, this scenario is not very likely, Livni does not seem as durable of a figure on the Israeli political landscape as, say, Bibi, Peres, Barak, etc. If she does capitulate, and join a Likud-led government, her days as chairwoman of the internecine Kadima will be numbered. She stands a far better chance of “long-term” survival is she pretends to stand up to Netanyahu.

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Netanyahu has announced he will not agree to a rotation arrangement with Livni, saying, “We will not [agree to] a rotation government, we intend to form the [largest possible coalition] government.”* To me, this says one of two things:

  • Option 1 – he will try to head a coalition, with Kadima as a member. I do not think such a coalition would last very long, because such a government would not be able to get much done at all. The status quo would continue being the status quo (which is not necessarily a bad thing).
  • The second, more likely, option is that he is trying garner public support, in order to be able to say “Look, I tried to reach out, but Livni wouldn’t play ball. But the people chose us (the Right-wing) – we have a majority, and I’m sorry Kadima is too obstinate to adhere to the will of the people.” Then he will go on to form a relatively narrow, 65-seat, coalition, backed by his, alleged, nonpartisan inclusiveness. (Think Barak and his famous claim to be “ראש הממשלה של כ-ו-ל-ם” – “the Prime Minister of e-v-e-r-y-o-n-e”).

If you want to try to test out all of the possible combinations (until the soldiers’ votes are counted, if that even makes a difference), then Ynet has “Make Your Own Coalition” game*. See if you can form a coalition. It even tells you if a coalition agreement is unlikely – i.e. Hadash along with Yisrael Beitenu. On the other hand, the program seems to believe that a Yisrael Beitenu/Kadima/others coalition is feasible. Who knows?

Also, on Ynet has a feature that lets you see the breakdown of how various sections of society voted (Kibbutzim, Urban, Arabs, Jews).*

In any case, the most ironic thing I’ve seen in the past few days is the verse, quoted on the Knesset’s official elections website*: “(הָבוּ לָכֶם אֲנָשִׁים חֲכָמִים וּנְבֹנִים וִידֻעִים לְשִׁבְטֵיכֶם וַאֲשִׂימֵם בְּרָאשֵׁיכֶם. (דברים א’, י”ג” – “Get you wise and understanding men, and full of knowledge, from your tribes, and I will make them heads over you.” (Deuteronomy 1:13). Right.

*Sorry, all sources on this page are in Hebrew.

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I think it’s pretty incredible how Peretz, Halutz and Olmert are all remembered as complete failures for the disgrace in Lebanon 2.5 years ago. Yet, somehow Livni managed to emerge untainted. And she’s the architect of the failure known as UNSC 1701…

Anyone care to proffer an explanation?

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googleelectionsEarly results are trickling in (official Knesset site, but only in Hebrew), and calculations of electoral math has begun. Results, which have been relatively stable seem to suggest that the largest party will be Kadima, headed by Livni, with 28 seats. Yet, she will only be able to claim the premiership if one of the parties to her right sells out.

Right now, the Left-wing bloc (Kadima, Labor, Meretz, Hadash, Ra’am-Ta’al and Balad) has 55 seats. In theory, this would mean Livni has seven fewer seats than she needs for a majority. However, Ahmed Tibi, of Balad, said before the elections that the Arab parties would not help Livni form a bloc, no matter the price. This effectively leaves Livni with a 48-seat bloc.

In the past, Shas has joined a Left-wing government, and seemed willing to do so only a few short months ago, when Livni was tasked with forming a coalition following Olmert’s resignation. She refused to give into Shas’ demands (monetary and Jerusalem), and today was the result. One of her biggest selling points during the campaign was that she refused to capitulate to Shas.

Furthermore, Shas chairman, Eli Yishai (projected: 11 seats), said tonight that “there is no doubt that the people have chosen the Right,” (Hebrew source) implying they would throw their support behind Netanyahu, and not Livni. Then again, Shas has shown in the past that in return for Shas’ support, one must only, literally, pay a price. And even then Livni will only have 59 seats (maybe 63, if Hadash votes along with Shas).

The other kingmaker in these elections is the man the media loves to hate – Yisrael Beitenu chairman, Avigdor Lieberman, and his projected 15 seats. While he did say that he prefers a Right-wing coalition, he refused to endorse either Netanyahu nor Livni. I think that is more of a power play than anything else. The odds of Livni forming a coalition with him are not particularly high. Livni would have a hard time convincing Labor, not to mention Meretz (3 seats), to join such a coalition. This coalition would be pretty unstable, only narrowly adding up to a majority, with 63 seats (unless pigs start flying and Hadash sits in the same government with Lieberman, making it 67). It is more likely that Lieberman is trying to play hard to get, in order to squeeze a better coalition deal out of Netanyahu.

There are two remaining scenarios paving Livni’s way to the Prime Minister’s Office. The first is highly unlikely – Likud joining a Kadima-led coalition. The scenarios I have already described, all lead to a quick collapse of the government and the Knesset, with elections yet again on the horizon. If he joined Livni’s government, he would only be breathing life into a government comatose before it would even be sworn into office, not to mention he has already declared victory.

The last option Livni has is a rotation government. In such an arrangement, she would serve as PM for two years, and then Netanyahu would serve for two years (or vice versa), or some other similar schedule of rotation. This sort of agreement would not be unprecedented, as Yitzchak Shamir and Shimon Peres had a similar agreement in the early 1980s.

This would only happen, though, if Netanyahu would truly be convinced that he could not form the coalition on his own. Despite calls for a unity government during the campaign, if Netanyahu is able to maintain the support the 65-seat Right-wing bloc, Peres will have no choice but to nominate him to head the next government. In the meantime, however, more chaos shall ensue.

EDIT: The soldiers’ votes will only be counted Thursday, and with nearly 200,000 votes (though many vote in their regular polling places, so the numbers are still unclear) they have the potential to change the results by a few seats.

EDIT2: Numbers have been changed to reflect the latest, slightly different results (100% in, as of now – but in Israel, as in Israel – numbers are not yet final).

EDIT3: It should be recalled that, in 2001, Netanyahu essentially gave up the premiership to Sharon, arguing that he could not form a coalition on the basis of already formed Knesset (elected in 1999, with Barak). Considering Sharon’s meteoric rise and mega-stature since, one can only assume that he has regretted that moment ever since. History is a powerful motivator. He will not let this one slip by, and I think he will do everything in his power to prevent Livni from assuming the country’s highest office – even if the current chaos deteriorates into new elections without any new government.

UPDATE: Jameel adds an accurate clarification, that the “100%” of votes tallied, does not include special ballots (soldiers, diplomats, sailors, prisoners and hospital patients.)

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