In an op-ed published in The Jerusalem Post, IDI Director of International Communications Yehoshua Oz argues that a central group of larger parties is needed instead of the small parties that have inundated Israeli politics over the last two decades, in order to provide stability and avoid the need for coalitions of many small parties, each with their own special-interest demands.
Since last Thursday's announcement that Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu would be merging their lists in advance of January's elections, political chatter in some corners has been dominated by those swearing off voting Likud. One of the leading voices against the union, moderate Likud Minister Michael Eitan has characterized the initiative as a "mistake," a harbinger of "extremism," and "the end of Likud and a threat to democracy." A Channel 10 snap poll taken shortly after the announcement found that distaste for the merger, at least initially, extends to the average Likudnik with 22% stating they would not vote for the joint list on election day.
While some backlash could be expected given the controversial reputation that Yisrael Beiteinu Chairman Avigdor Lieberman has acquired over the years, the ferocity and intensity of the reaction, especially from some self-described Likud supporters, is surprising. More than that, many of those reacting the most vociferously are surely the same people who advocate a return to an Israeli political scene dominated by Likud and Labor instead of the plethora of parties we have today.
The two leading parties in the current Knesset, Kadima and Likud, do not hold even half of the Knesset's seats between them. Prime Minister Netanyahu's outgoing government consists of a coalition of six different parties, who – though reserved in their demands when compared to some predecessors – were given outsized weight and affected the Prime Minister's ability to govern effectively. This year alone, Netanyahu's unwieldy coalition prevented the passage of a replacement for the Tal Law, and early elections were called because there seemed to be little hope of passing a responsible budget before the end of the year.
Oversized coalitions are a natural consequence of our fragmented political landscape. When seeking to establish a governing coalition, the largest parties today must seek partners with 30 or more Knesset mandates in total. One would have to go back to the election of 1996 to find parties of sufficient size to even contemplate the potential of a government composed of only two parties. Political scientists point to the need for structural modifications to shift political dynamics enough to result in real change.
This summer, three Israeli advocacy groups – Save Israeli Democracy, Yesh Sikuy, and the Citizens' Empowerment Center in Israel – joined together in a 7-point platform designed to provide much needed electoral and governmental reform. According to the plan, large parties would be bolstered through doubling the electoral threshold and mandating that the head of the largest party will serve as Prime Minister. Raising the threshold of votes required for a party to enter the Knesset from 2% to 4% would eliminate 3 or 4-man parties or force them to merge with each other or larger parties. Automatically making the leader of the biggest party Prime Minister would cause voters to give extra weight to the larger parties. A right-winger would be risking a left-wing Prime Minister when voting for the National Union if the Labor party eclipsed the Likud by even one seat. No longer could a left-winger feel confident in voting for Meretz simply knowing that their vote is counted as part of a larger left-wing bloc which no longer holds the same significance.
Structural changes such as these would lead to smaller parties disappearing and merging with their larger rivals, and we must be prepared for and accepting of what the larger parties would look like the day after. They would naturally and necessarily be more politically diverse.
Just as the Republican Party in the US includes fiscal conservatives, the religious right, liberal Republicans, and libertarians, a big-tent Likud (or other right-wing party) will necessarily contain many different elements. As union supporters, progressives, the Christian left, environmentalists, and centrists all hold sway in the Democratic Party, a larger Labor (or other left-wing party) will inevitably incorporate a wider range of views. Democrats do not all agree with each other, and neither do Republicans. Battles rage between interventionist and isolationist Republicans and between pro-gay marriage and anti-gay marriage Democrats.
When a Likud voter looks at the Likud-Beiteinu union and in kneejerk fashion says 'no,' the voter is saying 'no' to a future with big-tent parties. Yisrael Beiteinu holds 15 seats or 13% of the current Knesset. If a united Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu list attracts as many votes in 2013 as the two did separately in 2009, they would control 42 seats, the largest number of any party since Labor in 1992. If the Prime Minister were to lead a party of such size, he would be far less susceptible to the chicanery of coalition politics and the political extortion of small parties.
Until Members of Knesset can be convinced to pass legislation to revamp the electoral system, large parties will still be hampered by small parties who can extract disproportionate concessions. Politicians who put aside sectarian issues and oversized egos to sit together under the same roof should be lauded, not disparaged.
Whether right-wing or left-wing, all Israelis who advocate a political system no longer overly influenced by single-issue and fringe parties should welcome smaller parties joining together under the banner of larger, big-tent parties.
If we hope to restore Israel to a more stable political situation where a Prime Minister can govern professionally and with a long-term outlook, we must embrace big-tent parties.
Yehoshua Oz is Director of International Communications at the Israel Democracy Institute.
A version of this article was published in The Jerusalem Post on October 31, 2012.