Guest Columnist: Size does matter
It is hard to ignore Kadima’s astonishing leap from leader of an opposition with confrontational aspirations to junior partner in a government it had just recently rejected.
Netanyahu, Mofaz announce deal Photo: Marc Israel Sellem
A recent Jerusalem Post editorial (May 13) criticized my assessment that the
mammoth coalition government formed by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and MK
Shaul Mofaz is dangerous. In response, let me illustrate several ways in which
the extreme contraction of the opposition resulting from the expansion of the
coalition threatens both the functioning of the Knesset and the fortitude of
democracy in Israel. It is important to note that I voiced my opinion in the
context of other voices at the Israel Democracy Institute, which – like the Post
editorial – welcomed the broad coalition as an opportunity to enact necessary
change. My intent was to broaden our perspective on this development.
is indisputable that governance and governmental stability are important values,
but they are not the be-all and end-all.
Democracy is also a system of
checks and balances. In a democracy, one of the functions of the legislature is
to oversee and monitor the executive branch. Effective oversight cannot occur in
the absence of a significant opposition. The opposition in Israel was already
weak in the previous coalition. It will most certainly become weaker now that it
comprises only 26 members who represent a number of parties with very different
– and often opposing – views, some of which are likely to support the government
in many cases.
For example, the shrunken opposition will not be able to
summon the prime minister to a Knesset deliberation to hear its criticism for
the simple reason that it lacks the 40 signatures required to do so.
Furthermore, the 26 members of the opposition, in its diminished capacity, will
have difficulty even attending the meetings of the 20 Knesset committees. It is
in the committees that most of the Knesset’s work is done. The Speaker of the
Knesset himself, MK Reuven Rivlin, expressed serious concern about the Knesset’s
ability to function in the new political reality, fearing that it could become
It is also clear that such a small opposition will not be able
to block populist legislation carrying the potential to undermine fundamental
democratic values. In the Knesset’s most recent session, many such bills were
proposed and several even passed. According to one of these laws, a person who
calls on a theater troupe or its actors to refrain from performing in Judea and
Samaria is committing a civil wrong, and may be ordered to pay compensation even
if the plaintiff does not prove damages.
Such legislation has no parallel
in the democratic world. Who will stand up to such initiatives in the Knesset?
Who will protect the Supreme Court from those who seek to harm it? Who will
protect Israel’s permanent minority – the Arab population – and guarantee them
equal rights as promised in Israel’s Declaration of Independence? And who will
safeguard human rights in the face of a majority whose unrestrained power is
liable to turn it into an oppressive majority? The ability to block unpalatable
legislation is not only a function of the number of hands that are raised but
also of the number of voices raised to mobilize public opposition. The Knesset
will not be able to fulfill this role in its current makeup.
with coalitions in other parliamentarian democracies is instructive.
comparison of 15 countries, Israel tops the list for coalition size, with a
coalition made up of almost 80 percent of the Knesset’s members. Below Israel is
Ireland, whose coalition comprises 70% of Parliament members. In the remaining
democracies, the figures are between 50% and 66%.
It goes without saying
that there is no other country in the world in which the number of ministers is
greater than the number of legislators belonging to the opposition. If a
coalition of 110 Knesset members were to be created, would the Post’s editorial
still be praising the stability of the government? Huge coalitions are created
rarely: at times of extreme national emergency or when no alternative exists.
Neither of these conditions applies to the current situation.
If it turns
out that the members of the new coalition all share the same political ideology,
the question demands to be asked: Does the current political system reliably
represent Israeli society with its varied political opinions and aspirations? It
is hard to ignore Kadima’s astonishing leap from leader of an opposition with
confrontational aspirations to junior partner in a government it had just
recently rejected – all within days and with no obvious change in the objective
One who believes that a politician’s words are inherently
meaningless need not see any problem here. As someone who does not hold this
view, I believe these actions may further undermine the already weakened faith
of the Israeli public in its elected officials.
It was Menachem Begin who
once declared: “Mr. Speaker, we will be in opposition to the government just
presented to us. I know, from what I have heard and read, that in certain
circles there are those who still hold notions about the [role of the]
opposition, which bear no connection with statehood, with Israeli republicanism,
with democracy. The source of all these notions stems from the pre-republican
period; in truth they are anti-republican. We are convinced – as we can plainly
see the world over – that there is no democracy without opposition; without it
the very freedom of mankind is at risk.”
Begin was right. And we would do
well to heed his words today.
The writer is vice president of research at
the Israel Democracy Institute and professor emeritus of law at the Hebrew
University of Jerusalem.