Sharp criticism was not long in coming after Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman’s surprise announcement that the Likud and Yisrael Beytenu would run on a join list in the elections for the 19th Knesset.
Much of the criticism seemed to emanate more from a desire to defend narrow personal interests than a genuine concern for the greater good of the nation’s political stability.
Some Likud ministers, Knesset members and would-be Knesset members have expressed fear that the joint Likud-Yisrael Beytenu list, rather than producing more seats than the two parties’ current 42 (Likud 27; Yisrael Beytenu 15), will lead to a fall in their Knesset representation.
Likud MKs and ministers fighting for a Knesset seat are afraid that the merger could jeopardize their place on the Likud candidates list. Likud ministers with a strong support base in Likud’s central committee, such as Gideon Sa’ar, Israel Katz and Silvan Shalom, who expected to rank high on the party’s list, are understandably unhappy with the prospect of seeing their places taken by Yisrael Beytenu parliamentarians chosen by an internal committee controlled by Liberman.
Another claim, one that smacks of ethnic chauvinism, is that the merger, which will bring to the joint list a large proportion of voters and politicians who are immigrants from the former Soviet Union, will scare away the Mizrahim – Israelis whose families immigrated to Israel from Muslim countries in the Middle East, who make up a large part of the Likud’s voters.
However, if the deal is analyzed with the interests of the nation’s political system in mind, its pluses clearly outweigh its minuses.
The most obvious benefit is the creation of a single, large right-wing party with the potential to bring more stability to our political system. Parties left-of-center might also form a united list in response to the Likud-Yisrael Beytenu move.
Ideally, two large parties – one on the Left and one on the Right – will represent the two mainstream positions on cardinal issues such as security and socio-economics.
Smaller parties – particularly national-religious and haredi factions – would be less able to take advantage of our splintered political system to exert influence that far exceeds their size.
Over the past few decades, the size of the two largest political parties – traditionally Labor and the Likud – has steadily decreased due to the establishment of various short-lived centrist parties. Until 1996, the two largest parties consistently held a total of more than 70 Knesset seats.
Since 1999, the two largest parties have garnered less than half the Knesset seats. This has hurt what political scientists call governance or governability – the ability of governments to make decisions and to follow through on them.
A 2005 study by Doron Navot and Eli Reches found that 70 percent of government decisions – on subjects ranging from public housing to privatization of the sea ports, from reforms in the Israel Electric Corporation to the construction of a light rail system in Tel Aviv – are left unimplemented.
And as Amnon Rubinstein and Adam Wolfson wrote in their book Absence of Government: How to Rectify the System
, sometimes these ignored government decisions result in disaster. Our sorrowfully inadequate firefighting capabilities – shockingly revealed in the 2010 Mount Carmel forest fire disaster – were the direct result of consecutive government decisions calling for the revamping of our firefighting services remaining unimplemented.
Undoubtedly, election reforms such as the raising of the threshold for a political party to get elected to the Knesset from just 2% of the vote and the institution of regional elections for some seats – and perhaps increasing the total number of MKs – would go a long way toward improving political stability and politicians’ accountability.
However, the formation of a large right-of-center list – which might inspire the left-of-center parties to do the same – could bring much-needed political stability and a higher level of governance to our political system.