Do we really want 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.
Netanyahu and Liberman announce parties uniting Photo: Marc Israel Sellem/ The Jerusalem Post
Since last Thursday’s announcement that Likud and Yisrael Beytenu 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 percent stating they would
not vote for the joint list on election day.
While some backlash could be
expected given the controversial reputation that Yisrael Beytenu chairman
Avigdor Liberman has acquired over the years, the ferocity and intensity of the
reaction, especially from some self-described Likud supporters, is
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
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
Binyamin 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 a
government composed of only two parties. Political scientists point to the need
for structural modifications to shift political dynamics enough to result in
This summer, three Israeli advocacy groups – Save Israeli
Democracy, Yesh Sikuy, and the Citizens’ Empowerment Center – joined together in
a seven-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
three- or four-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.
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
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
They would naturally and necessarily be more politically
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
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.
Likud voter looks at the Likud-Beytenu union and in kneejerk fashion says “no,”
the voter is saying “no” to a future with big-tent parties.
Beytenu holds 15 seats or 13% of the current Knesset. If a united Likud-Yisrael
Beytenu 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
The writer is the director of international communications at
the Israel Democracy Institute. This article represents the views of the author
and does not necessarily represent the views of IDI.