Israeli elections and identity politics

Reforming the Israeli election system is imperative, as many feel ignored under the current system

September 25, 2019 21:39
2 minute read.
Israeli elections and identity politics

People sort ballot boxes as part of preparations for the upcoming Israeli election, during a briefing for members of the media at the Israel Central Election Committee Logistics Center in Shoham, Israel. (photo credit: REUTERS)

After two back-to-back elections in which there was no clear winner, Israel’s electoral system is stuck. Reforming it is imperative. A major problem is identity politics, small parties with narrow or radical agendas which fail to pass a minimal threshold and therefore waste votes, and discontent with current leaders.

The results of these elections reflect what plagues Israel: confusion about Israeli policies, lack of trust in Likud, and a frustration felt by many that they are not being heard. The perception that the Blue and White Party was a reasonable, “centrist” alternative to Likud attracted voters who wanted to protest. It wasn’t about policies, since the Blue and White has not articulated a coherent ideology or policies much different from Likud. Moreover, since nearly a third of Israelis did not vote at all, the election reflects a failure of the electoral system and challenges our national unity. Its effect is evident among those who feel ignored and especially among new immigrants.

More than any other country, Israel is primarily a nation of immigrants, many of whom are recent arrivals. Most are Zionists, but many are refugees, victims of antisemitism motivated by survival, not by ideology. Many have little or no connection with Judaism, and some may not even be Jewish. They have to undergo the difficult process of adaptation and integration into a new nation, a new society and learning a new language. Inevitably, this is challenging and often stressful for immigrants, and contributes to tensions within society. It also leads people to cling to what is familiar and understandable, especially in ethnic and religious groups and communities. This is expressed in what is called “identity politics.”    

Identity politics allows “outsiders” and special-interest groups to protest and provides access to political power. However, when national interests are ignored, it undermines the political system and national cohesion. Identity politics focuses on problems which require attention, or at least serious discussion. Discrimination, inequalities and political differences exist, as in every society. But that should not obscure what binds us together as a nation: our Zionist vision and our Jewish identity. We are more than the politics of resentment. 

Employment, education, adequate healthcare, and affordable housing can ameliorate the process of integration and provide stability. Building a home; raising a family; having a sense of equality and dignity; and gaining access to the economic, social and political system are essential to developing a national identity. That is expressed in the right to vote. Non-participation in the political process is not only a reflection of disinterest, it is also a sign of alienation.

Rather than encouraging Israelis to vote, however, the political system created obstacles, primarily setting high thresholds for small parties. The purpose of this barrier was to promote and strengthen large parties which would make coalitions less susceptible to demands of various interest groups and provide greater political stability. That system, however, has failed and has led to electoral stalemate.

This problem can be rectified simply and easily: The Knesset can pass a law that requires small parties on the ballot to designate a larger party to which their votes will be transferred if they do not pass the threshold. In that way, every vote will be counted and none will be discarded. This will accomplish the purpose of creating minimum thresholds. It will promote participation, strengthening our democracy and ensure national unity. 

The author is a PhD historian, writer and journalist in Israel.

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