Israel may be the only democracy in the Middle East, but our government does not always operate as a paragon of efficiency, functionality or fairness.
Proceedings on the Knesset floor famously feature shouting and name-calling, with the level of decorum approximating that of a kindergarten playground.
One reason for this craziness is the presence of elected lawmakers from the far ends of the political spectrum.
As long as they languish in the opposition, MKs from these parties have little to no power, except to disrupt the day-to-day deliberations in the Knesset. If they succeed in dealing their way into the governing coalition, they indeed become a force to be reckoned with, while still flying under their own parties’ banners.
Voters who cast their ballots for the smaller parties are making an ideological statement, at the same time undoubtedly aware that most positions espoused by the leading candidates on their party’s list are unlikely to become the law of the land. Are they wasting their votes? That’s a matter for debate, but what’s clear is that Israel’s multiparty system leaves room for a range of choices to be exercised and voices to be heard.
This country has seen countless parties rise and fall, wither and regroup, and roll out new names that are increasingly hard to keep straight. (One wonders when the well of party monikers will finally run dry.) The current electoral season has certainly been no different, with 19 parties now running lists for the next Knesset.
But with all the fragmentation and shifting alliances, few will make it to the finish line. The rest can heckle from their seats – if they actually win any. With the electoral threshold increased to 3.25% since before the last election, minor parties have their work cut out for them.
In this regard, Israelis have less to fear from their extremist politicians than Americans do from theirs.
In the two-party setup that is the US’s deeply enshrined governmental operating system, moderate voters can easily find their views and voices drowned out within their own party. If the party pivots sharply left or right because enough voters in enough districts are swept up by candidates with shiny smiles who sell radicalism like ice cream on a hot summer day, centrist folks in the middle become alienated – sometimes enough to make them switch sides.
To vote their conscience, Americans who are fed up with their party’s direction or present agenda have to either sit out the election or throw their support to the other party’s candidate. This causes a boomerang effect, which partly explains why Congress continually changes hands between Democrats and Republicans. So-called blue and red waves carry elections within a few short years of each other and with comparable bursts of enthusiasm – on diametrically opposed platforms. The ice cream those fired-up voters bought eventually melts and makes a sticky mess.
In the US, radical lawmakers hailing from the party holding the majority have clout from the moment they take office. They are coequal with their colleagues and sit on committees where key decisions are made. Unlike Israeli legislators identified with small parties, duly elected Democrats or Republicans can’t be shoeboxed as representing narrow or marginal constituencies. With only two parties in the system, they’re both big potatoes.
Currently, however, the Democrats control the House of Representatives, and the coterie of unabashedly anti-Israel, antisemitic socialists among them can’t be dismissed as feckless loonies who will do little more than snicker their way through policy debates and the president’s State of the Union address. These wing nuts pose a threat to America – and Israel.
One of them, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whom the media can’t seem to get enough of, has managed to get a slew of fellow lawmakers, including leading presidential hopefuls, to sign on to her tragicomic Green New Deal. And as the 2020 presidential election season takes off, most of the candidates mushrooming up for the Democratic nomination espouse interchangeable hard-left views on immigration, healthcare, abortion, the economy, the environment, foreign policy, and more – positions that would have been unthinkable for politicians seeking mainstream, nationwide support a few years ago.
Democrats who rue this paradigm shift will have to hold their noses when – or if – they vote, whether they stay loyal to their party line or support the Republican nominee. On that side, it remains to be seen whether a credible challenger to Trump will emerge; if not, Republicans who don’t support Trump (if they ever did) will likewise face a distasteful dilemma. How can you support a brand that lends its name to a product you consider dangerous or immoral?
Here in Israel, as the April elections approach, our choice is anything but binary. If we can make sense of the bewildering brew of parties, candidates and alliances, we can make decisions that best reflect our values and outlook.
For some voters, that will mean a throwaway vote for a party that has little to no chance of making it into the Knesset, or that will languish in the opposition, beating its drum steadily in the background.
For others, it will mean a pragmatic trade-off for the least objectionable but still viable slate. Some will cast ballots based on personality or character, others on platform and policy. It’s a jungle out there, with no shortage of vines to swing from.
The relative advantages and disadvantages of the two systems could fill volumes and supply endless fodder for discussion, but in this respect at least, Israeli voters can count their options – and perhaps their blessings.The writer is a contributing editor to The Jewish Press and a freelance writer and editor. She holds a JD from Fordham Law School and has worked as a court attorney and a magazine editor. A former New Yorker, she lives with her family in Jerusalem.
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