Israel's Political Map

The current screeching about high profile issues invites an effort to create some understanding of Israel''s political map. At issue is the law enacted to curb boycotts, and proposals to give politicians influence over selections of Supreme Court justices and limit overseas donations to leftist organizations. All are provoking great dispute even though none may reach the stage of actual implementation. Even if they survive challenges in the Knesset and the Supreme Court, they may not affect anything of material significance.
Again I am reminded about the work of my late friend and colleague Murray Edelman. The hottest issues in politics may be symbolic, without consequences for large expenditures or the distribution of material goodies.
In the name calling surrounding the hot items on our agenda, the term "extremist" is heard more often than anything else. And like other symbols, it does not mean a great deal beyond the emotions involved in its expression. To paraphrase several popular epigrams of politics, your extremist is my moderate; your leftist is my rightist, etc. The point should be clear.
With all my lack of respect for those making a big deal out of very little, it is appropriate to locate the various parties and some other political organizations on something resembling a political map. Realities require that such a map be multi-dimensional. It must provide room not only for those who array themselves from left to right, or right to left, but those off the prominent dimension. Both the ultra-Orthodox and the Arabs spend most of their energies on other dimensions.
The major left-right dimension includes the parties that deal with issues that are common in western democracies. These are the allocation of resources for most items in the national budget, taxation, major appointments, and the contents of public policy ranging across the fields of economics, national defense, foreign affairs, and social services.
There is a large center to the Israeli spectrum. It includes most of us, but one can argue about its outer limits. For the center of the center, however, there is wide agreement that it is a locale of Kadima. It is a new party, created in 2005 by Knesset members who broke with Labor, a centrist party to the left of the middle, and Likud, a centrist party to the right of the middle.
Kadima''s creation created a situation where the remnants that stayed in Labor were therefore somewhat further to the left of the middle, while the remnant remaining in Likud were somewhat further to the right of the middle than those parties had been before their most centrist members moved to Kadima.
If we looked closely at the records of individual Knesset Members and others affiliated with these parties, we would find Likudniks to the left of some Laborites on some issues, and members of Kadima all over the maps we would create for attitudes about different issues.
The drift of Israeli politics rightward appears in the relative strength of Labor and Likud. The results of the most recent election (2009) gave Likud 27 seats in the Knesset and Labor 13. Kadima won 28 seats, but its leader, Tzipi Livni, could not form a government, so the nod went to Binyamin Netanyahu of Likud.
As a result of a recent split within Labor, the faction led by Ehud Barak, having taken the new party name of Independence, should be placed closer to the middle of the center, while the remnant holding on to the name of Labor finds itself closer to the left boundaries of the center.
Toward the outer boundaries of the center are Meretz to the left and Israel Beitenu (Israel our Home) to the right. Again we see the current status of left and right in the measly number of three seats won by Meretz, and the 15 won by Israel Beitenu. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is the well known leader of Israel Beitenu. His statements lead many to label him an extremist and locate him outside the wide center of national politics. His prominence in current activities concerned with anti-boycotts and overseas contributions to leftist organizations may justify the designation of extremist. If so, the counter activities of Meretz, along with Peace Now and several civil rights organizations, would justify labeling them extreme leftists.
More clearly beyond the right side boundaries of the center are two parties that concentrate on supporting settlements in the West Bank, occasionally citing Biblical justifications for maintaining control of the Land of Israel. These are National Unity (four Knesset seats) and Jewish Home-New National Religious Party (three Knesset seats). One is strained to describe differences between these two parties, except for the greater prominence of secular Jews in National Unity and the linkage to the once prominent National Religious Party in the other.
The two ultra-Orthodox parties--the Sephardi SHAS with 11 Knesset seats and the Ashkenazi Jewish Torah (formerly Agudat Israel) with 5 Knesset seats--generally find themselves on the right side of the political spectrum on issues of defense and international affairs. However, they may side with left-of-center parties when advocating greater material benefits for their low-income constituents.
The primary concerns of the ultra-Orthodox parties put them on another dimension altogether. They are most assiduous in working for religious issues like Shabbat, Kashrut, opposition to post-mortems, as well as a pervasive concern for creating housing for their young couples and large families. It is on these issues where they demand support from whatever party is seeking their help on something else, whether it be the creation of a new government or the passage of a national budget.
Also on another dimension are the parties that appeal mostly to Arab voters. It is most accurate to label these protest parties. They devote most of their energies to lining up with Palestinians in criticizing the government of the day for whatever it is doing or not doing with respect to Palestinians or Israeli Arabs. They do not participate in the political games described as give and take, or I''ll scratch your back if you scratch mine. The result is that they can be largely ignored in a discussion of Israeli politics, or ‘who gets what, how?’ They seldom support the government, and get very little for their constituents.
There are differences among the Arab parties. What is now called the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality is the descendant of the Israel Communist Party, and still has some appeal among Jewish leftists. It has four seats in the Knesset, and one of its parliamentarians is a Jew who is knowledgeable and prominent on environmental as well as social issues.
Two other parties are more nearly homogeneously Arab, and difficult to differentiate on anything other than by reference to their prominent personalities. They are United Arab List with four Knesset seats, and the National Democratic Covenant with three seats.
The 13 parties currently in Israel''s Knesset are the major players in the loud politics about what a cynic would describe as seldom of substance. Like other parliamentary democracies, Israel relies heavily on professionals in the ministries for the substance of public policy. The United States is presidentially directed, but it relies more than in the past on professionals in its departments.
In Israel''s case, the big players in determining what the country does can be found in the Ministries of Finance and Defense, somewhat less so in the Prime Minister''s Office, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Ministry of Justice, along with professionals in the judicial field who have become Justices in the Supreme Court. Professionals in the service ministries, such as those dealing with education, health, transportation, police, housing, trade and industry, interior (local governments and population registry), agriculture, and communications are important in their fields, but must bow to the money managers in Finance. Those dealing with religious affairs and immigrant absorption are more distant from issues that affect most of us.
Prime Ministers have carved out parts of the substantive ministries in order to pass minor pieces to the party faithful in order to cement the coalition. The cadres of ministers without portfolio are even further from the main action of policymaking. They are a motley collection of Knesset Members given a car, driver and sometimes a tiny office staff, as well as a title meaning little. Their appointments are meant primarily to smooth the process of keeping prominent vote-getters happy and maintaining a coalition.