Balkanized politics

Government coalition agreements inevitably end up looking like a collection of wish lists presented by the different coalition partners in exchange for their political support.

Likud and Bayit Yehudi sign coalition agreement (photo credit: BAYIT YEHUDI)
Likud and Bayit Yehudi sign coalition agreement
(photo credit: BAYIT YEHUDI)
Israel is a balkanized country. Societal fault lines dissect us: Arab from Jew; Sephardi from Ashkenazi; religious from secular; Zionist religious from haredi; Sephardi haredi from Ashkenazi haredi; Russian Israeli from Ethiopian Israeli.
Our political system reflects and perpetuates this state of affairs. Many of the above mentioned groups are constituencies for distinct political parties. Yisrael Beytenu, Shas, United Torah Judaism, Bayit Yehudi and the Joint List all have the express goal of representing their respective constituencies.
Government coalition agreements, such as the one signed to form Israel’s 34th government, inevitably end up looking like a collection of wish lists presented by the different coalition partners in exchange for their political support. Broader national interests are all but ignored in the rush by each party to grab as much of the budget and obtain as many concessions as possible.
In the present coalition, UTJ looked out for educational institutions that cater to Ashkenazi haredim; Shas did the same for the Sephardi haredi population. Both parties used their leverage to reinstate more generous National Insurance Institute child allotments and aid to haredi couples and to do away with criteria that made housing aid conditional upon employment.
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Meanwhile, Bayit Yehudi looked out for the interests of the religious-Zionist population by increasing budgets for national-religious educational institutions and for the development of settlements.
Kulanu was the only party besides the ruling Likud party whose demands reflected broader national interests: NIS 1.3 billion devoted to raising soldiers’ salaries; NIS 800 million toward fighting poverty; cutting up to NIS 1b. from the prices of state-owned land; raising taxes on income from investment real estate; cutting tax breaks on pensions for the rich; building public housing.
One might argue that the Israeli case is no different from other liberal democracies. Politicians are sent to office to represent their constituencies and are held accountable when they fail to do so.
The difference is that in most liberal democracies elections there is a regional element, which means that specific geographic areas receive representation, not distinct groups within society, though, of course, sometimes certain regions do tend to be disproportionately populated by a particular group. Ultimately, regions, not population groups, compete for state budgets.
In Israel, in contrast, population groups are pitted against one another. When an opportunity presents itself, a political party governed by narrow interests exploits it and cares hardly at all if in the process the interests of another group are trampled. Conversely, when the group that has been trampled upon is once again included in the governing coalition it has no qualms about taking revenge.
Because political parties are not expected to worry about anyone but their own constituents, no thought is given to groups within society that never have the opportunity to be included in the coalition, such as Arabs who make up about a fifth of Israel’s population.
Preference for narrow interests over the broader national good is destructive. Politics becomes a cynical game. Social cohesion deteriorates. Trust across different social groups breaks down. Tax evasion jumps.
Social anomalies are allowed to persist indefinitely.
A haredi educational system that does not prepare its students for the labor market continues to receive state funding, even though the state has an interest in producing productive citizens. The Arab sector is discriminated against with regard to education budgets and housing, even though it is in the national interest to realize the educational potential of all citizens and to plan housing in a way that protects the environment and provides people with safe and orderly communities that are connected to public transportation.
Calls for election reform are often motivated by a desire to combat Israel’s balkanized politics. Proposals include instituting regional elections with a first-past-the-post system and yet again raising the vote threshold parties must pass for entry into the Knesset.
Perhaps these measures and others will help, though ultimately they are cosmetic. Israelis of all walks must begin to think in terms of collective responsibility. We have a shared fate. Each group’s success depends on the other’s. Balkanized politics is self-defeating.