Critical Currents: Big... bang... bust

The vision of a sweeping rearrangement of the party map is as impracticable as it is appealing.

big bang 88 (photo credit: )
big bang 88
(photo credit: )
The period of evaluation and reform associated with the holiday season focuses heavily this year on the public domain. In few other areas of the contemporary Israeli experience is the criticism as harsh or the yearning for change as intense as in the governmental sphere. For months the most pragmatic of Israelis have woven elaborate pipe dreams of a comprehensive reshuffle of party politics. This quest is reaching its apex as the country ushers in a new election year. The big-bang theory (which calls for the dismantling of the Likud, Labor, and anything in between and their reconfiguration in a grand alliance) is being pitted against the little-bang scenario that envisions an Ariel Sharon-led separation from the Likud leading to the creation of a new centrist party. Neither of these alternatives is particularly likely; neither is desirable. Instead of groping for straws in the overgrown political playing fields, those concerned with improving the quality of public life should concentrate squarely on the less glorious but immensely more productive task of weeding. The vision of a sweeping rearrangement of the party map is as impracticable as it is appealing. It is propelled by two disparate assumptions. The first is that given the growing convergence around a two-state solution, the foundation of post-1967 politics in Israel the clash between the doves and hawks is no longer the central axis of party differentiation. Advocates of a major party reordering buttress their position (correctly from their perspective) by pointing to the fact that there is almost no coincidence between popular support for the Gaza pullback and the existing party structure. Disengagement succeeded despite and not because of the Likud. From here it is just a very short step to the second presumption of the massive overhaul school: the coalescence of a new consensus at the center of the political map which, if given concrete form, can streamline the chaotic political scene and vastly improve its efficiency. Underlying this approach is an effort not only to link ongoing instability and rising ungovernability to multi-partyism, but also to associate reform with a complete revamping of the party map. THE WORKING premises of the big bang contain an in-built contradiction. If the multiplicity of parties promotes paralysis, how then was it possible to knit together a cross-party majority capable of undertaking the most radical shift in Israeli policy in decades? Those who are capable of surmounting this logical impasse and continue to be dazzled by the image of a political arena devoid of constant coalition squabbles should nevertheless reconsider. The prospect of a grand party emerging is too slim for words. Parties have a way of surviving repeated attempts at their dissolution. Labor stalwarts will not countenance such a move; the recent vote in the Likud central committee is indicative of a preference for institutional continuity over ideologically based remodeling. Thus, the forthcoming elections will not be accompanied by a big bang. Nor, in all probability, will they witness a little one. If Sharon loses the Likud primaries next spring he might be tempted to establish his own party. Israeli history is fraught with stories of major figures who have failed miserably in such ventures (from David Ben-Gurion, Ezer Weizman and Sharon himself, to Geula Cohen, Yitzhak Mordechai and Dan Meridor). The opportunistic tendency to confuse party politics with particular personalities has, and will continue to be, a recipe for political dissipation. The critical issue is not, however, whether a broad reshuffle will occur, but whether it should. The main problem with the realignment concept is that it conflates the quest for government efficacy with the formation of one large majority party. Such a proposition is thoroughly anti-democratic. By calling for a single ruling framework with splinter satellites it is sadly reminiscent of the era of Mapai hegemony which ultimately proved incapable of addressing Israel's increasing complexity. By curtailing formal competition it defies the stuff of democratic politics the presentation of alternatives, the promise of rotation, and the possibility of shifting alliances on varying issues. Above all, by misrepresenting the essential heterogeneity of Israeli society and the diversity of public opinion, it invites the circumvention of critical issues and all that such avoidance implies. Israel is definitely in need of political reform. But the simplistic idea of a big or little bang should be discarded without even a whimper. It must be replaced by a careful reexamination of the system geared to correcting existing defects and fine-tuning faulty parts. This involves sharpening the differences between parties on socioeconomic as well as political matters (and these still abound as long as the conflict endures). It also entails rearranging priorities and refining the agenda to reflect endemic problems and provide alternative solutions. Israeli citizens deserve a party repertoire that contains veritable choices and offers the hope of constructive change. Real innovation is usually the result of small and plodding, yet highly significant, adjustments which take place throughout the year. It would be useful, during this holiday period, to rededicate the country to such an ongoing ethic.