Guest Columnist: Size does matter

It is hard to ignore Kadima’s astonishing leap from leader of an opposition with confrontational aspirations to junior partner in a government it had just recently rejected.

Netanyahu, Mofaz announce deal (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Netanyahu, Mofaz announce deal
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
A recent Jerusalem Post editorial (May 13) criticized my assessment that the mammoth coalition government formed by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and MK Shaul Mofaz is dangerous. In response, let me illustrate several ways in which the extreme contraction of the opposition resulting from the expansion of the coalition threatens both the functioning of the Knesset and the fortitude of democracy in Israel. It is important to note that I voiced my opinion in the context of other voices at the Israel Democracy Institute, which – like the Post editorial – welcomed the broad coalition as an opportunity to enact necessary change. My intent was to broaden our perspective on this development.
It is indisputable that governance and governmental stability are important values, but they are not the be-all and end-all.
Democracy is also a system of checks and balances. In a democracy, one of the functions of the legislature is to oversee and monitor the executive branch. Effective oversight cannot occur in the absence of a significant opposition. The opposition in Israel was already weak in the previous coalition. It will most certainly become weaker now that it comprises only 26 members who represent a number of parties with very different – and often opposing – views, some of which are likely to support the government in many cases.
For example, the shrunken opposition will not be able to summon the prime minister to a Knesset deliberation to hear its criticism for the simple reason that it lacks the 40 signatures required to do so. Furthermore, the 26 members of the opposition, in its diminished capacity, will have difficulty even attending the meetings of the 20 Knesset committees. It is in the committees that most of the Knesset’s work is done. The Speaker of the Knesset himself, MK Reuven Rivlin, expressed serious concern about the Knesset’s ability to function in the new political reality, fearing that it could become paralyzed.
It is also clear that such a small opposition will not be able to block populist legislation carrying the potential to undermine fundamental democratic values. In the Knesset’s most recent session, many such bills were proposed and several even passed. According to one of these laws, a person who calls on a theater troupe or its actors to refrain from performing in Judea and Samaria is committing a civil wrong, and may be ordered to pay compensation even if the plaintiff does not prove damages.
Such legislation has no parallel in the democratic world. Who will stand up to such initiatives in the Knesset? Who will protect the Supreme Court from those who seek to harm it? Who will protect Israel’s permanent minority – the Arab population – and guarantee them equal rights as promised in Israel’s Declaration of Independence? And who will safeguard human rights in the face of a majority whose unrestrained power is liable to turn it into an oppressive majority? The ability to block unpalatable legislation is not only a function of the number of hands that are raised but also of the number of voices raised to mobilize public opposition. The Knesset will not be able to fulfill this role in its current makeup.
A COMPARISON with coalitions in other parliamentarian democracies is instructive.
In a comparison of 15 countries, Israel tops the list for coalition size, with a coalition made up of almost 80 percent of the Knesset’s members. Below Israel is Ireland, whose coalition comprises 70% of Parliament members. In the remaining democracies, the figures are between 50% and 66%.
It goes without saying that there is no other country in the world in which the number of ministers is greater than the number of legislators belonging to the opposition. If a coalition of 110 Knesset members were to be created, would the Post’s editorial still be praising the stability of the government? Huge coalitions are created rarely: at times of extreme national emergency or when no alternative exists. Neither of these conditions applies to the current situation.
If it turns out that the members of the new coalition all share the same political ideology, the question demands to be asked: Does the current political system reliably represent Israeli society with its varied political opinions and aspirations? It is hard to ignore Kadima’s astonishing leap from leader of an opposition with confrontational aspirations to junior partner in a government it had just recently rejected – all within days and with no obvious change in the objective circumstance.
One who believes that a politician’s words are inherently meaningless need not see any problem here. As someone who does not hold this view, I believe these actions may further undermine the already weakened faith of the Israeli public in its elected officials.
It was Menachem Begin who once declared: “Mr. Speaker, we will be in opposition to the government just presented to us. I know, from what I have heard and read, that in certain circles there are those who still hold notions about the [role of the] opposition, which bear no connection with statehood, with Israeli republicanism, with democracy. The source of all these notions stems from the pre-republican period; in truth they are anti-republican. We are convinced – as we can plainly see the world over – that there is no democracy without opposition; without it the very freedom of mankind is at risk.”
Begin was right. And we would do well to heed his words today.
The writer is vice president of research at the Israel Democracy Institute and professor emeritus of law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.