Political parties and a parliamentary birthday

My Word: As long as there are humble MKs working to ensure a better quality of life for our children and protecting the environment for future generations, the Knesset can feel a moment of pride on its birthday, this Tu Bishvat.

emptyknesset370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
There should be double reason to celebrate in the Israeli parliament next week. The general elections are scheduled for January 22, and the Hebrew date of Tu Bishvat, which this year falls on January 26, marks not only the Jewish New Year for Trees but also the Knesset’s birthday.
If the political maneuvering by the country’s politicians is frequently embarrassing, the fact that this is the only parliament in the world that marks its anniversary according to the Hebrew calendar is a cause for pride.
It’s hard to predict the composition of the next Knesset, although I doubt “pride” will be the first word I’ll use when writing about it. Even the weather could have an impact. A rainy day might be good for the trees, but it plays hell with voter turnout. And this is Israel. It’s not only the weather that swings from snow to sunshine within hours.
For instance, the massive missile attacks that preceded Operation Pillar of Defense in November – not to mention the missiles from Gaza aimed at Jerusalem and Tel Aviv during the mini-war – shot down the socioeconomic agenda. Try as she might, Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich can’t get it back to where it was before the latest conflict. Tzipi Livni and Meretz leader Zahava Gal-On, meanwhile, are having a hard time telling Israelis that the top priority is to immediately kickstart negotiations with the Palestinians.
If there’s one thing to keep in mind when it comes to Israeli elections it is that it ain’t over until it’s over. Following the elections, the real work begins – the political trading to try to create a broad and stable government.
In 1996, most of the country went to sleep on election night convinced that Shimon Peres would be the next prime minister and woke up to find that Binyamin Netanyahu had more votes. In the last elections, due either to wishful thinking or to political naivete, Livni gave a premature victory address.
Part of the problem is the system in which the president has to ask the party leader most likely to create a stable, viable coalition to form the next government. Another obstacle is that previous attempts at holding direct elections for prime minister only weakened the system.
Although the direct election system was rescinded in 2001, it remains in the minds of many voters who feel free to support the smaller parties on the assumption that the leaders of the bigger parties don’t need their votes.
IF ANYTHING marks the Israeli elections this year it is the lack of ideology, the lack of leadership and, strangely, the lack of sectors. The Likud-Yisrael Beytenu merge symbolizes the end of a “Russian” vote; Bayit Yehudi incorporates National Religious Party motifs but does not see its main task as helping build more ritual baths and local synagogues; and Shas’s poor showing in the political surveys also suggests it has lost its sectoral appeal.
The main exceptions seem to be the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox parties and the Arab parties.
Perhaps the move away from a sectoral approach marks a certain measure of maturity.
Eventually, we might even end up with something like two main political blocs.
The composition of the next government will be clearly influenced by the different needs of the various party leaders. Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid, for instance, more than anything else needs to gain ministerial experience. I wasn’t surprised to hear him this week promising that he wouldn’t accept the job of minister without portfolio: Apart from the very obvious (and unpopular) financial waste involved in maintaining an office and staff for a minister without a clear job, Lapid – a political novice – needs a ministry he can put on his CV.
Yacimovich has also been criticized for never having been a minister, but were she to be the official leader of the opposition, she would at least have a respectable position.
I have long felt that Israeli politics could benefit from having a British-style “shadow government.”
Many opposition MKs, especially former ministers, find it frustrating not to be in power, and having a shadow government could provide them with a greater sense of purpose. When former Labor finance minister Avraham Shochat carried on monitoring the work of the Finance Ministry after he was no longer in office he seemed much more satisfied than most of his title-less peers.
Somebody like Livni would be far more productive were she to have a defined role. But whereas Yacimovich found her niche in social welfare and labor issues, Livni seems driven by the need to have a second chance at either leading the country or at least again being foreign minister. Yacimovich has her name on a host of legislation; Livni lost enthusiasm as a parliamentarian the minute she lost a ministerial office.
After every election, there is talk of passing the so-called “Norwegian Law,” which would require MKs to leave their Knesset seats upon joining the government. This would mean ministers could concentrate on their cabinet-level responsibilities and it would bring more people on coalition party lists into the House.
In the current political environment, however, it is unlikely that ministers and MKs will vote on a measure that would so endanger their professional lives. When party leaders don’t bat an eyelid as they announce at press conferences that they themselves are switching from one party to another, those under them know their ministerial jobs and fortunes can quickly change.
It wasn’t that long ago that Defense Minister Ehud Barak quit the Labor Party he led to establish the Independence list – a list that didn’t even survive to these elections. And it’s worth recalling that the date of the elections was influenced by Kadima head Shaul Mofaz’s 70-day stint in the coalition.
In May, the country nearly went to early elections over the Tal Law and calls to end the mass exemption from IDF service for ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students. Mofaz’s maneuver stalled those polls, but in October Netanyahu announced he was bringing the elections forward because of failure to agree on the 2013 budget.
If the last government couldn’t agree on the budget it’s hard to imagine how the next one will fare, especially following news of the unexpectedly large deficit. But politics, as they say, makes strange bedfellows. To put it crudely, it’s not about love between partners but about the price one side is willing to pay and what the other side is willing to do.
Unfortunately, the most memorable moments of the last Knesset were rarely its loftiest: The image of Israel Beytenu MK Anastasia Michaeli throwing a glass of water at Israeli-Arab MK Ghaleb Majadle springs uncomfortably to mind and seems determined to linger there. Nonetheless, there are hardworking parliamentarians across the political spectrum and we shouldn’t throw cold water on their achievements. Orly Levy-Abecassis, another Israel Beytenu MK (and, it’s almost obligatory to note, like Michaeli, a former model) quietly and relentlessly worked on children’s welfare issues, while on the far Left, Hadash MK Dov Henin also worked on children’s rights and gained a name for his environmentally friendly laws.
As long as there are humble MKs in committees working to ensure a better quality of life for our children and protecting the environment for future generations, the Knesset can feel a moment of pride on its birthday, this Tu Bishvat.
The writer is the editor of the International Jerusalem Post. [email protected]