Think about it: The end of consociationalism

My personal feeling is that consociationalism is not yet dead in Israel, and might eventually enjoy a comeback.

Knesset building with State symbol 390 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Knesset building with State symbol 390
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
For many years Israel was considered to have a quasiconsociational form of government. The consociational form of government involves guaranteed group representation irrespective of the numerical size of each group, in societies that are extremely heterogeneous, and deeply divided. The goals of consociationalism are governmental stability, the perseverance of power-sharing arrangements, the survival of democracy and the avoidance of internal strife.
In consociational societies the system of elections is usually proportional, as it is in Israel, which gives relatively small groups an opportunity to be elected to parliament.
In Israel the system was never more than quasi-consociational, however, since not all the population groups in the country have been considered part of the system, even if they have elected representatives to the Knesset.
For example, when David Ben-Gurion reached the famous “status quo” agreement with the haredim back in 1947, this was a clear consociational act. However, while after the establishment of the state Ben-Gurion was willing to accept most parties into his coalitions, even if they were ideologically far removed from the Labor movement, he excluded Begin’s Herut Movement (the predecessor of the Likud) and Maki (the Israel Communist Party) as a matter of principle.
In later years it was only the Arabs who remained irrevocably outside, without any hope of joining a governing coalition. The closest the Arabs ever got to forming part of a coalition in Israel was during the second Rabin government (1992-95), after Shas left the government against the background of the Oslo Accords. The government needed Arab support in the Knesset to avoid being overthrown.
According to political science professor Reuven Hazan, since the 1990s Israel has gradually moved away from consociationalism toward a majoritarian form of government, in which it is the majority that determines the policies of any given government, with very little consideration for the interests and wishes of groups that are not part of this majority.
In this sense, the current government is probably one of the most non-consociational and most majoritarian governments Israel has ever had, despite the fact that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s basic inclination – in a situation where the Likud is weak, and Israeli society more divided than ever – is towards consociationalism. In his eyes, the exclusion of the haredim from Israel’s 33rd government will weaken the government’s and the country’s stability, in addition to creating future problems for the Likud. But at least at this juncture, he had no choice, and the haredim remain in opposition – for the time being.
It should be noted that there are certain situations in which consociationalism might create more problems than it resolves. In situations where various groups are pulling the national wagon in different directions it is sometimes preferable to choose a certain direction that is supported by the majority, rather than be stuck in a consociational stalemate.
There are, of course, situations in which compromise is possible and even desirable – for example between those who advocate an extreme form of capitalism and those who advocate the welfare state. The compromise calls for capitalism with a soul, or a welfare state which encourages private initiative in purely commercial activities.
However, there are situations in which compromise is not possible, simply because one of the sides is not open to compromise. At the current juncture this seems to be the situation regarding the haredim. The non-haredi majority believes that the state simply can no longer afford to carry on its back around 10 percent of the population, whose ideology encourages able-bodied men to refrain from joining the workforce and sharing the military burden, and which refuses to accept some of the basic cornerstones of the democratic system, including women’s equality, and the right to personal freedom at all levels. The problem is aggravated by the fact that this population, which chooses to be poor, depends on the state for welfare and economic benefits at the expense of the rest of the population.
Why this situation was allowed to develop over the years is a separate issue, but the fact is that today the majority considers it unbearable, and there is apparently no other way to get out of the entanglement than changing some of the basic rules of the game – a process in which the haredi spiritual leadership is unwilling to take part.
In the case of the Israeli Arabs – who have never been part of the game – the problem is even more complicated.
There is no doubt that almost all Israeli Arabs, who constitute at least 20 percent of the population, would rather Israel ceased to be exclusively the state of the Jewish People, where non-Jews enjoy minority rights, but for various historical and current reasons are, to all effects and purposes, second-class citizens.
This does not mean that the majority of Israeli Arabs are inclined to embark on an active campaign to turn Israel into a state of all its citizens, or that when they look around them at what is going on in neighboring countries, they do not count their blessings. However, it does mean that there are constraints regarding the extent to which even the most liberal Israelis are willing or feel able to accept the Arab population as full partners in a consociational society.
Nevertheless, this does not mean Israel should not start considering bringing the Arabs into the game, in an attempt to make the moderate Arab population feel a greater affinity with the State of Israel, and try to avoid future radicalization of this population, which could lead to unrest and even violence.
The interesting development is that some of the haredi spokesmen (including MK Aryeh Deri) have actually pointed out that in the current government there are no haredim and no Arabs. Whether this position represents a new state of mind, which will lead to more than merely tactical cooperation between the haredi and Arab parties in the 19th Knesset, is yet to be seen.
My personal feeling is that consociationalism is not yet dead in Israel, and might eventually enjoy a comeback.
The writer is a former Knesset employee.