Israel has a disease: Fragmentation. Fix it by going out to vote - opinion

However, even those who welcome the ideological diversity that is expressed when lists are split must acknowledge that the price of fragmentation is too high.

Campaign posters in Tel Aviv, leading up to the Knesset election.  (photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)
Campaign posters in Tel Aviv, leading up to the Knesset election.
(photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)
Israeli cohesion is unraveling. In the past, during existential crises such as wars or terrorist attacks, Israelis were able to function together out of a solidarity that overcame deep disagreements. The coronavirus epidemic, which claimed many more lives than those who fell in each of Israel’s wars, has not activated the Israeli unity instinct; on the contrary, it has deepened and sharpened our divides.
We can clearly see the disintegration of the Israeli “we” in the election campaign that culminates today. The multiplicity of party lists that will enter the next Knesset – the box of ballot slips that awaits us behind the voting screen will be more crowded than ever – reflects the growing split in society. Here are the numbers:
A record number of party lists in the Knesset, 15, was achieved in 1999, when Israel initiated the direct vote for prime minister. The array of lists was due to the fact that it was possible to vote for the prime minister on a separate ballot. With the move back to single-ballot voting, the process of reducing the number of lists began. In 2003 the Knesset included 13 lists, and since then the number has been declining. Thus, in the three election campaigns of the last two years the number of lists decreased from 11 in the first election, to nine in the second, and in the third, the current Knesset, only 8 lists were elected. It was anticipated that this process would eventually lead to a political system reduced to four lists: Right, Left, Arab and haredi.
And yet, in the next Knesset the number of party lists is expected to increase by more than 60 percent. The Likud has split and created New Hope; the Left – which recently ran as a single list – has split into Labor and Meretz. The Center is divided into Yesh Atid and Blue and White; the religious parties have split into Yamina and Religious Zionist; the Islamic party Ra’am has broken off from the Joint List. Even after many withdrawals (Huldai, Telem, Ofer Shelah), instead of eight lists, according to the polls, we will still have no fewer than 13 in the next Knesset.
Some of the splits express real ideological diversity: Ra’am chose to promote the agenda of civic equality for Israeli Arabs, while the Joint List continues to emphasize the importance of a distinct Arab-Palestinian identity. The Religious Zionist list has chosen to promote a conservative Hardal (ultra-Orthodox Zionist) agenda, on the national-religious side, while Yamina seeks to be an all-Israeli right-wing party that has religious characteristics. In both cases the divide expresses significant conceptual and practical disagreements. In other cases, the splits do not represent ideological gaps, but are the result of the personalization of Israel’s political system – ego struggles and love-hate relationships with a concrete political figure and the brand it shapes.
However, even those who welcome the ideological diversity that is expressed when lists are split must acknowledge that the price of fragmentation is too high. In a fragmented reality, the fringes acquire power, sometimes veto power, over the Center. And so, if the Likud is successful and is able to lead a coalition, it will be held in thrall to extremists, some of whom are undermining the democratic character of the state in the name of its Judaism. A party supported in the election about a year ago by only 20,000 voters may become the kingmaker. And in the opposite case, a coalition without the Likud that is mainly Center-Right may depend on the cooperation of extremists on the Israeli Left, some of whom oppose the Jewish character of the state in the name of democracy. Under such conditions, the chances that any coalition formed after the election will survive over time are not good.
What we have is a vicious circle: The division in society translates into political fragmentation and a proliferation of lists, which strengthens the extremist forces and thus activates centrifugal forces that erode Israeli solidarity and impair the collective’s ability to act. Moreover, the plethora of lists may distort the result. If any of the four lists that are hovering around the electoral threshold fail to clear the hurdle, the election will be decided one way or the other, even though the total numbers may indicate a different outcome.
Still, today is Election Day. Each and every one of us must perform an irrational act: get out of the house, stand in line, and drop a ballot slip that on its own is a small drop in the ocean of close to six million potential slips – a slip whose mathematical impact on the result is minimal, but whose democratic value is immense. Israel is rightly proud of its relatively high level of political participation. Maintaining that high level is a remedy, albeit small, for the disease of fragmentation, as it traditionally increases the power of the moderate forces in society.
Yedidia Stern is President of the Jewish People Policy Institute and a professor of law at Bar Ilan University.