Something is rotten in Israel’s party system

The party system functions according to politician's interests and isolates grassroots movements, seriously threatening Israeli democracy.

Livni with pink background 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Baz Ratner)
Livni with pink background 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Baz Ratner)
Tzipi Livni’s announcement that her party, Ha’Tnuah, will join a government coalition led by Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud Beiteinu – after fervently proclaiming throughout all of the election campaign that such a thing would never happen – is just the latest example of an Israeli politician routinely disengaging from stated electoral declarations.
While breaking promises is part and parcel of the political routine everywhere, there is a particular pattern in the Israeli party system that facilitates and even encourages politicians to circumvent their commitments and their electorate.
Israeli politicians change their partisanship like European soccer players change their clubs and they are world champions in forming new parties, too. Whenever senior Israeli politicians fail to push through their will among their fellow partisans, they change their party or form a new party, tailor-made to serve their particular strategic interest.
While changing parties and forming new parties is a necessary option in a democracy, Israeli politicians make excessive misuse of this option as a means of strategic manipulation.
One who tries to follow the history of Israeli parties gets lost in a jungle of endless breakaways and new-formations.
In the 65 years of Israel’s existence there have been more then 150 different Knesset factions – and that still does not include the Knesset members who broke away from their parties to serve as “independent” parliamentarians.
This volatility of political affiliations deprives the parties of the power to commit politicians to electorally legitimized positions and agendas. As a result, the logic of a party-democracy is being turned upside down.
PARTIES SHOULD actually serve as the link between the grassroots and the political institutions.
They should translate grass root opinions and sentiments into articulated political positions that determine the political agendas in law-making – and government institutions.
The function of the parties’ elected political representatives is to advocate the party’s positions that had been negotiated in an open and democratic process and that express the will of the people – the highest sovereign in every Republican-Democratic system. In Israel, this principle is being severely compromised.
Instead of committing lawmakers and politicians to the will of the voters, political representatives permanently manipulate and reshape the party system according to their personal strategic preferences.
This problem may be illustrated as we compare Israel’s party system with post World War II Germany’s democracy. Both political systems are about the same age; Israel was founded in 1948, while the first post World War II German parliament was elected in 1949. Both systems are multi-party systems (as opposed to the American two-party system) that have their political representatives elected according to the principle of proportional representation.
By the 1960s Germany had established itself as a three-party system. Every faction that had entered the Bundestag (the German federal parliament) since then is rooted in the new formation of actual social movements or societal groups among the grassroots.
The Green Party that entered the Bundestag for the first time 1983 was the direct offspring of the ecological movement and the new Left, which was closely related to the so called “outer-parliamentarian opposition” and the student protests that peaked in the late 1960s.
The PDS (Party of Democratic Socialism) that joined the Bundestag in 1990, and later merged with a Left-wing break away of the Social Democrats into the party “The Left,” was the result of Germany’s reunification and merger of the east German states into the west German political system.
Finally, the Pirate Party, which recently made a strong showing in elections to some of Germany’s state parliaments, expresses the demands that spring from new ideas of freedom that developed among the generation that grew up with new technologies, such as the Internet.
NOW LET’S compare that to Israel: Livni formed her Tnuah-Party in 2012 after she was dismissed as Kadima’s chairperson in a democratic leadership vote that she lost to Shaul Mofaz. The name of the party, “The Movement” is a true misnomer, as it precisely expresses what the party is not: the political representative of a grassroots movement.
Instead it is a strategic construction by Livni, who withdrew her supporters from Kadima to retain a politically key position.
But also, Kadima, the party Livni defected from, is the result of a political maneuver by former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon.
When Sharon, in 2005, failed to gather support for his disengagement plan among his fellow Likud partisans, he left the Likud and formed Kadima, rearranging and manipulating the electorally determined and legitimized makeup of factions in the 16th Israeli Knesset.
The most recent example of such a strategic stunt is the merger of the Likud with Israel Beiteinu, which was enacted by the leaders of the respective parties, Binyamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, because some American adviser had falsely predicted that this would strengthen their political stance.
This list could be continued endlessly.
The permanent manipulation of the Israeli party system in a top-bottom fashion, according to the strategic interests of Israeli politicians, continuously alienates the political institutions from grassroots movements and poses a severe threat to the integrity of Israeli democracy.
Maybe part of a solution could lie in a stricter law that restricts the formation of new parties and Knesset factions.
The writer, a former German journalist, studied sociology and political science in Germany and in Israel.