Parties and personalities

Elections 2019: Who will Israel choose? (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Elections 2019: Who will Israel choose?
A week is a very long time in Israeli politics, let alone during the months remaining until the April 9 election date, but some trends are already emerging – unfortunately, not all of them positive.
Within a few days, the country witnessed the dramatic breakaway of Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked from the Bayit Yehudi Party – where they had been No. 1 and No. 2 – to form a new list, called Hayemin Hehadash (the New Right). We also saw the stark dismissal by Labor leader Avi Gabbay of Tzipi Livni, head of Hatnua, ending the merger between her party and Labor that was known as the Zionist Union. Former chief of staff Benny Gantz announced a name for his new party, Hosen L’Yisrael” (Israel’s Resilience), and former defense minister and ex-chief of staff Moshe (Bogie) Ya’alon declared that his new party would be called Telem.
It almost doesn’t matter what official name the parties choose for themselves: they will inevitably be known mainly by the people who lead them.
The average voter will talk about voting for Benny Gantz or Bogie Ya’alon, the same way as they talk about voting for Yair Lapid (head of Yesh Atid), Moshe Kahlon (Kulanu), Avigdor Liberman (Yisrael Beytenu) or for Orly Levy Abecassis – who recently revived the name of her politician father’s Likud-breakaway party, Gesher. And Likud voters will still “vote for Bibi” – even those who wish there was another party head besides Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
On the surface, it would appear that the large number of parties is a sign of a healthy democracy, offering voters a plurality of choices where everyone, no matter their background or ideologies, can find representation. Unfortunately, we are not spoiled by choice.
Many of the parties currently enjoying media coverage are driven by political egos rather than a solid platform. Indeed, it has become a joke that Gantz has managed to gain significant ratings in polls without ever saying what he stands for. No one knows what Gantz’s positions are on matters of religion and state or the Palestinian conflict. But he still gets around 15 seats in polls.
Is there a reason that these party heads have chosen to go it alone – rather than join and strengthen an existing party – other than that they want to be in the top spot? In addition, without a clearly defined platform, disappointed MKs hop between parties. It’s no longer a question of abiding by an ideology but of finding a place that you can temporarily call home.
Livni is right to feel hurt and humiliated by her very public dismissal from the Zionist Union. But she has been expelled before, creating Hatnua following her electoral ousting by Shaul Mofaz as head of Kadima, a party she had joined after abandoning the Likud.
Nobody succeeds in politics without ambition and aspirations; it is easy to let egos take over. But this is not healthy. Netanyahu dissolved the Knesset when he no longer had a functional coalition capable of mustering a majority vote. If the next Knesset yet again comprises many smaller parties of indeterminate principles and platforms, it will remain barely functional, without a majority bloc.
Similarly, for the opposition to be effective, it also needs to be able to unite and provide a credible political threat in the event of a vote of no-confidence.
Each party of a similar nature is drawing away potential voters of a larger list, making whoever is chosen to create the new government more reliant on coalition partners. The number of smaller parties running means that each has a disproportionate amount of power as “kingmaker,” able to determine who will be prime minister through coalition deal-making.
This opens the door to political blackmail rather than democratic plurality. In addition, some smaller parties are unlikely to pass the electoral threshold resulting in wasted votes, in an election where every vote should count.
While it is positive that everyone in Israel feels they have representatives in the Knesset, it is also important that the country benefit from a stable coalition, one that is not vulnerable to political blackmail before every key decision. In the current political situation, it is hard to say “the more, the merrier.”