Analysis from Israel

Note: This piece is a response to an essay by Haviv Rettig Gur

Like Haviv Rettig Gur in “How and Why Israelis Vote,” I, too, think the advantages of Israel’s parliamentary system outweigh its disadvantages, and for essentially the same reason: because it keeps a great many people in the political system who would otherwise remain outside it.

Critics of the system’s plethora of small parties—as Gur notes, no fewer than 43 parties have been vying for Knesset seats in this year’s election—maintain that it should be streamlined and redesigned so that only big parties would be able to enter the Knesset. In that case, the critics argue, people who currently vote for small parties would simply switch their votes to large ones.

No doubt, some voters would do so—but many others would not. There are at least three groups among whom turnout would plummet if niche parties became by definition unelectable: Arabs, Ḥaredim (including some ḥaredi Zionists), and the protest voters who, in every election, propel a new “fad” party into the Knesset. (In 2015, as Gur writes, the fad party was Kulanu. This year, it’s been Moshe Feiglin’s pro-marijuana, libertarian, right-wing Zehut party, which Gur doesn’t discuss although polls have consistently showed it gaining five to seven seats.)

Together, these three groups constitute roughly a third of the country, and all three are to some extent alienated from the mainstream. If they were no longer even participating in elections, that alienation would grow.

Why does this matter? In answering that question, I’ll focus mainly on Ḥaredim and Arabs, the most significant and also the most stable of the three groups (protest voters being by nature amorphous and changeable).

It matters primarily because people who cease to see politics as a means of furthering their goals are more likely to resort to violence. Indeed, it’s no accident that most political violence in Israel has issued from quarters outside the electoral system.

Among Ḥaredim, violent anti-government demonstrations take place in neighborhoods whose residents don’t vote, not in neighborhoods that vote en masse for United Torah Judaism. As for the violent fringe of the settler movement, it doesn’t vote for pro-settlement parties like Jewish Home or even the extremist Otzmah Yehudit; it doesn’t vote at all. Instead, as revealed in documents made public by the Shin Bet security service in 2015, it seeks to replace democracy in Israel with a religious monarchy.

Among Israeli Arabs, those in eastern Jerusalem—most of whom cannot vote since they are permanent residents rather than citizens—commit a proportionately much greater amount of violent acts than do other Israeli Arabs. Similarly, the northern branch of Israel’s Islamic Movement, which boycotts elections, foments far more violence than the southern branch, which regularly runs as part of the United Arab List.

True, there is one striking counterexample: the Balad party, whose past members of Knesset (MKs) have included one who fled the country to avoid charges of spying for Hizballah, one convicted of smuggling cellphones to jailed terrorists, and one convicted of threatening fellow Arabs serving in the police. But I can’t think of any other significant exceptions.

By contrast,niche parties not only reduce the incidence of extremist violence but actually help move alienated communities closer to the mainstream.

As Gur observes, the main reason Yisrael Beytenu has risked falling below the electoral threshold in this election is that, as its Russian-immigrant voters have come to feel more at home in Israel, they’ve increasingly switched to more mainstream parties. Another good example is Jewish Home: the principal reason it was polling below the threshold before it hooked up with Otzmah Yehudit is that religious Zionists, too, have migrated to mainstream parties as they have become more integrated.

The same trend is now emerging, albeit slowly, among Ḥaredim. According to Gilad Malach of the Israel Democracy Institute, the proportion of Ḥaredim voting for non-ḥaredi parties rose from 10 percent in 2006 to 17 percent in 2015; this year, Malach expects it to reach 20 percent. One noteworthy sign of the change: in 2018, the ḥaredi city of Bnei Brak elected a city councilman from a non-ḥaredi party; the last time this happened was more than three decades ago, when Bnei Brak still had a sizable non-ḥaredi population.

This shift is propelled primarily by broader changes within ḥaredi society itself, where more and more people are working, attending college, and serving in the army. But it has been facilitated by the presence of ḥaredi parties in the Knesset.

As a Knesset reporter in the 1990s, I watched those parties evolve from caring only about religious issues to speaking out on broader societal ones as well. Their presence in the Knesset—where ḥaredi members advanced to chair powerful committees and became ministers and deputy ministers—meant they couldn’t avoid taking stands on economic, diplomatic, and security issues. This in turn sent a moderating message to their constituents: that Ḥaredim can and should care about Israel’s broader concerns, The logical corollary is that voting on the basis of those broader concerns—that is, voting for mainstream parties—isn’t illegitimate.

Unfortunately,the dynamic is different in the Arab community, where Arab parties routinely win a sweeping majority of the vote. Even as, by many measures, Arab voters have become more integrated in Israeli society, Arab MKs have remained militantly separatist.

Polls over the past few years have repeatedly shown that Israeli Arabs’ main concerns are not the Israel-Palestinian conflict but bread-and-butter issues like crime, housing, and jobs, and that roughly two-thirds of Arab voters want their MKs to join the governing coalition, where they would have more power to address these issues. But the Arab parties have different priorities.

When it comes those priorities, contrary to the picture drawn by Gur, there’s little that distinguishes one Arab party from another. All of them, even the “moderate” Ḥadash-Ta’al, vocally accuse Israel of being an apartheid, criminal state that indiscriminately murders Palestinians; all defend Palestinian terror; and all stridently support maximalist Palestinian demands (including the “right of return,” a euphemism for destroying the Jewish state demographically).

Ayman Odeh, for instance, the chairman of Ḥadash, has refused to condemn Palestinian terror, saying, “I cannot tell the nation how to struggle. . . . I do not put red lines on the Arab Palestinian nation.” In 2015, Odeh went so far as to cancel a meeting with American Jewish leaders because he refused to set foot in a “Zionist” office. (Evidently he makes an exception for the Zionist Knesset.) Ahmad Tibi, the chairman of Ta’al, has written op-eds in American newspapers accusing Israel of running a Jim Crow regime, ignoring the irony of signing these pieces as deputy speaker of Israel’s parliament.

These parties often preemptively declare themselves unwilling to join any government. But they needn’t bother: their embrace of outspokenly anti-Israel positions puts them beyond the pale as coalition partners. It also nourishes feelings on both sides that Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews are enemies rather than partners who, despite differences of opinion, share common concerns.

Given all this, it’s unsurprising that a 2015 poll found almost half of Arab respondents voicing dissatisfaction with their MKs, or that voting rates among Arabs, unlike among Ḥaredim, are consistently and significantly lower than the national rate. What is surprising, and encouraging, is that according to one recent poll, over 75 percent of Israeli Arabs still consider Knesset representation important. But most would still not consider voting for non-Arab parties. Like many Ḥaredim, they still feel themselves to be a separate community, and want to vote for people with lived experience of their unique circumstances.

What, then,might be done to further the mainstreaming of both haredi and Arab voters? Perhaps counterintuitively, one solution might be to allow even more niche parties into the Knesset.

For a party to gain entry into the Knesset today, as Gur notes, it must win 3.25 percent of the total vote, which in the 120-seat Knesset works out to four seats. If that electoral threshold were lowered to its pre-2015 level of 2 percent (2.4 seats), or even lower, it would become easier for new Arab and ḥaredi parties favoring integration to get elected, join a government, and be in a position to deliver what their constituents want, and thereby to serve as gateways to further integration (just as Yisrael Beytenu and Jewish Home did for their voters).

As it happens, Arab and ḥaredi parties along those lines tried running both in 2015 and again this year, but the four-seat threshold has proved insurmountable.

A lower threshold might also reduce the extortionate power exercised by small parties, vividly described by Gur in his essay. In a government coalition that included several two- or three-seat parties, no single one of them would wield enough electoral clout to mount a challenge to the government’s survival. When, however, every party in a coalition holds at least four seats, it’s easier for one to topple,  or to threaten to topple, the government on its own.

But the foremost reason to reduce the threshold is that making it easier for niche parties to enter the Knesset would give more non-voters an incentive to make their concerns heard through voting. People inside the political system are more likely to feel they have a stake in the country and less likely to resort to violence. In a country as diverse and as contentious as Israel, everyone would benefit from the presence of greater numbers of such people.

Originally published in Mosaic on April 8, 2019

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In Europe, Israel needs a bottom-up approach to diplomacy

For years, I considered Europe a lost cause from Israel’s perspective and decried the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Euro-centric focus, arguing that it should instead devote more effort to places like Africa, Asia and South America, which seemed to offer better prospects for flipping countries into the pro-Israel camp. But the past few years have proven that Europe isn’t hopeless—if Israel changes its traditional modus operandi.

This has been evident, first of all, in the alliances that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has formed with several countries in eastern and southern Europe, resulting in these countries repeatedly blocking anti-Israel decisions at the European Union level. Previously, Israeli diplomacy had focused overwhelmingly on Western Europe. Netanyahu’s key insight was that conservative, nationalist governments seeking to preserve their own nation-states would have more instinctive sympathy for a Jewish state than the liberal universalists who dominate in Western Europe, and whose goal is to replace nation-states with an ever-closer European union.

But as several recent events show, even Western Europe isn’t a lost cause. The difference is that there, conventional high-level diplomacy won’t work. Rather, the key to change is the fact that most Europeans, like most people everywhere, don’t really care that much about Israel, the Palestinians or their unending conflict. Consequently, small groups of committed activists can exert a disproportionate influence on policy.

For years, this has worked against Israel because the anti-Israel crowd woke up to this fact very early and took full advantage of it. Take, for instance, the 2015 decision to boycott Israel adopted by Britain’s national student union. The union represents some 7 million students, but its executive council passed the decision by a vote of 19-12. Or consider the academic boycott of Israel approved in 2006 by Britain’s National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (which no longer exists, having merged into a larger union). The association had some 67,000 members at the time, but only 198 bothered to vote, of whom 109 voted in favor.

Yet it turns out pro-Israel activists can use the same tactics, as in last week’s approval of a resolution saying anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism by the lower house of France’s parliament. The resolution passed 154-72, meaning that fewer than 40 percent of the National Assembly’s 577 deputies bothered to vote, even though 550 deputies were present earlier in the day to vote on the social security budget. In other words, most deputies simply didn’t care about this issue, which meant that passing the resolution required convincing only about a quarter of the house.

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