By: Alex Friedman  | 

The Transformation of a Young Democracy: How Israel’s Political Landscape Changes as a New Generation of Leaders Steps In

Israeli politics has reached a standstill after a second election in six months yielded no clear result. Israel has now come to the difficult point that all young democracies inevitably reach, where their newly constructed political system is put to the test. Israel is still a very young country on the world stage — a mere 71 years old — and the process of developing as a young democracy includes the uncertainty we are seeing right now. America faced many of these early tests, including the presidential election of 1824 between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. With neither candidate receiving a majority of the votes, the election went to the U.S. House of Representatives where a “corrupt bargain” took place between Adams and the House Speaker. It almost caused a break in the new country's delicate democracy, but America survived, and so will Israel. 

The race for 61 seats in the Knesset has never been simple. No party has ever received an outright majority, and the process of cobbling together a coalition has occurred in every election, whether easily or with great difficulty. There have been all types of parties in coalition governments over the years and all types of governments including a national unity one. Even Prime Ministers Shimon Peres and Yitzchak Shamir, two famously staunch opponents, put aside their differences to create a national unity government and rotation agreement for the Prime Minister position. This occurred after the 1984 Israeli election, when the results produced a stalemate and neither Shamir or Peres were able to cobble together a coalition. The deadlock we are now seeing has echoes of the 1984 election, but what is different today? Shamir and Peres worked out an agreement, so why can't Israeli leaders today put aside their differences like they always have before? And if they cannot, is there a need to change the Israeli political system as we know it?

There are two main reasons why this election is not like those before: first, the open willingness to bring Israel to a second or third election and secondly, the generational change of the leaders in Israel. Like never before, Israeli leaders have become open, and in some cases even encouraging, of holding further snap elections if a coalition cannot be reached. Elections are very expensive. According to an article by former Knesset member Dov Lipman in the Jewish News Syndicate, the election in October was estimated to cost Israel 220 million dollars directly, while also taking a 410 million dollar hit to the economy due to loss of work, because election day is a national holiday in Israel. As the old saying goes, “democracy isn’t cheap”, both figuratively and literally. That’s why Israeli leaders have been so wary of snap elections in the past, and have forced compromise instead.

Earlier this year, however, former Netanyahu ally-turned-opponent Avigdor Lieberman defied all Israeli political convention and pushed through a second election — a move which voters seemed to approve, as they gave him a major Knesset seat boost in the September election. For the first time, Israelis seemed to care more about the political outcome than about financial responsibility. Why the change? Why are Israelis willing to cough up a hundred million dollars for a different result? The answer to that lies with the uniquely conflicted public opinion of the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. While holding a strong base of support with the country’s right wing, he has become despised by those in the center and the left, who desire change. It’s not like Israeli Prime Ministers have never been hated before — many have been loathed by part of the country — but this time is different.

For the first time in the country’s history, Israel has moved past the respected figures that made up the country’s founding fathers. David Ben-Gurion, Menachem Begin, Shimon Peres, Yitzchak Shamir and Yitzchak Rabin, are all gone, leaving an unanswered political future. To return to the American example, the American political crisis of the 1824 election occurred after the presidency of the last founding father, James Monroe, and the election became about who will take over the legacy of the founders. The race was between John Quincy Adams, who represented the legacy of the founding fathers, and Andrew Jackson, a popular outsider general who was attempting to break the two-decade rule of Democratic-Republican control. Sound familiar? 

I refer, of course, to Benny Gantz, who is trying to break into the Israeli political fray at its highest level and topple the legacy of Menachem Begin and Yitzchak Shamir as embodied by Netanyahu. In Israeli politics, unlike in the American system, political power shifts very rarely. If you look at all of Israel’s history, there has only been one election of great turnaround: the election of 1977, the first time Labor lost control to Likud, breaking 29 years of Labor dominance. Since then, the right wing of Israel has controlled the premiership in all but eight of the past 42 years. Israel is not a country of sudden mood shifts, and the political results over the past 70 years have been for the most part predictable. Suddenly, with the loss of the last of the founding fathers, the straight political road has become twisted and Israel’s political future has become uncertain. 

For 70 plus years, the coalition system has worked well for Israel, allowing the many different groups that make up the country to come together under the broad tent of a coalition government. People from both ends of the aisle are forced to compromise to form a government, and the multitude of parties ensures that voters get to choose the party that closely aligns with their views, and not just one of two broad parties, as is the system in other countries like the United States. Additionally, when governments rise to power, they can produce the sweeping changes they promised their voters, and not get held up by legislative mechanisms like the veto or set election dates every two years. The system works, and changes to it have and will fail.

Israel already attempted to change their election process in the 1990s and 2000s when they enacted the direct election of Prime Ministers. However, the idea was abandoned after only three elections because split-ticket voting between the Knesset and the Premiership saw the weakening of the two dominant parties and the rise of small parties, resulting in gridlock and a weak government. As shown by this example, we should not be looking to completely change Israel’s political system just to ensure that a deadlock like the one occurring now does not happen again. Rather, we must work to improve on the political system already in place.

I am no expert in Israeli election law, and many different proposals have been brought forward to reform the system and solve the deadlock, such as sharing the powers of the Prime Minister or creating a minority government supported by a majority of Knesset members by including the Arab parties. However, either way, the notion that the Israeli political system is broken is dangerous for democracy and the country’s future. Israel will get through this hurdle just like America — along with every developing democracy in the world — has overcome its political shortcomings. Ultimately, Israel’s political system will succeed only when the Israeli public wakes up and realizes that the days of historic revolutionary leaders are over, and that deadlock and mass polarization among this second generation of leaders is natural — and necessary — in order for democracy to flourish. 

Photo Caption:  "For the first time, Israelis seemed to care more about the political outcome than about financial responsibility."
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons