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Israeli Politics

I take this opportunity to explain Israeli politics as I see them. Recently Israel’s police department recommended that the chief prosecutor indict PM Benjamin Netanyahu on several counts of illegalities: regularly receiving expensive cigars, champagne and other gifts from businessmen in return for favors; and, separately, for trying to improperly influence newspaper reporting on his government. The nation is waiting to see whether Netanyahu will be indicted and if so whether he will be convicted. This may take a while.

Perspective # 1: Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, was forced from office in 2009 after police launched an investigation into allegations of corruption, and he later served 16 months in prison after being convicted of bribery and obstruction of justice.

Perspective # 2 -- two Bobs: In the US, within the last few years, two high ranking officials were recently prosecuted for bribery. Former Gov Bob McDonnell (R-VA) was convicted; Sen Robert Menendez’s (D-NJ) trial ended in a hung jury and prosecutors declined to re-try the case. The Supreme Court overturned McDonnell’s conviction, reasoning that prosecutors need to legally prove a quid-pro-quo, i.e., that a specific act was done for a specific benefit. Some felt that the same thinking influenced the jury in Menendez’s trial and the prosecutors who declined to retry him. In PM Netanyahu’s case, there is a recommendation for prosecution, but we do not know where this will ultimately go.

* * *

Like American politics, most voters in Israel have a generational history with their political party and tend to support that party, whether out of self-interest, out of loyalty, or out of thoughtful reflection as to what is best for the country, and any combination thereof.

In addition, the personality of the party leader influences a crucial segment of the voters: The charismatic personality attracts, while the dull or untrustworthy personality repels. And of course where corruption is an issue, even more so. Israel, like the US, has had all of that. Supporters emphasize the politician's best qualities; opponents, his/her worst.

And like American politics, in Israel certain issues dominate: defense and security, economics, and social and religious issues. My point here is that democratic politics has many common elements, regardless of the society.

Therefore, unless there is some great reason to change, voting patterns tend to continue as they have. In the US, about 40% of voters are liberal, about 40% are conservative (each with its roughly 10% extreme wing), and the vote of the middle 20%, along with turnout, determines national elections. This is why when candidates win more than 55%, it is generally considered a landslide. They have won approximately ¾ of the vote of those who are not locked in ideologically. (This does not mean that political ideology is bad.)

Similarly, in Israel, one should not expect dramatic voting changes, unless some dramatic event sparks it -- a war, a significant economic downturn, a corruption issue, a significant social issue.

* * *

There are nevertheless a few major differences between Israeli and American politics: Israel, like Europe and nearly all the world’s democracies, has a parliamentary system. It’s governmental leader is not the President, who primarily represents the people and the conscience of the nation, but a Prime Minister, chosen by its legislature, for which the public votes. Usually, whichever party gets the most seats -- Israel has a 120-member Knesset -- has the opportunity to form a government. (This is another difference: Israel, unlike most of the world’s democracies, has only one legislative body.)

And, unlike the Executive branch of the US government, which is authorized to govern for four years, the 5-year term of Israel’s government can fall early with new elections, if and when the Knesset members vote “no confidence.” On the other hand, if the government feels it is doing well, it can ask the Knesset to call for early elections, before its 5-year term is up. This means that when a government is doing well, it can strengthen its majority and extend its term. These issues are part of public discussions in Israeli newspapers as I write.

The second major difference is that while the US has two major parties, and a few very small minor parties with no direct power, Israel has many smaller parties, and if they meet a threshold, they gain seats in the Knesset, and it sometimes can have a major influence, even with one seat, on the next government and its Prime Minister. No Israeli party has ever won a majority of seats. The most was 56 in 1969.

* * *

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a party (Likud, Menachem Begin’s party), which gained a plurality of seats in the Knesset -- with only 30 (of 120). With the most seats, he was invited by the President to try to form a government; he needed to gain another 31 votes for a majority. This is called a “coalition,” meaning he had to attract smaller parties that more or less share his goals, but that do not totally agree with his party or with each other. Therefore, political compromises are necessary.

Likud’s strong security stance attracted some parties, but some of those “hawkish” parties are religious and some are secular -- and they, on these issues, do not agree much with each other. So compromises are necessary. One battle within the coalition right now is that the religious parties want to prevent drafting religious Jew who choose to not serve; another party is opposed vehemently. If they can’t agree, the government could fall and new elections will take place.

Another way to gain coalition partners and votes is to offer more money for the programs they want. For example, the religious parties always want more money for religious education, including yeshivot. Another way to gain coalition partners is to offer their leaders positions in the cabinet -- defense, education, finance, etc.

Likud has also gained voter support for its economic policies. Israel’s early years were unquestionably socialist. Labor unions represented workers and they favored social welfare programs (Israel has national health insurance). Workers’ jobs were strongly protected; it was almost impossible to fire anyone, which meant unproductive workers were safe. And the government (the “public sector”) employed a much higher percentage of workers than we do in the US. And Israeli national income tax is higher than in the US, and there is a national sales tax, steep luxury taxes (cars, electronics, gas), and local “property” taxes as well. All this may have been necessary in the early decades.

Yet, businesses felt constrained. Over time, advocates to liberalize business opportunity and reduce government employment became more persuasive. The economic boon, including business start-ups, and highway and building construction, is likely due in part to new economic attitudes and policies, and in turn this strengthens Likud politically. In fact, it was Netanyahu who is largely credited with changing the Israeli economic direction in the late 1990’s as Finance Minister.

Likud is therefore not only more hawkish on defense issues, it is also pro-business. It believes that this orientation produces a stronger economy and better social life. However, its natural opposition, economically, are labor unions and those advocating for more funding for social programs. This is a familiar political battle in the US.

The “opposition,” a coalition of parties who do not join the government, are generally more optimistic about peace negotiations with the Palestinians, would concede more to them, are more secular (some are openly hostile to religion), and tend to be more for funding social welfare programs, even at the cost of higher taxes.

Finally, Arab parties, which also want more funding, are generally, as you can imagine, even far more supportive of concessions to the Palestinians. They currently have 13 Knesset seats. They are always in the opposition (perhaps there has been a rare occasion when some Arab representatives joined the Labor government, but I do not know of it).

Therefore, for a Labor government (led initially by David ben-Gurion) to prevail, it would have to not only increase its own share of votes, but attract either nationalistic secular parties, which would mean being less conciliatory with the Palestinians, or attract religious parties with more funding than would Likud. But to do either, those offers would be passionately criticized by their own voters as “selling out” their foreign policy and secular principles. This accounts for why the Likud has dominated Israel’s politics since 1977 (aside from about 10 years) when Menachem Begin was first elected, after being in the opposition for 29 straight years from Israel’s 1948 founding. This reflects the stable macro-political landscape on one hand, and on the other, the generational changes largely due to security and economic changes.

* * *

This brings us to now. Israel’s current government was elected in March 2015 and was formed in May 2015, with a coalition of 61 seats. Due to delicate negotiations, tiny coalition majorities are the norm. A political survey in the Israeli newspapers (February 2, 2018) had PM Netanyahu’s coalition increasing to 69 seats, and recent polls show a right-center coalition winning comfortably. If it holds in the next elections, that does not mean that a new government would get all 69 votes. With a stronger majority, it is possible that some parties might be cut out to prevent giving away too much, or that they would be included to avoid injecting further rancor. It depends on the negotiations, and we have a while to go yet, so polls are only good for their moment -- and as we see with PM Netanyahu’s ethics issues hanging over his head, yet with Iran and Hezbollah’s menacing -- anything can happen.

Finally, “Bibi” Netanyahu is a towering and historic Israeli politician. He has served three terms and is openly seeking a fourth, rivaling Ben Gurion in personal political dominance and in length of service. A significant majority of Jewish voters in Israel support the rightish-conservative views of his government on security and economic issues. Likud’s vulnerability is the corruption charges against Netanyahu. Because Netanyahu is so large, should he be unable to extricate himself, no one is seen to have his strengths as a successor; voters might not only express disapproval with Likud due to Netanyahu’s corruption, but with no clear successor, Israeli democracy would experience a few shock waves. (Below: Netanyhahu and his wife, dressed as haredim on Purim.)

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