Fanatics, Zealots, Warmongers, and Peaceniks: Israel’s Crowded Electoral Landscape

Haneen Zoabi

Haneen Zoabi

Due perhaps to my Jewish identity and my family’s history, Israel tends to be the country whose politics I follow most closely apart from Canada’s and the United States’. Nevertheless, there is a giant gulf separating numbers one and two from number three. My understanding of Israeli parties, personalities, and issues is far from perfect, and when I observe the campaign leading up to the January 22 elections to Israel’s Knesset, I do so as an outsider.

There is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, something that I feel very passionately about, as I strongly believe in Palestinian national aspirations, equal rights for Israel’s Arab citizens, and a just peace to the decades of bloodshed. But there are other issues too, issues regarding which I have less information: the 2011 social justice protests against high housing costs that have bestowed renewed importance upon socioeconomic matters in Israel, the perpetual debate over the role of religion in society and the relationship between the ultra-Orthodox and other Israelis.

Notwithstanding these few gaps in my knowledge, regular readers of this blog will be aware that I am compulsively prone to the projectile expression of opinions. They will also know that I display unnatural excitement towards elections of all kinds. So despite my acknowledged dearth of expertise, I would like to say a few things about Israel’s many political parties and to discuss my preferences — my endorsements, if I may put it that way — for the benefit of any Israeli readers who happen to be curious. Therefore, I hereby offer a non-exhaustive list of parties, divided into categories, presented in order from those I like most to those I like least.

(Any readers looking for more information on Israel’s political landscape can find some here and here.)

Arab parties

If I had the right to vote in Israel’s election this month, I would most likely choose Hadash, Israel’s communist party. While predominantly Arab, Hadash boasts a significant minority of Jewish members and supporters, thereby lending itself a certain binational street cred. And while I am not personally a communist, I recognize that Hadash tends to take exceptionally progressive and enlightened positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The party has also become known for its strong stances on the environment.

Balad, another secular left-wing Arab party, would be my second choice. Though Balad is more explicitly nationalistic, while Hadash officially expounds Marxist internationalism, both parties demand an end to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory and equality for Israeli Arabs. Furthermore, the Israeli political establishment’s endless efforts to persecute Balad and its Knesset members — such as the inspiring Haneen Zoabi — if anything, makes the party even more deserving of support.

Unfortunately, neither Hadash nor Balad does particularly well in elections.

Zionist left parties

Within the Zionist mainstream, the choices are not all bad. Meretz, a small social democratic party with some experience in coalition governments, is the traditional choice of left-wing Jewish peaceniks.

Considerably closer to the centre is Labor, one of Israel’s two major historic political forces. Labor has tended to be ever-so-slightly more open to peace and compromise than its opponents on the right. Currently, it is focusing primarily on socioeconomic issues in the wake of the recent social justice protests, but voters looking for truly courageous leadership on the Israeli-Palestinian file are advised to skip over the Labor doves who appear to come by their dovishness with such reluctance.

Centrist parties

A new arrival in the increasingly crowded centre, Hatnuah was formed by former foreign minister Tzipi Livni and benefited from several defections from across the centre and left, including two high-profile former Labor party leaders. It presents as the main plank of its agenda the pursuit of a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Meanwhile, Kadima, creation of hawkish former prime minister Ariel Sharon and Livni’s one-time home, appears to be just about on its way out of the Israeli political scene. If I had to choose between the two, I would say the right one is headed into oblivion.

Right-wing parties

In the graveyard of unrepentant racists and warmongers on the Israeli right, the most moderate option is incumbent prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, a party that supports free market economic policies, can’t quite make up its mind on the two-state solution, and has never met a war it didn’t like. Partnering up in a joint list with Yisrael Beiteinu, led by downright fascistic ethnic cleansing advocate Avigdor Lieberman, Likud is almost guaranteed to win a plurality of seats in the coming elections.

Farther down the right side of the spectrum are a variety of small ultra-nationalist and fanatical religious parties (Habayit Hayehudi, Shas, United Torah Judaism). With an expected Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu victory, at least some of these parties are guaranteed spots in the governing coalition.

Which means things will probably get a whole lot worse before they get better.

Rick Salutin on Democracy, Parties, and Electoral Reform

Rick Salutin

“Democracy,” as Winston Churchill famously stated, “is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Less famously, he also remarked that “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” (Please note: this second quote, it turns out, is misattributed. 4 January 2019)

Notwithstanding this somewhat anemic endorsement, those who live under democracy tend to quite like it. We often devote ourselves to attempts at strengthening the people’s rule. A recent effort in this vein comes courtesy of columnist Rick Salutin and his series on democratic renewal for the Toronto Star.

Salutin, in the second instalment of his series, places much of the blame for what ails Canadian democracy on political parties. According to him, parties “don’t exist to represent the views of the public, or even sections of it, or even their own members. Maybe they once did, or maybe not. But now they exist to win elections.” He describes historical bids to loosen their grip on power and notes the almost universal failure of such efforts “as if the system we have generates antibodies to invasive, democratizing forces and rejects them while bulking up the undemocratic elements.” His piece strongly implies that we should do away with parties altogether and allow MPs to represent their constituents without mediation, while lamenting that this is unlikely to ever happen.

My own position is somewhere between Salutin’s and the status quo. I am glad there are parties for two reasons. First, they serve as a kind of shorthand for voters. It is not reasonable to expect all people to conduct detailed research into the policy planks of each of their local candidates (even if perhaps they should be paying at least a little more attention than they currently do). Party affiliation allows voters to make reasonable assumptions about candidates’ values. Second, and more importantly, an MP’s membership in a party is a sign that he or she is capable of working with others and being held accountable. These are important virtues for anyone who seeks to govern.

However, it is hard to deny that in our current system, parties have far more power than they need. But rather than eliminating them, the solution lies simply in allowing more free votes in Parliament. I would not go so far as to say that no Parliamentary votes should ever be whipped, but why not make such a practice the exception rather than the rule? An increased number of free votes, in addition to allowing MPs to more directly represent the views of their constituents, would enable the House of Commons to more effectively fulfill its deliberative function. Debates might become opportunities for persuasion and give-and-take, rather than merely parroting the party line.

More surprising than Salutin’s critique of Canada’s rigid party system is his somewhat cooled attitude towards proportional representation (PR). While he confesses that he sits “on the advisory board of a group that advocates PR” and says that he would “still vote for PR, but in a sour frame of mind,” he appears no longer to be one of the “true believers” primarily for two reasons.

First, mere electoral reform does not go far enough. In his words, “I find it a little embarrassing that our main contribution to the global movement toward democratic renewal is an earnest effort to do so little.” Put another way, “Maybe the problem isn’t how parties are represented; maybe it’s parties . . . .” His second issue with PR is that it may actually exacerbate the problem. Parties, he says, “would wax even stronger under PR than they do now.”

While I can sympathize with Salutin’s first objection, I am not sure that I agree with his second. The tyrannical nature of parties is more a matter of political culture than institutional arrangement. But even disregarding this fact, there is no reason to believe that parties would hold more power over MPs under forms of PR that require voters to select individual candidates, like mixed-member proportional (MMP) and the single transferable vote (STV). In fact, it is possible that parties might become slightly weaker under STV or even open-list PR, as such systems require candidates of the same party to compete against one another for votes.

All this being said, Salutin’s article is a fascinating one and I encourage people to read it. If it begins a conversation that ends with a moderation of Canada’s antiquated system of party discipline, then I will find it hard to fault him for our minor areas of disagreement. I eagerly await all subsequent instalments in his series on democracy.