Now that Israel’s “Disengagement” from the Gaza Strip and most of the northern Shomron is winding down, we have begun preparing for our next crisis: Knesset elections. By law, they must be held by November 2006, but nobody appears to believe that the current government will remain in power that long. The real question, though, isn’t when we’ll get to vote; it’s what we’ll get a chance to vote for.
In addition to all the usual uncertainties of a pre-election period in Israel, this time we don’t know what will become of Israel’s current ruling political party, the Likud. With 40 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, the Likud would normally be in a commanding position – except that the party has become so fractious and fragmented that it may not even confront the next elections as a single entity. Every day there are new interviews and articles about who’s in, who’s out, who would follow Ariel Sharon should he leave the party, who would prefer to remain in an ideologically pure Likud on the opposition benches, or who believes that this time Bibi Netanyahu really means it when he tries to sound like a charismatic version of Uzi Landau.
As someone who has yet to cast his first vote for the Likud (although I did vote for Ariel Sharon the first time he ran for Prime Minister, under the previous separate-election system) I probably don’t have any right to say what I think the Likud should do; but intellectual humility and justified reticence do not make for interesting blog posts, and I’d hate for my first one to be a yawner. Thus I shall pontificate: I believe that a split in the Likud, traumatic as it might seem to some, would actually be to the great benefit of the State of Israel.
Big Parties, Little Parties
Israeli voters don’t get to vote for individual Knesset candidates; instead, we vote for political parties, with the Knesset assembled from each party’s candidate list based on the proportion of the vote received. (Parties that receive less than 1.5% of the vote get no Knesset seats, which means that a small proportion of votes are “thrown away”.) Thus the Likud, to maintain its 40 Knesset seats, would need to receive one third of the vote this time around.
This system of proportional representation – a system I despise, by the way – has resulted in the fragmentation of the Israeli electorate, with “identity politics” playing a dominant role in the proliferation of political parties. Over the years, two basic types of political party have evolved in response to Israel’s system of proportional representation: the “big” party and the “little” party.
A “little” political party represents a distinct sector of the Israeli electorate, based on ethnicity, religious belief, or ideology. These sectorial parties do not expect to “win” elections and create governments; instead, they attempt to maximise the influence of their constituency, either by joining governing coalitions on favorable terms, or by protesting government policy from the opposition benches. “Little” parties do not, in general, attempt to appeal to the broad Israeli public; their strategy is to maintain and deepen the commitment of their core constituency, to gain strength by attracting voters from “neighboring” or overlapping constituencies, and of course to defend their constituencies from such encroachment by other parties.
Politicians belonging to a “little” party maintain and improve their position by appealing strongly to their party’s central bodies and paid-up membership, which in turn control the makeup of the party’s candidate list. It isn’t important to such politicians to appeal to the broader electorate, since the broader electorate ultimately has nothing to offer them. “Little party” politicians generally avoid challenging their own constituents’ beliefs and prejudices, since by doing so they would only invite demotion and irrelevancy; the successful “little party” politician is an enthusiastic, strident, “true blue” sectarian. And those who cast their vote for “little” parties, while they are often more heterogenous than their party’s paid-up membership and inner circles, expect that the party they’ve chosen will remain true to its platform and philosophy. After all, that’s the sole legitimate justification for a “little” party’s existence.
“Big” parties, on the other hand, are those that have a realistic chance of winning an election – subject to the proviso that “winning”, in Israeli terms, virtually always means losing the election less than any other party did, rather than winning an actual majority of the votes cast. In order to appeal to enough voters to become the largest party in the Knesset (which pretty much guarantees the ability to form a governing coalition, even if it’s not a very stable one) a “big” party must transcend the boundaries of strictly sectarian politics; no single electoral sector in Israel is large enough to grant “victory” to a strictly sectorial party.
“Big” parties need to define themselves differently than “little” parties do: for example, they must express positions – or at least generalized attitudes – on most issues of concern to the electorate, since (as potential governing parties) they need to convince the electorate of their suitability for overall control of the country. While a “little” party needs to have strong, well-defined positions on the issues of primary concern to its constituency, it doesn’t need to express any opinion on unrelated issues; for example, nobody particularly cares what the National Religious Party thinks about environmental issues. A “big” party represents an overall philosophy of governance, which is both more comprehensive and much less specific than the “little” party’s focused appeal.
Since a “big” party needs to be able to build and maintain a coalition government, it is expected to compromise, fudge, and make deals with various “little” parties – and, on occasion, with other “big” parties. Further, leaders of victorious “big” parties are notorious for finding that when they achieve real power, many of their previous declarations suddenly seem overly idealistic, too ideological, impractical, and sometimes downright incorrect: “Things look different from the Prime Minister’s office” has become the number-one cliché in Israeli politics. Those who vote for “big” parties have learned (some better than others) to expect this kind of behavior; by voting for a “big” party they have bargained away much of the specificity of their vote, in return for the privilege of choosing which party will be in ultimate control of the country. If they aren’t happy with “big”-party vagueness and compromise, they are free to vote for a sectarian party with a distinct and (nearly) immutable agenda, but with no hope of providing Israel’s next Prime Minister.
Of course, “bigness” and “littleness” aren’t immutable characteristics. After our last Knesset election, Shinui (“Change”) which had been very much a single-issue sectarian party, had grown to the extent that it may well become one of the “big” parties; and Labor, the quintessential “big” party, seems to be at risk of imploding into a “little” party – sort of a Meretz Lite.
A Big Little Party
The Likud is a strange hybrid. It was formed as a coalition of right-wing and center-right parties in 1973, after its biggest component – the Herut Party, the direct descendant of Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s Revisionists – had spent some 25 years in the opposition to the ruling Mapai/Labor Party. Only four years after its formation, the Likud won its first election and Menachem Begin became Prime Minister. In all the intervening years, the Likud has never reconciled the two principal aspects of its existence: its status as a broad rightist “big” party capable of winning elections, and its status as an ideological party in the Herut mold. Ariel Sharon, who played a major role in creating the Likud coalition in the first place, represents the former aspect of the Likud; Uzi Landau, among others, represents the surviving Herut strain in the party.
This split personality has been a problem for the Likud almost from the beginning. When Menachem Begin – who led the Herut party, and was considered a Revisionist ideologue if anyone was – signed the Camp David Accords and ultimately returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt, Herut-oriented voters and politicians felt betrayed. This pattern has been repeated each time the Likud has formed a government: Yitzhak Shamir went to Madrid, Bibi Netanyahu signed the Wye Accord ceding most of Hebron to the Palestinians, and now Ariel Sharon has gotten Israel out of the Gaza Strip. It has become clear that in order to become Chairman of the Likud, one needs to appear to be a good Herutnik; but to win an election and (assuming one has won it) to serve as an effective Prime Minister, one needs to be much more of a pragmatic centrist than Likud insiders like.
This more-or-less obligatory duplicity on the part of Likud leaders has led to bad feelings among Likud politicians and voters. More importantly, it sometimes leads to incoherence and ineffectiveness in Likud-led governments. The recent phenomenon of the “Likud Rebels” opposing Ariel Sharon’s policies from within would likely continue or even escalate should Sharon win another election as head of the Likud – meaning that even if he should win both the Likud chairmanship and the general election, he might still find himself unable to govern. From the voter’s perspective, the Likud’s split personality presents a nearly insoluble dilemma: If I want to vote for a Herut-style ideological party, Ariel Sharon as party chairman is anathema; but if I want a center-right pragmatist as Prime Minister, do I really want to vote for a party whose Knesset candidate list is full of past and future “Likud Rebels”?
This is why Israel needs the Likud to split. There are obviously many voters who will vote for a modern incarnation of Herut – a party not as extreme as the National Union, not specifically religious, but still authentically Revisionist. At the same time, Israel has no mainstream center-right party other than the Likud; a pragmatic rightist has no current choice but to vote for a party further to the Left than s/he wants, or else to vote Likud, knowing that s/he is voting for Uzi Landau and his allies at least as much as s/he is voting for Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert.
Splitting the Likud would provide Israel with two parties, at least one of which would fill a genuine need: a “little” Herut-style sectarian party (which might fade away or merge with existing right-wing parties, or might flourish) and a center-right “big” party which could provide a real alternative to Labor (or Shinui) while still remaining effectively mainstream.
And, best of all: it’s hard to see how either party would have much use for Bibi Netanyahu.