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What Israel’s Do-Over Election Reveals About Its Electoral System

Arudhra Ravindran writes, post elections, Netanyahu finds himself flustered after failing to bring together a coalition to form the government prior to the deadline, triggering a snap election scheduled for later this year.

On April 10 2019, Benjamin Netanyahu prematurely celebrated edging out his rival Benny Gantz to win a record fifth term as Israel’s Prime Minister. Netanyahu now finds himself flustered after failing to bring together a coalition to form the government prior to the deadline, triggering a snap election scheduled for later this year.

The cause of the impasse among his slated coalition partners was the issue of the special status of Ultra-Orthodox Jews, the only segment of Israeli society that is exempt from military service. The secular nationalist Avigdor Lieberman wanted to pass legislation mandating their conscription, which was a deal-breaker for the religious nationalists whose support Netanyahu needed to clinch his coalition. Such fractiousness within coalitions is very commonplace in Israel. This illustrates the sheer diversity of Israeli society which has Jews of various origins and varying visions of the raison d’être of the state of Israel. Israel follows the electoral system of proportional representation which ensures that this viewpoint diversity is reflected in parliament. This has a tendency to generate perverse incentives in relation to an endemic problem of Israeli politics: populism.

The perennial conflict with the Palestinians and the existential threat it is imagined to pose provides an ideal platform for populist politicians, who mobilize their base by exploiting the emotionally-charged nature of the issue. Populists claim that they alone represent the true will of the people, and once in power, attack democratic institutions that they deem to stand in the way of the will of the majority. This has especially been the case under Netanyahu’s right-wing administration which has grown increasingly illiberal, earning frequent comparisons to authoritarian populists like Erdogan in Turkey and Victor Orban in Hungary.

Some scholars believe that Israel’s coalition system and the lack of an outright majority it provides is a crucial check on populism (1). They argue that reliance on the support of coalition partners who have strongly independent agendas makes it difficult for any one individual to hold the amount of power that Orban in Hungary or Erdogan in Turkey have been able to amass. However, even though the coalition system might provide deterrence against one-man rule it poses other threats to the health of Israeli democracy, especially under right-wing administrations. Israel’s proportional representation system with its relatively low threshold for entering parliament makes it easy for extremist groups on the fringes to wield influence. Under proportional representation, seats are allotted to each party in proportion to their share of the overall vote, whereas a winner-take-all system would make it considerably more difficult for minority parties to enter the legislature.

Netanyahu’s coalition partners do not have a mitigating influence on him and are far more radical than he is. In the lead up to the election, Netanyahu brokered the merger of two extremist minority parties to boost his coalitional majority, one of whom is a US State Department designated terrorist organization. Another reason Netanyahu is currently engaged in logrolling with extremist parties is the fact that they have agreed to assist in passing a bill that would grant Netanyahu, who is currently facing federal indictment charges, immunity from prosecution. In exchange, Netanyahu has agreed to policy demands of theirs such as annexing Israeli settlements on the West Bank, which most of the international community considers to be illegal.

All in all, Israel’s lurch towards authoritarian populism damages its vaunted USP as the “only liberal democracy in the Middle East” and risks inviting an increase in anti-semitic sentiment.

 

(1) https://www.timesofisrael.com/israels-coalition-system-is-crucial-check-on-netanyahus-populism-expert-says/

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