Monday, November 11, 2002
Meanwhile, in other news from Israel, the NRP and National Union-Ihud Leumi are talking again about a unified bloc. Some polling indicates that such an alignment could take 17 Knesset seats.
Just to give you an idea of how dysfunctional Israeli politics is, this faction could be the second-largest in the Knesset. And the result could be that Sharon will be unable to form a government after winning the next election.
Allow me to explain. Israel has a system of proportional representation, and the percentage of the vote necessary to win seats is negligible - 1%, I think. (By contrast, the minimum in Germany is 5% and in Turkey is, I think, 10%.) The result of this system is that no party ever wins an outright majority in the Knesset, but has to form a coalition with smaller parties. Moreover, in the past few election cycles, because of the direct election of Prime Minister, Israelis have tended to split their ballots between Prime Minister and Knesset, and this has increased the strength of the small parties. While direct election of the Prime Minister has been repealed, it's not clear that the small parties will fall back so easily to their former level of strength.
Likud is expected to win the next elections decisively. Whether they run in an alignment with several other parties or run alone, it is easy to identify the most logical partners for Likud: Gesher, the Sephardi party headed by David Levy; and Yisrael B'Aliyah, the immigrant party headed by Natan Sharansky. I assume that this collection of parties will, between them, take between 35 and 40 Knesset seats. The size of the margin depends largely on how well Shas does; the core of Shas voters are ultra-Orthodox Sephardi Jews, but they also draw many votes from other Sephardim who are not so strictly religious, and these voters could vote for Likud in the next election instead.
After Likud and its most-logical partners, four parties will be competing for the honor of second-largest party: Labor, Shas, Meretz and Shinui. Labor will not get more than 20 seats, and could easily get as few as 15. How many they get depends on many factors. Key are: (1) how good a campaigner Mitzna is if he wins the primary, and how well he keeps the peacenik vote away from Meretz; (2) conversely, how effective Ben Eliezer is if he wins, and how well he is able to keep the peacenik vote away from Meretz; and (3) whether Tommy Lapid takes the extraordinary opportunity afforded him in this election to leverage his modest party into the major leagues, and bid to depose Labor as the default choice of the secular middle class. So Labor gets 15 to 20 seats. Shas will not get more than 15 seats. They have 17 currently, but that was a high-water mark caused by the Deri trial. Whether they fall as low as 10 or hold as high as 15 depends on many factors, including most prominently whether Netanyahu connives with them to weaken Likud if he loses the primary to Sharon. (Don't put it past him. Don't put anything past him.) So Shas gets between 10 and 15 seats. Meretz will not become the second-largest party in this election, and will probably stay at their current 10 seats or even potentially lose a couple (though I doubt it; their voters are true believers, and will stay true). But it is in the game for the long-haul, to displace Labor as the left-wing choice. In a couple of more cycles, it could win that fight, depending largely on how successful Shinui is at mauling Labor on another front.
So the most interesting of the four is Shinui. I really do think Shinui has the opportunity in this election to become a major party and a perfectly legitimate partner for governing - and put itself on the road, possibly, to making a bid to govern in its own right. Shinui has the basis for becoming Israel's Liberal party. They are center-right on security matters, largely free-market oriented in economic matters, and stridently secularist. Their reason for being is to promote the interests of secular Israelis against the religious parties, specifically and especially Shas. But In this election they have the chance to parlay that narrow - but growing - niche into something bigger. If they can entice Meimad into running on a unified slate, Shinui will change its image forever with the voters. Meimad is an Orthodox party founded to promote a change in the religious status-quo in favor of greater religious freedom and to provide an Orthodox alternative to the increasingly hawkish National Religious Party. In the last election they ran with Labor; they are not expected to do so again. It's a gamble; Meimadniks are not ultra-Orthodox, and Shinui has no beef with them or their platform, but they are a religious party and they would object to some of the more strident anti-religious rhetoric which has been a staple of Shinui advertising. And if they moderated their message, they would risk losing their base. But we're talking about a calculated gamble. Moreover, if they brought on Meimad they would probably entice a number of Center Party types into joining up with them rather than Labor - particularly Dan Meridor, formerly of Likud and a kind of Mo Udall of Israeli politics. He'd bring some cachet in any case. Bottom line: without doing anything to broaden the party's message, Shinui will take 10 seats in the next election. If they take some gambles, and the gambles pay off, I think their margin could potentially go as high as 15, more likely 12.
So after the election, Likud will be sitting there with 35 to 40 seats, and wondering who to form a coalition with to establish a government. Sharon has made clear his preference for Labor. If Mitzna wins the primary, he will refuse. Who, then, will he turn to? One option is Shas. That rules out bringing Shinui into the coalition. Another option is Shinui; that rules out Shas, and would be very upsetting to Likud's base if Shinui ran a strident campaign; if Meimad ran with Shinui, it would be a much more plausible combination. But either coalition leaves Sharon short of the 60 seats necessary to form a government.
That leaves the far right. So long as the far right was divided between the NRP and National Union-Yisrael Beiteinu, Sharon could play them off one against the other. Neither Shinui nor Shas would object to a coalition with either party. But if the far-right unites into a single bloc, it could potentially be the second-largest party in the Knesset after Likud. Labor would never, under any leader, sit in a government where it was effectively equal to a far-right bloc. And such a party would be in a real position to dictate terms to Sharon. Sharon remembers what the far right did to Netanyahu, and he's aware that they are insufficiently sensitive - to say the least - to the importance of maintaining and strengthening the alliance with America. (To give you an idea of their insensitivity: at one point in the Clinton administration, there was talk on the Israeli right of dumping America and turning to Russia for patronage instead. Seriously.) He will give them representation in his government, but he will never want to form a government that is beholden to them.
If the far-right unites, though, and is as successful as is the polls indicate, Sharon could well wind up in a position where any government he forms is unacceptable. He can either be beholden to the far right that damages the alliance with America or make a coalition with Labor and Shinui that angers his base and leaves him effectively beholding to his natural opposition. By contrast, if the far right remains split between the NRP and National Union-Yisrael Beiteinu, Sharon can form either a coalition of Likud-Shas-UTJ-NRP, a religious-oriented coalition, or a coalition of Likud-Shinui-Labor-NRP, a true government of national unity. Simply having two alternatives would put Sharon in a much stronger position as leader.
Israel badly needs to reform its system of proportional representation. If it can't get rid of it altogether, at least it could adopt a minimum threshold for representation higher than 1%. But even such a reform would not break the deadlock outlined above; all the parties described are projected to win enough votes for significant representation.
As an aside: if the far-right does unite, and Sharon does not bring them into the government, Effie Eitam will be the leader of the opposition. Do you think that will wake up all the fools out there who think Sharon represents the far-right?