The announcement this week of a coalition between Israel’s two biggest parties has pundits scrambling to provide polar opposite pronouncements on whether this is the death or resurrection of democracy in the Jewish state.
The coalition between the centrist Kadima and the more conservative Likud party is not an ideological aberration. Not like mixing say, George Bush with Hugo Chavez. But there is some bad blood there.
Kadima was formed in 2005 from former Likud members, when even Ariel Sharon got fed up with the right wing nutters (including Netanyahu) blocking his attempts to fix borders with the Palestinain territories and eradicate some Israeli settlements.
After Sharon had his stroke, Kadima was led by Tzipi Livni, but she stepped down from the leadership earlier this year and then resigned from the Knesset altogether a few days ago.
Her replacement, Shaul Mofaz, is obviously trying for the gymnastic events at London 2012. His backflip on working with Likud shows amazing elasticity, since as recently as March he was pledging that he would never work with Netanyahu, whom he repeatedly referred to as a liar and the leader of a failed party.
But the problem for Mofaz was that Kadima was facing oblivion at a possible early election. By lashing himself to Netanyahu, Mofaz hopes to keep the party relevant and gain himself a seat at the cabinet table.
The more centrist Kadima has been popular with the voters since its founding, winning government in 2006 and holding the most Knesset seats in 2009. But there is the root of the problem. Israeli governments are always minorities and it’s just a matter of who builds the biggest coalition. Although Likud won less seats in 2009, it managed to cobble together enough other parties to form a parliamentary majority. But you’ve got to pay the piper at some point.
After every election the key to majority rests with a handful of extremist parties; the sort that represent the interests of ultra-Zionists, settlers and Orthodox Jewry. Parties with names like “Jewish Home” and “United Torah Judaism”. At this point the tail will start to wag the dog, as the Prime Minister has to fulfil the promises made to construct the coalition.
This is the impetus behind Netanyahu’s push to build more settlements and ambivalence towards any further negotiations with Palestine. By allowing the settlements he kills many Goliaths with one stone: a sop to coalition harmony, a solution to housing stress and a gradual chipping away at Palestinian territory. It’s also why he has to hand the Foreign Minister role to the likes of Avigdor Lieberman, who once called Arab members of the Knesset terrorist collaborators who should be tried and executed.
A bigger problem of these coalitions is that the Israeli legislature is unicameral - there is no upper house to amend and water down the government’s ambitions. So the backroom deals done to secure power have no checks when it comes to making them law. A low threshold for proportional representation also makes it much easier for minor parties to hold seats than it does in most other parts of the democratic world.
Commentators are split as to what this grand coalition means for Israeli democracy. The fact that the minor parties will be more sidelined in any future government could be seen as a positive angle because the whole country (and indeed region) will not be as beholden to the strident demands of a few thousand right-wing zealots. Obviously the opposite view is that minority concerns will be trampled and that Israel will move towards a more generic, two-party dictatorship.
Whichever way it goes, the clear winner is Netanyahu. His ‘cat who got the cream’ face will be grinning wide as his main rivals bow down and accept their lolly bags for coming to the party.
Unless of course the humiliation is too much to bear and Kadima splits up into a handful of minor parties…