Stabilizing Israel’s Coalition Government

How should Israel deal with the problem of building a coalition government?

For anyone who thinks this is boring, I’ll admit it kind of is. I mean, unless you are obsessed with politics like me. Then it’s endlessly interesting.

It also costs Israel about 2 BILLION SHEKELS to run an election, so it’s kind of important not to have so many of them (or to make them cheaper, if that is even possible).

The goal here then is to have fewer elections. Now, we can take the Egyptian approach to do that. As in, we can have an election, then let the military overturn it and then running a cheaper redo of the election where they don’t actually count the votes and declare the winner that they want.

That saves a bunch of cash.

I doubt we would be so inclined, so two options available to us are 1) creating more stable coalitions that don’t collapse so easily and/or 2) extending the term of the government to something longer than four years.

I say “and/or” because the 2nd idea – which I am suggesting on my own with no other prompting – really depends on the first one. Israel has never held an election on time, ever. Thus, to talk about extending terms from four years to maybe for example five, you have to give the government a chance to actually survive that.

There is also the possibility of relying more on “minority governments.” I am not going into that. For now, I am going to focus on majority governments.

There are a few ways to do it. People suggest legislation, but that is kind of ridiculous. You cannot force a party that wants to quit a coalition to support it. The idea with a coalition is that the government has a specific agenda – a plan. Without one, the parliamentary opposition could thwart everything and just force elections anyway.

It does not work this way in the US where it is easier for an individual Republican or Democrat to vote against his or her own party if 1) he or she feels so inclined or 2) because the interests of his or her district or state clearly go against the agenda of the party.

Regionalizing the Knesset, electing members from 120 districts, might be exhausting. It is also a complete change for Israel that would be a massive debate anyway.

Another idea depends on always giving the largest party in the Knesset the first chance to form the government, making the head of the largest party the Prime Minister. But if that party represents an entire bloc (like in the case of today’s Labor party where Meretz is really the only other definite member of the leftist bloc), it is kind of a ridiculous idea. That is why even if Netanyahu loses by as many as five seats, they might a wider coalition anyway (but it gets to a certain point where it would be kind of absurd to let 2nd place form the government because they represent a larger “bloc”).

Different countries have different ways of dealing with the issue.

Greece awards the party with the most votes an extra 50 bonus seats in parliament. Why? Well, if they were forced to rely on too many coalition partners, the government could collapse. Often enough, this keeps the government from even needing to go into a coalition (and even in the recent Greek election when the winning party still did not have a majority, they only needed one coalition partner, so it is much less complicated).

As tempting as this is, it might be a tough sell to add even 20 seats to the winning party’s list. 140 Knesset members might be irritating for the public, whose ~$120,000/yr salaries are extremely irritating socially and be a strain on the parliamentary budget.

Just Keep Raising the Israeli Electoral Threshold

Another approach that is already in progress is raising the electoral threshold. Two years ago, a party with just 2% of the vote qualified for the Knesset. Now, you need 3.25%.

Other countries go much higher, and that would probably go a long way in stabilizing things. This time around, it forces four Arab parties to unify on a common agenda to reach the Knesset. Those four parties have very different agendas though, so the possibility this might continue to happen is weak.

But from the perspective of non-ethnic alliances, this probably will work. The far-left Meretz would be absorbed by the Labor party, just like Labor sucked in Ha’Tnuah to become the joint list Zionist Union.

Likud tried this with Yisrael Beytenu in the last election, but it had horrid results. Either because many people thought Netanyahu’s win was guaranteed and they were free to choose another party as their vote, or because Avigdor Lieberman scared off Likud supporters, the combined list only won 31 seats. The two parties had won 27 and 15 separately for a total of 42 in 2009.

But if the electoral threshold were raised again, they might not sink as low as 31. Those smaller parties that absorbed those votes would also be forced into unification deals.

Personally, since Israel has already started on this path and both Israeli politicians and Israeli citizens are adjusting to it, Israel’s Knesset would have the least amount of trouble pushing this plan through and creating a situation where it was known well in advance what options are available to political parties for coalition formation because they will see fewer scenarios.

Turning Blocs and Factions into Unified Parties

It is all but guaranteed that Shas and United Torah Judaism, the respective Sephardic and Ashkenasi Ultra-Orthodox parties in the Knesset, would unify. They could still retain their identities as smaller parties, but it is far less likely either would ever choose to run on its own again. According to current polls, this combo would get about 16 seats in the 2015 Knesset.

On the left, it is probably a foregone conclusion that Meretz would reach a deal with Labor and Ha’Tnuah (assuming Ha’Tnuah is still alive next time around). This combination is headed for possibly 30 seats this year.

The Jewish Home faction is already a unified alliance with Tekumah and National Unity. That is likely to continue for the foreseeable future since National Union’s members opposed their party head Uri Ariel’s attempt to split off and join the even further right-wing Otzmah party.

 

Likud (which is itself a term in Hebrew for ‘consolidation’) has absorbed smaller center-right or right-wing parties for decades. Those parties do not exist independently anymore and are at most simply caucuses within the larger Likud party. This could happen again depending on what Moshe Kahlon decides to do with his party Kulanu, either veering to the right toward Likud or veering center toward Yesh Atid.

Yesh Atid and Kulanu are the wildcards. While it is a myth according to at least some experts that the left-right dichotomy is really strong, it tends to rip centrist parties like these two apart.

Centrist Votes are Consistent

Party supporters celebrate the unprecedented success of the centrist Yesh Atid party. (CC BY SA 2.0 by The Israel Project via Wikimedia Commons)

Party supporters celebrate the unprecedented success of the centrist Yesh Atid party. (CC BY SA 2.0 by The Israel Project via Wikimedia Commons)

Shinui was arguably a centrist party led by Yair Lapid’s father Yosef, but eroded by the time the 2006 election came around. Kadima likely absorbed some of its centrist votes, but then collapsed within three election cycles after losing its popular and strong leader Ariel Sharon to a corrupt replacement in Ehud Olmert. In 2006, Kadima won 29 seats. In 2009, it won 28 but had veered to the left and could not form a coalition, letting Netanyahu becoming Prime Minister. In 2013, after Tzipi Livni lost the leadership race to Shaul Mofaz, she stubbornly split the party and formed Ha’Tnuah which won 6 seats while Mofaz only won 2.

But while Livni and Mofaz pulled Kadima apart and won 8 seats between them, Yesh Atid won 19 seats in its debut. Taken altogether, Yesh Atid, Ha’Tnuah and Kadima won 27 seats.

That is extremely consistent performance for the Israeli center, where many undecided votes tend to fall.  As 2015′s election polls show less and less people saying they’re undecided, we see that Yesh Atid’s numbers are rising.

In all likelihood, this is going to happen again. Ha’Tnuah is mainly a one-issue party at this point, emphasizing the left-wing viewpoint on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But Kulanu might absorb the 2013 right-leaning Yesh Atid voters while Yesh Atid absorbs the more left-center Ha’Tnuah voters from 2013.

Yesh Atid, though perceived more to the left than in 2013, is still solidly in the center for many people. Kulanu though may also absorb some of the undecided voters on Election Day. If Kulanu reached 12, that would actually allow Akram Hasson to enter the Knesset, who as the new head of the Kadima party made the decision to absorb his faction into Kulanu.

Assuming that Yesh Atid gets 19 again as windfall from undecided voters, and Kulanu rises to that 12, the center would have a combined 31 seats. That might be a signal to Lapid and Kahlon to come to some arrangement demanding they be treated as an alliance where both parties vow to either enter the government or the opposition together. Lapid and Bennett pulled this in the last Knesset, when their combined 31 seats guaranteed the centrist agenda’s desire to end Haredi exemptions from the military draft and push their entry into the workforce unified the parties.

Reducing the Number of Parties in the Knesset

So consider these blocs as possibly being outright parties in the next Knesset elections

Labor-Meretz-Ha’Tnuah 30
Yesh Atid-Kulanu 31
Likud 20
Jewish Home 13
Arab Joint List 13
Shas-UTJ 16

Six blocs become six parties. For the sake of ease, I chose to altogether not include Yisrael Beytenu and the Yachad faction from this scenario because the former is deteriorating quickly in its standing among Israelis and the latter would likely split into two parties upon entry into the Knesset anyway (with just as good a chance that they won’t make it into the Knesset at all).

You still have blocs of parties that did not choose to run together. The Arab Joint List could be situated roughly into a leftist bloc with Labor’s joint list. Jewish Home would fall squarely in alliance with Likud.

It would be in the interests of the current party leaders to weigh what compromises they can make on their platforms with other parties in the future. Sometimes this will be easy, as in with Shas and UTJ. Sometimes this will be difficult, like with Yesh Atid and Kulanu. Sometimes it will be tough but not impossible, like with Likud and Jewish Home.

There are many other smaller parties that are almost certainly not going to make this Knesset that have 1) either been around for years and will continue trying or 2) are brand new and might not have luck until the next election.

Ultimately, creating larger parties would make it easier to negotiate a coalition deal that will stick. Two or three parties are much easier to compromise with than 6 or 8.

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