What Israel’s election means

Jim Lederman
4 April 2006

The Israeli election on 28 March 2006 proved once again that there is an almost total disconnect between the country's citizens and its politicians. If, as the 19th-century British economist Walter Bagehot wrote, democracy is "government by discussion", then the election demonstrated clearly that the Israeli public is as passionately democratic as ever, while the country's politicians remain as profoundly anti-democratic as they have ever been.

Throughout the wearying five-month campaign, the public showed every indication of wanting to participate in charting a new national political, social and economic course. The coffee houses, the markets and the kiosks were full of political chatter. The politicians, on the other hand, made sure that the election would be about nothing at all.

The result was that an unprecedented number of voters abstained from voting; and many of those who viewed voting as a civic duty first decided whom they would not vote for, and continued the elimination process until only one party – desirable or not – was left.

The results speak for themselves:

  • The public chose a prime minister-designate, Ehud Olmert, who has been elected to the Knesset (Israel's parliament) for eight consecutive terms, but who has never delineated a comprehensive political platform and has no known political philosophy
  • The balance of power in the next government will rest with the seven legislators of the Pensioners' Party, which has never discussed internal party fora issues such as the potential of an Iranian nuclear threat or peace with the Palestinians
  • 66 of the 120 Knesset members were on their party list thanks to appointment by the party leader, not as a result of internal elections or party primaries
  • And a majority of the Knesset members who were elected are largely unknown to the general public.

That is not all. Some elements of the party platforms were impractical or bizarre. The Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu pledged to "eliminate poverty within three years". The National Religious Party/National Union (NRP/NU) promised to take over and politicise the Supreme Court, the army and the business regulatory system. The head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, said a vote for Shas would ensure the voter a place in heaven.

Why these absurdities? Individually and collectively, the politicians, their handlers and the news media failed to recognize that Israeli society has changed profoundly in recent years. Until voting day, many of them – either with satisfaction or resignation – were proclaiming the election the dreariest on record. Once the exit polls were published, though, all spoke of "surprise" at the "revolution" that had taken place: the Likud, winner of thirty-eight seats in the 2003 election, had collapsed. The Pensioners' Party, which had never won a seat in any election, captured seven and obviously held the balance of power. The voter turnout was the lowest in Israel's history. Had the professionals looked beyond their bubbles, they would have recognised that the "revolution" was just an expression of an evolution that had been under way for decades.

Jim Lederman is senior middle-east analyst for Oxford Analytica. He is the author of Battle Lines: The American Media and the Intifada (Henry Holt, 1992) and Israel at 50: History and Economy, (IMCE, Paris, 1998). His blog is here

Also by Jim Lederman in openDemocracy:

"Counter-terrorism: a true popular war"
(July 2005)

"Ariel Sharon and Israel's unique democracy"
(January 2006)

"Why Hamas won" (February 2006)

The Brundtland model

Beginning in 1977, the Israeli body politic became equally divided between two ideologically based blocs, one led by the Labour party and the other by the Likud. In addition, there were two satellite blocs – the ultra-Orthodox and the Arabs. Without ever describing themselves as such, the two mainstream blocs, when seen in their entirety, essentially adhered to a belief in what might be called the Brundtland definition of the purpose of government. The name comes from Gro Harlem Brundtland, the former prime minister of Norway, who chaired a landmark United Nations commission on sustainable development. Although the commission dealt largely with development, poverty and environmental issues, economists associated with it also concerned themselves with broader matters.

In short, they stated that the purpose of governance is to increase national wealth. However, in a break with similar definitions in the past, the definition of "national wealth" (and one which has now been adopted by the World Bank) was extended in the commission's 1987 report to include not just gross domestic product (GDP), but also such factors as the quality of the environment and of public institutions, public trust and the rule of law. Moreover, under this definition, it is the duty of each government to ensure that it never leaves the majority of the next generation with less wealth than it had inherited before assuming power. Thus, if a country takes mineral wealth out of the ground or chops down trees, it has to provide a substitute of equal or greater value, such as more educational facilities, better health care or a higher-quality infrastructure.

In Israel, a political bloc became a satellite when it did not accept this definition of the purpose of government. For years, the two mainstream blocs differed in their approach to policy-making only when it came to deciding what constituted wealth, and how it should be distributed and reinvested. A major division, for example, was that while the Likud-led group considered continued Israeli control over the occupied territories a great source of national wealth, the Labour-led bloc believed that a peace agreement had more value.

While there was much vote-shifting among parties within each bloc, the total floating vote was never more than 50,000 to 90,000. By the late 1990s, though, this mainstream consensus on the purpose of governments had crumbled. Instead of proposing coherent proactive policies to increase national wealth, individual parties became more sectoral and increasingly squabbled about how to distribute existing wealth. Corruption in the form of national asset-stripping on behalf of special interests became more common. The level of public debate also degenerated.

Instead of offering the public reasoned alternatives to confront pressing issues, each major party contented itself with stereotyping the other. Thus the blocs began engaging almost solely in never-ending negative campaigning. Only in the rarest political speeches could one find a thought that might imply that a brighter future could be ahead. Likud, for example, focussed almost its entire political effort in asserting that Labour would give up territory to the Palestinians, risking Israel's security. In return, Labour declaimed that Likud was giving up the chance for peace and thus endangering everyone.

As a result, major problems were left unaddressed. By the end of the 20th century, the failure to act had led to a full-blown crisis. The collapse of the Camp David peace talks, the beginning of the second intifada in September 2000, the bursting of the global high-tech bubble (upon which the Israeli economy had become dependent), the scramble for advantage between domestic sectoral groups, government overspending on transfer payments and a series of lesser factors all combined to send the economy and the country's international standing (another measure of national wealth) into a tailspin.

Political rifts and pressures that had been building slowly over time suddenly produced a cataclysmic reaction. The settler movement, represented by the NRP/NU, parts of the Likud and parts of Yisrael Beiteinu, launched itself into political space to become a third, separate satellite group. The rest of the voting population, though, rapidly adjusted and realigned themselves into two new mainstream blocs. One contained the remnants of ideological true-believers (spread through the Likud, Labour and Meretz parties) who had survived the upheaval. The second was the new home for a growing body of rational pragmatists – represented by parts of Meretz, the Likud, Labour and almost all of Kadima – who believed that survivability and strength are the products of those who are the most innovative and adaptive.

This revolutionary social and political change was there for all to see, especially since it was expressed in the modifications that were constantly being made in the national political debate. Few observers, however, took note of all the changes. For example, virtually every election campaign from 1977 to 2003 had focussed heavily on how to make peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. Labour argued that an agreement could only come about through "negotiations between enemies." Likud responded that it could happen once Israel had proven to the Palestinians that it had the military might to prevent the Arabs from gaining "unacceptable" concessions.

However, following the collapse of the Camp David talks, the outbreak of the second intifada and – especially – the election of Hamas in Palestinian voting, the majority of Israelis came to the conclusion that an accord was not possible. The argument between Labour and the Likud over the means to achieve an agreement had become moot. And, in pressing it, Likud leader Netanyahu had become a political irrelevancy.

The Kadima effect

The first and, so far, only politician of any standing who came to understand and capitalise on the profound changes that were taking place was Ariel Sharon. It was he who first proclaimed what many Israelis had been muttering: that the Likud and Labour emperors had no clothes, that Israel had no negotiating partner. Sharon then went on to say what had previously been unsayable in the Likud: that not only was Gaza of no national value, it was a drain on national wealth.

When, as prime minister, Sharon left Likud and formed Kadima in November 2005, he understood that he was tapping into a political mother-lode that had previously gone unexplored and unexploited. From the outset, he crafted Kadima's appeal in a way that was unique in Israeli political history. Kadima would reject ideology as a basis for political debate. As a result, it never became a classic "centrist" party, as most pundits and politicians claimed. Instead, in many ways, it took on the appearance of a club of concerned, friendly unlike-minds.

Sharon brought in individuals who included old-time Labourites such as Shimon Peres and Uriel Reichman, the former chairman of the fiercely secular, pro-market Shinui party, and Othniel Schneller, the deeply religious former chairman of Yesha, the association of West Bank and Gaza settlements. Once Sharon had collared a large number of the rationalists, the other parties were left with a squabbling mix of residual rationalists who didn't want to leave their political homes – political hacks, true believers and representatives of special interests. Labour eventually tried Sharon's tack by bringing in a raft of new, high-profile candidates, but had difficulty in convincing the public that its new leader, Amir Peretz, was Sharon's equal. The other parties did not even try to change.

Although Kadima was, for some voters, an expression of a cult-following for Sharon, the vast majority of its supporters perceived it as being more of a debating forum for rationalists who, for all their differences in approach and belief, were convinced that they could come to a consensus on how best to strengthen the country and return it to Brundtland-style principles. The party did not collapse after Sharon suffered a stroke and went into a coma.

The moment that Ehud Olmert took the helm as a result of Sharon's illness, his handlers cautioned him not to make any mistakes that would cost votes. As a result, the party platform was never referred to, and Olmert's public appearances were strictly regulated and scripted. This approach, however, meant that the debate and consensus-building that had been the raison d'être of many of the party faithful came to a halt. When that happened, public support began to decline as well. There was a growing belief among the public that all the politicians, including those in Kadima, were talking at them, not engaging with them. Once that perception took hold, they began to believe that there was nothing they could do for the rest of the campaign to influence policy.

The popularity of Kadima, which had been seen in opinion polls as potentially winning forty-five Knesset seats, dropped. On election-day, the party ended up with twenty-nine seats. There had been one upward blip in the polls, though, following Olmert's announcement of a second Israel disengagement from the occupied territories. But Kadima election managers soon tamped down the nascent debate, and – despite Netanyahu's call for the issue to become the focus for a national referendum – the campaign quickly returned to its previous somnolence.

So why didn't the news media take a more aggressive approach, focussing on issues that would develop political traction? When none of their early efforts bore fruit, many journalists retreated, clucking about the disinterest of the voters. With only a few notable exceptions, most withdrew into their newsrooms and studios to pontificate, rather than hit the streets to discover what was really on voters' minds.

The scenario was not unfamiliar. The Israeli populace has developed a well-oiled means for circumventing a recalcitrant Knesset and an ignorant press. Under the Israeli system of governance, major policy decisions are made by first having someone of integrity raise an issue of broad national concern and place it for debate in the form of a yes/no question that demands some form of action. A recent example: "Do you want to separate from the Palestinians by building a fence? Yes or no?" The question then sets off a debate until a point of diminishing returns is reached and a consensus evolves. The debate is monitored throughout by public opinion polls.

Both the politicians and the media could have enhanced their stature in the public's eyes had they shown sensitivity to broad public concerns and played the role of question-poser. But, up to the last moment, the politicians resolutely refused to talk in anything other than generalities; and the press, in its exhaustion and apathy, could not rouse itself to discover the questions the public were asking themselves. The last six weeks of the campaign were devoted to nothing more than the cheapest and easiest forms of press coverage – photo opportunities and horse-race-style monitoring by pollsters. Some of the pollsters who supplied the news outlets with material had a fairly good idea of what was on the public's mind. But because political parties had paid them for the surveys, the pollsters held the material back from publication.

So the population withdrew into its normal daily life. This withdrawal was not an expression of apathy, but of frustration. Those who chose to vote ended up with having to decide between parties that fervently championed a tiny number of sectoral issues and a single supposedly multi-issue party – Kadima – that refused to debate any issue other than disengagement.

For those pragmatist/rationalists who were turned off by Kadima's campaign wimpishness, the only choice was abstention or voting for a party that championed an issue that they believed should and could become part of the national consensus.

Only one party – the Pensioners – was able to capitalise on Olmert's handlers' mistakes. All the others were stuck in old preconceptions. Labour, for example, bemoaned its inability to make political hay despite a star-studded cast of candidates. In self-pity, it blamed ethnic prejudice against Amir Peretz, its Moroccan-born leader, for its fate, and continued to press its theme of ending poverty by redistributing wealth. It made no attempt to address the questions the majority of the public wanted answered: how to increase the economic pie for everyone, and what means should be used to prevent middle-class citizens from descending into poverty. The result was that Labour not only did not gain from Kadima's increasing weakness, it ended up losing two seats from its tally in the last election.

The big winner turned out to be the Pensioners' Party, whose supporters made a perfectly rational argument that was balanced, utterly truthful and had universal appeal: Most people eventually grow old, and it is advisable to plan for that inevitability now, for both current retirees and those to come. The argument was powerful enough that it is now estimated that more than half of the party's vote came from young people. In retrospect, the vote for the Pensioners was an indication of a high level of public political sophistication. Voters were able to make a distinction between a sectoral party that is concerned with only one segment of the population and a single-issue party that raises a major issue – albeit only one – of concern to almost everyone.

Probably the most remarkable result of the March 2006 election is that despite the low voter turnout, the satellite parties did not do better. Under Israel's system of proportional representation, any fall in voter participation automatically strengthens smaller, disciplined, true-believer parties. Since polls show that protesting pragmatist-rationalists made up a decisive majority of the Jewish non-voters, it would appear to indicate that the pragmatist-rationalist camp among the entire Israeli population is larger than previously believed.

Therefore, if the next government has to make tough decisions, it will know that it has strong popular backing – as long as it can explain that the reasons for its decisions are not simply a matter of play-offs between power groups. This, in turn, is a strong indicator that although it will probably be led by Kadima, which won fewer than a quarter of the seats in the Knesset, Israel's next government may be the most stable the country has had in a decade.

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