Politics is serious business. It is how societies move from disputes about issues large and small to the selection of their leaders, choices between public policy alternatives, and the actual implementation of what government does.
Politics is also theater. It provides the platforms for the best and most bizarre actors of a country or locality. It is common to acknowledge that politicians lie, exaggerate their promises to the voters before an election and to one another in the forums where they define what government will do. Ambiguity and misleading are part of the profession. That's how they attract as wide a possible cluster of supporters from different wings of the community.
Israel's national election, pointed toward voting on January 22nd, is providing its usual opportunity to see the country's prominent players at their political best and worst, and showing some of the oddities reflecting irrepressible individualism, narcissism, or genuine hopes of lesser-known individuals to reach the top and shape the future.
A week ago some 42 groupings were calling themselves political parties. Now we have passed the deadline for registering parties and their lists of candidates for the Knesset. There are 34 of them.
None of the major parties are exactly like they were in the outgoing Knesset.
The largest party (Kadima) may disappear entirely, due to indecision and infighting at its top, and then its gradual abandonment for other opportunities by middle and lower ranking MKs. The former leader of Kadima, Tsipi Livni, has created The Movement led by Tsipi Livni, and has provided what a critic terms a refugee camp for politicians unhappy with Kadima or the Labor Party. Recent polls indicate that The Movement led by Tsipi Livni will get 9-11 seats in the 120 seat Knesset.
Labor--once Israel's dominant party and having its ups and downs since Menachem Begin brought Likud to the government in the election of 1977--has had more downs and ups since the 2009 election. It went from 13 to 8 seats with the mid-term split off of Ehud Barak and his new Independence Party.
Independence has gone belly up with Barak's announcement of his retirement from politics (without forswearing another term as Defense Minister if called to that by Benyamin Netanyahu), and is not fielding candidates in the present campaign.
Labor is looking better. Polls show it getting 16-22 seats. Its most recent loss (or gain depending on perspective) was the 11th hour defection of Amir Peretz to The Movement led by Tsipi Livni. He may be taking his voting pull equivalent to 2-4 seats with him. Or he may not be worthy anything, or even be a liability insofar as Livni is sharing in the widespread condemnation of Peretz for being an opportunist, led by personal pique to shed an affiliation with a political party whose principles he had recently swore to uphold and advance..
Yair Lapid is still in the race, but his avowedly centrist party with a left-leaning social policy agenda, There is a Future, has not done well in competing with the equally avowedly centrist parties with left-leaning social policy agendas (Labor and The Movement). Polls are showing Lapid's party winning 5 or fewer seats.
Once the campaign had already begun, Benyamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman declared that their two parties would campaign together with a joint list called Likud our Home. Polls are putting it somewhere in the mid- to upper 30s of MKs in the next Knesset. It is likely to be the largest party, and--especially given the rivalries among parties claiming to be centrist and leaning left on social issues--the best positioned to form a governing coalition with other right of center parties, or maybe with Labor and/or There is a Future. Tsipi Livni is sticking to similar principles she followed while crippling Kadima, and is unlikely to join a Likud-led government.
Netanyahu's most likely partners will be those he has worked with in the most recent and earlier Knessets. They include the Orthodox and settler party Jewish Home (formerly the National Religious Party), which has been through one of its periodic generational upheavals. A younger leadership increasing its likely poll from 3 to 11 or more seats.
The two established ultra-Orthodox parties are likely to return to the Knesset and partner with Netanyhu, but may not match their previous success.
The Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox party (once Agudat Israel now Torah Judaism) is suffering from a tiff between two 90+ year old rabbis competing over the succession after the recent death of the party's previous 90+ year old spiritual leader. The supporters of one competing rabbi have actually split from Torah Judaism and registered a new party they call Eternity (נצח) . In the nature of shrill and sometimes violent nastiness between the congregations of different rabbis (i.e., non-fatal beatings, stone throwing and curses having a doctrinal flavor) but eventual reconciliation, this split may resolve itself prior to the election. We can expect the vast majority of Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox to follow their rabbis and vote the party line. If the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox hold together, they may get the same 5 seats in the next Knesset as in the outgoing Knesset.
The Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party SHAS may also be in trouble, despite the re-entry of a former popular figure from a political time out in prison. One of SHAS's MKs has split with its leadership and created his own party whose name (עם שלם) may be translated as Complete Nation or Fulfilled People. He is running against several conventional themes of the ultra-Orthodox. The ranking members of his list include women and leaders of the movement to demand the service of ultra-Orthodox young men in the IDF. SHAS has 11 seats in the outgoing Knesset. Various polls show the new party not making it over the minimum required for entry to the Knesset, or getting as many as 4 seats.
There are no prominent changes apparent in the three largely Arab or Arab-Jewish parties that chronically oppose all governments, with a total 11 seats in the outgoing Knesset. Also no change apparent in the most left-wing of the largely Jewish parties, Meretz, polling close to its present 3 seats. The far right wing Jewish party has re-juggled itself from what had been National Unity, now with the designation Power to Israel, and with candidates even closer to the ideas of Rabbi Meir Kahane. It seems likely to return to the Knesset with at least the 2 seats held in its previous formulation.
Even greater oddities and theatrics appear in the 20 parties not so far mentioned, none of which are expected to enter the Knesset. The best current rendition that I have found of their leading personalities and programs appears here. (Readers whose Hebrew is not up to snuff can try the translators of Google or Bing).
The list includes three perennials.
•Pensioners, which actually entered the Knesset in the election of 2006 when it became a last-minute darling of Israelis looking for a protest option. It enrolled 7 MKs, but suffered from the criminal charges eventually brought against some of its unknown and inexperienced MKs, including one case of sexual harassment brought by an elderly lady against an elderly gentleman, both members of the Pensioners' delegation.
•Green Leaf, trying once again on the theme of legalizing marijuana.
•Greens, emphasizing the environment.
Four parties are emphasizing a theme of social justice, without so far clarifying how they differ from one another or from the more established parties also claiming to advance social justice.
Life with Honor
Power to Influence
One additional party promoting social justice (One Future) makes a pointed reference to its concern for Israel's Ethiopian immigrants. It is likely to compete for some of the same votes as a party more explicitly concerned with Ethiopian-Israelis (We are Brothers).
Yet another party emphasizing its concern with humanitarian values (Light) makes a point of advocating a separation of religion from the state.
A party with the name We are All Comrades claims the leadership of the charismatic ultra-Orthodox movement identified with Rabbi Nachman of Breslav. It is hoping to cash in with the votes of the thousands who fly on key dates in their calendar to Uman in the Ukraine to visit the rabbi's grave. Its platform promises to bring peace among all citizens of Israel according to the ways of Israel's grandfathers.
Also on the religious fringe, with a similar platform but without the advantage of a symbol quite as powerful as Rabbi Nachman, is Fathers' Tradition.
Getting the most media attention is a party calling itself Pirates. Its leadership appeared before the Elections Committee dressed in pirate customs, but the Supreme Court Justice sitting as the chairman of the Committee ordered them to defrock before presenting their documents. The Pirates' program includes what its leaders describe as a radical conception of individual freedom, turning the country's politics and economics upside down, promoting transparency, freedom of information, change in the ownership of information, and rights of privacy. Given Israelis' penchant for the free downloading of copyrighted music, films and books from the Internet (i.e., pirating), it is possible to see an endorsement of this practice between the lines of the party's program.
Two parties describing themselves as Arab or Arab and Jewish (Arab-Jewish Workers' Party with an Arab woman at its head), and Hope for Change.
A party calling itself Israelis wants to change the structure and procedures of Israeli government. The Economic Party would reform the economy to give greater opportunities to enterprises located outside of Israel.
Israeli parties invest heavily in their ads and jingles. They are worth the time of political mavens who can understand the Hebrew, and should be available in a month or so on the web sites of Israel's radio and television stations.
This report of 34 parties in the campaign, with 10-12 likely to reach the Knesset, will bring forth complaints that the numbers explain Israel's inability to govern itself well.
The reality is that they reflect the social mosiac of Israel, along with the principle of proportional representation put in place even before the state was created. Numerous parties are key elements in the checks and balances that help keep the country sane. They accomplish what factional and personal competition do in other countries. Americans claim to have two parties, but actually they have many more given the weakness of party discipline and the prominence of individual players with their own agendas who rise to positions of committee chairs in Congress. Democracy is not supposed to produce quick and efficient decisions, but negotiations between the holders of different perspectives. Those unconvinced should look again at the Federalist Papers. Autocracy's greater efficiency comes from its lesser responsiveness.
No doubt that Israel suffers from a surplus of serious problems. One cannot know for sure, but its ability to cope with the insoluble might be lessened by a simpler way of choosing a smaller number of leaders who could decide on war, peace, religion, and other issues without the wide consultations required by multi-party government.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem