Opinion | Opinion

Too much democracy can stifle progress, make governing impossible

Some 30 years ago an American friend who is a political scientist, came to Israel for a professional visit. Before he headed back home, I asked him for his verdict on the Israeli political system. He didn’t hesitate: “Too much democracy.” I asked him to explain, and he said: “Anyone who has an opinion here must have a political party that will fully represent it.”

That, in a nutshell, is the malaise of our political system: Too many parties and too little stability, which means lack of ability to govern. And my friend was talking about the Israeli political map of Israel in the 1980s, when the two big parties — Likkud and Labor — had more than 40 seats each (out of the 120-member Knesset).

Each could form a coalition government with 2 or three smaller parties, and in 1984, when there was a deadlock, the two major parties formed a national unity government which managed to carry out two awesome tasks: pulling Israeli troops out of Lebanon and killing a three-digit inflation. I wonder what my American friend would say today, when we have more parties than before, with the polls hardly giving the biggest ones more than 20 seats.

Forming a government in Israel today becomes extremely difficult. When a government is finally formed, its days are numbered, because sooner or later its centrifugal forces overcome its centripetal ones.

For example, in the recent government (number 33 in 66 years since the establishment of the State of Israel), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who in 2009 said that he was for a two-state solution, seemed to do little to pursue it. At the same time, on his left, Justice Minister Zipi Livni labored furiously to come to an agreement with the Palestinians, while on his right, Housing Minister Uri Ariel and Minister of Economy Naftali Bennet dismissed it, saying bluntly that between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea there was only one state: A Jewish one.

There are three major items on the agenda of the Israelis today: Security, socioeconomic issues, and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. On security, most governments, regardless of their composition, roughly act the same: beating Hamas in Gaza or Hezbollah in Lebanon, whenever these enemies cross the line, while preparing for the threat of nuclear Iran, looming over the horizon.

Socioeconomic issues have become extremely important, especially since the social unrest of 2011, when for the first time hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets protesting against the expense of living and the growing socio-economic gaps. Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”) Party, led by TV anchor Yair Lapid, promised these protesters answers to their grievances. However, with such a self-castrating government, Lapid failed to deliver, and is now decimated in the polls. Those stars who parachute into politics to save us seem to shine only briefly. See historian-turned-politician Michael Ignatieff and the demise of the Canadian Liberal Party in 2011.

The paramount issue remains the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. If Israel doesn’t act, either through an agreement with the Palestinians or unilaterally, it will become a single, binational state, where Arabs will make almost half of the population. How will Israel maintain its Jewish and democratic nature in such a scenario, when today, with “only” 20 percent of Arab citizens, motions are nervously made to legislate a Nation-state Law, which will decide the Jewish nature of Israel by law?

The problem is that in the current political scene in Israel, it will be extremely difficult for any government to make decisive moves to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yitzhak Herzog, leader of the Labor Party, pretends to be the next prime minister. In order to boost his potential, he invited Zipi Livny, whose party Hatnuah also struggles in the polls, to join him, offering her a rotation at the top. Both of them revel at the recent anti-Netanyahu mood.

Herzog promised that upon being elected Prime Minister, he will move the peace process forward. While I wish he is right, I have my doubts. In recent years, the Israeli electorate has moved to the right, and there are, as always, the Ultra-Orthodox parties, which — while being interested mostly in their own individual needs — traditionally tend to lean more to the right. And even if he manages to form a government, Herzog will find it extremely difficult to sway the Israelis toward the painful decisions needed.

It is likely, then, that whatever the outcome of the next elections may be, we are doomed to a period of instability and inaction. Salvation will perhaps come when we adopt the Greek system, where the largest party receives a bonus of seats, as a way to enhance the likelihood of a majority government. In the meantime, unfortunately, serious issues will have to wait.

(Uri Dromi is executive director of the Jerusalem Press Club. He served as spokesperson in the Rabin and Peres governments from 1992 to 1996.)