MLinsights_JULY2020

Israel’s political quagmire

In the coming week, Israel is expected to affirm its new governing coalition. This “Change Bloc” has brought together representatives from disparate ideologies and groups within Israeli society with a shared purpose to initiate a change of the status quo of rolling elections without a clear majority and to replace Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister, Bibi Netanyahu. Israel will initially be led by Naftali Bennet, who heads the Yemina (Right) party and he will be replaced in 18 months by Yair Lapid who heads the centrist Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party.

Arguably, Israel’s political quagmire is fundamentally a consequence of its unique democratic system. Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, is deeply rooted in Jewish tradition and symbolism. Its name is derived from the Anshei Knesset HaG’dolah – the People of the Great Assembly, who interpreted and enforced Jewish law in the times of the Second Temple. The Knesset’s 120 seats are in line with the 120 Sanhedrin who made up the Assembly.

The symbolism here establishes a direct link between the modern state and biblical Israel. This link was also expressed by Theodore Hertzl in his book Altneuland (Old New Land) and is embedded in the name of Israel’s largest city Tel Aviv – ‘Tel’ refers to a mound composed of layers of archeological remnants and ‘Aviv’ refers to spring or new life.

While the symbolism is stunning, the number is less practical. Many democracies are constructed around an uneven number of seats in the parliament to limit the possibility for stalemate votes or hung parliaments.

A more significant challenge to Israel avoiding election deadlock is in its proportional voting system. This allows a direct correlation of votes to seats in the Knesset and empowers niche parties that represent particularist perspectives. In Australia, a party that receives 20% of the vote in the House of Representatives is unlikely to win a seat, however in the Knesset it would win 24 seats.

The result of this has been that in Israel’s history there has never been a party that has won a majority in its own right and, as such, every Israeli government has relied upon the formation of a coalition in order to govern.

Throughout much of Israel’s history a number of minor orthodox religious parties have joined ruling coalitions in exchange for agreements which maintain the dominance of orthodox perspectives on daily life in Israel.

The Change Bloc is unique on a number of fronts. Highly publicised amongst these has been its inclusion of an Islamic party, Ra’am, and its wide representation of voices from both the left and right wing of Israel’s political spectrum.

It is hoped that the Change Bloc will be able to narrow some of the divisions that have opened between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens. While the disparate nature of the coalition may make it difficult, there is also hope that it will take steps towards renewing peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

Notably, there are no Orthodox Jewish parties in this coalition and this could lead to significant changes and an increase of options for Progressive and secular Jewish Israelis.

The Coalition includes the first ever Reform rabbi to be elected to the Knesset, Labour party Minister, Rabbi Gilad Kariv. It has been reported that amongst the first considerations of the Change Bloc will be to finally establish an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. This has been a main priority of the international Progressive Movement for many years.

Furthermore, there is widespread speculation that the new government will take steps to allow for secular and Progressive officiation at life cycle events such as weddings which can currently only be presided over by an Orthodox rabbi.

King David joins with the Progressive Movement in welcoming any changes that would allow for meaningful expressions of Jewish practice that reflect the spectrum of belief that exists across the Jewish world and within Israel.