“The voters,” Israeli prime minister-elect Benjamin Netanyahu said in his strange victory speech, during Israel’s bizarre post-election night, “have spoken.”
And so they have, in a multiplicity of self-contradictory voices.
Welcome to the mad world of Israeli parliamentary democracy. The world’s most multifarious political system has just crash-landed into a dead-end.
A local joke claims that Israelis have more parties than voters. If other democracies boast Right, Center and Left, we have Jewish and Arab parties, secular and religious, peacenik and hardline, socialist and free-market. Each group is finely divided among itself in a dynamic crisscross of creeds and interests, ideals and appetites.
What is a paradise for political scientists is a nightmare for anyone trying to rule the country in earnest. But these elections have brought Israel to the mother of all deadlocks.
Therein may lie a blessing in disguise, but the curses are more obvious. The greatest curse is Israel’s inability to raise a leadership strong enough to make peace. Even weak prime ministers can wage war, but it takes the likes of former Israeli prime ministers Menachem Begin or Yitzhak Rabin to go the opposite way. Such leaders are thin on the ground and the electoral system is partially to blame.
Israel has lost its few capable leaders — former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon alongside Begin and Rabin — to assorted calamities. Other prime ministers, who win elections by a whisker, end up with cat-and-dog coalitions.
For years, this democracy hobbled on stilts, with big and small parties shooting up, crashing down, vanishing and reincarnating time and again. Few governments lived to their natural term of four years. Right and Left swapped seniority around a barely existent central pole. Even Sharon’s break from Likud and the establishment of Kadima, a genuine embodiment of moderate Middle Israel, did not undo the stalemate.
Take the brand new political map. Israeli Acting Prime Minister Tzipi Livni’s Kadima with 28 Knesset seats, Netanyahu’s Likud with 27, both leaders giving triumphal orations during one dizzy night. “Tzippy” claims victory for leading the largest party, “Bibi” for heading the largest bloc. He has a point, of course. All six right-of-center parties, often at each other’s throats, are behind his candidacy. But she has a point, too. Kadima won more seats than Likud, disproved prophecies of doom, and emerged as the only major party with an optimistic and peace-seeking message.
The maverick this time, Russian-born, secular and hawkish Avigdor Lieberman, got 15 seats for his hardline Yisrael Beitenu party. In the wake of the Gaza war, Lieberman deftly rode a hawkish tide, demanding “declarations of loyalty” from Israel’s Arab citizens. He is now likely to act as kingmaker, propping the underperforming Netanyahu with a solid right-of-center bloc.
Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak’s Labor party follows with a 13-seat low. Unless it teams up with Kadima, Likud or both, Labor will head for soul-searching in the desert. It will not die any time soon. In the Israeli aviary both doves and hawks are capable phoenixes.
If the numbers seem too small for the major players, here’s the catch: Knesset’s 120 seats will fill up smaller parties, each comprising anything from two to 11 fervent politicos. There are Arab parties, as well as fractions of the far right and left. Thus have Knessets been comprised from Israel’s beginning. The messier the merrier. Never before, however, have the major parties stalemated so neatly.