Waiting for the (Political) Messiah

By Elliot Jager
Thursday, July 8, 2010

Israelis are not scheduled to go to the polls until October 2013, but no one would be astonished if some political upheaval forced earlier elections. Several high-profile contenders are already letting it be known that they could be enticed to provide the deliverance Israelis habitually crave, either by starting new parties or by taking leadership roles in existing ones. The saviors waiting in the wings include the photogenic television personality Yair Lapid, who promises to stand up to the "settlers" and the "ultra-Orthodox." Then there is the magnetic Aryeh Deri, once the top vote-getter of the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox Shas party, now staking out a politically centrist position. And there is Dan Halutz, who resigned as chief of the IDF general staff in 2007 in the wake of official criticism over his handling of the Second Lebanon War. Nor do these exhaust the list.

Perhaps more so than citizens of other Western democracies, Israelis are accustomed to a smorgasbord of political choices. The country's system of proportional representation—"winning" a parliamentary seat requires crossing an electoral threshold set at a mere 1.5 percent of the total balloting—encourages new parties to crop up all the time. The resulting proliferation means that no single party has ever achieved an outright majority in the 120-member Knesset; government always proceeds by more or less fragile coalitions.

In the country's early years, elections were essentially competitions among left-wing parties and were mostly won by Mapai, a precursor to today's Labor. Only in 1977, with the victory of the right-wing Likud, did power become more diffuse—though the basic rules of the political game remained the same. Today, minor parties continue to come and go, impelled by personality clashes within existing party structures, by ethnic or religious grievances, or by demands for ideological rigidity. Two with an atypically long shelf-life were Ratz, which broke away from Labor in 1973 to champion a more dovish security line and eventually morphed into today's Meretz, and Shas, which quit the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox amalgamation in 1984 to become a Sephardi powerbase.

As early as 1976, however, voters were looking for a viable major alternative to Labor and Likud. Liberal voters in particular were dejected over Labor's often corrupt stranglehold on power, yet uncomfortable with Likud's perceived stridency over the West Bank. The Democratic Movement for Change, founded by the archeologist and soldier Yigael Yadin, briefly met the yen for a third way. Later aspirants to the label included the Centre party, founded by general Yitzhak Mordechai (1999), and Avigdor Kahalani's Third Way party (1996), which was mostly committed to retaining the Golan Heights.

In 1999, the columnist Tommy Lapid—Yair's father—captured the third-way mantle with his Shinui ("Change") party. Presenting itself as secular and centrist, Shinui achieved most of its traction by (sometimes tastelessly) lambasting the ultra-Orthodox. By 2006, it, too, had devoured itself in internecine power struggles. Then came Kadima, founded in 2005 by Ariel Sharon and bringing together politicians from both Labor and Likud. Ostensibly a third-way movement, Kadima was in reality a vehicle for Sharon's ambition to disengage from Gaza, a project for which he had repeatedly failed to obtain Likud support.

The Israeli fixation on the promise of political change, and/or the promise of political personality, continues unabated. Although many have called for restructuring the current hyper-pluralistic system so as to weaken the clout of single-issue parties, the present arrangement seems designed to perpetuate itself. Even David Ben-Gurion, back in the 1950s, could not pull off electoral reform—a fact that in itself goes a long way toward explaining Israelis' enduring fascination with passing potential saviors.

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