June 29, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Apparently Bibi Netanyahu’s strategy of expanding his governing coalition in an effort to deal with the crisis precipitated by the Tal Law’s expiration didn’t solve the problem but only kicked it down the road. Following the news that the Plesner Committee, which was charged with coming up with a viable plan to rectify the military and national service exemptions for Haredim and Israeli Arabs, has decided to essentially give Israeli Arabs a free pass, Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party quit the committee. The news that Haredim were going to be treated differently than Israeli Arabs obviously did not sit well with Shas and UTJ either, who were already upset that Shaul Mofaz and Kadima are insisting on severe penalties for draft dodgers that are squarely aimed at the Haredi sector. So in a nutshell, the two sides that were pulling on Netanyahu from opposite ends during the last coalition crisis are now both angry again, and this is all being driven by Kadima, Netanyahu’s new coalition partner that was supposed to give him room to maneuver and put an end to the constant worrying about the coalition breaking apart.
Netanyahu and Mofaz are meeting today in an effort to try and resolve the impasse after the prime minister made clear that he was not ok with the Plesner Committee plan (which is being pushed, if not outright dictated, by Mofaz), but this is just a reminder that Israeli coalitions are never fully stable no matter how large they are. This is not going to bring down the government, but if forced to choose between Mofaz and Kadima on the one hand and Lieberman and Yisrael Beiteinu on the other, Netanyahu is going to go with Mofaz, which will set off all sorts of problems with the settler community at the worst possible time for Bibi given that the Ulpana evacuation just went off shockingly smoothly.
Speaking of Ulpana, the events there this week revealed another important split, but this one has nothing to do with coalition politics. Instead, there seems to be a growing divide between the camp containing the majority of the settlement movement and the more extreme militant wing (often referred to by the shorthand “hilltop youth”), with some in the settler leadership waking up to the fact that violence turned outward almost always inevitably migrates inward as well. It began when Ze’ev Hever, who is in charge of the settlement movement’s building and construction, found his car tires slashed, prompting a set of mea culpas from him and from Yesha head Danny Dayan, who both admitted that they have stayed silent for years in the face of settler violence against Arabs. This acknowledgement and promise to begin cracking down on the violent extremists within their midst unfortunately came too late for the Defense Ministry subcontractors visiting Ulpana earlier this month in preparation for the evacuation who were pelted with rocks for their efforts to ensure that Ulpana’s residents would be moved out as painlessly and seamlessly as possible. Then if that weren’t enough, the Ulpana families – who were fully cooperative and left peacefully – had to spend their time skirmishing with hilltop youths who were trying to prevent those very families from evacuating by barring their way and then barricading themselves in one of the vacated apartments. If it wasn’t clear to the settler leadership that they have a serious problem within their midst while violent settler extremists were torching mosques and carrying out odious “price tag” attacks in the West Bank, it has become abundantly clear now. All of this is a useful reminder that, as Jeremy Pressman aptly put it yesterday, the term “settler” papers over the fact that settlers are not a monolithic group and the settlement movement is not a unified whole marching in lockstep. These divisions within Israeli politics and Israeli society bear close watching over the next few months as tensions that have been buried are now starting to bubble up to the surface.
May 11, 2012 § 2 Comments
For those who are not familiar with him, Silvan Shalom is Bibi Netanyahu’s political nemesis and constant foil. He is also somewhat inconveniently one of the vice prime ministers and Netanyahu’s erstwhile main challenger for the Likud leadership. I wrote this in March:
Netanyahu and vice premier Silvan Shalom are long time rivals who do not like each other. The two go out of their way to antagonize each other by scheduling conflicting events and trying to embarrass the other through tactical voting on legislation, and Netanyahu even made sure that Shalom’s face was blocked in the official picture from the Cabinet meeting in which the Gilad Shalit deal was approved. While Shalom often comes across in these confrontations as bumbling and hapless, his resentment of Netanyahu is at the boiling point and Bibi cannot afford to make any of the younger MKs unhappy and risk a genuine leadership challenge within Likud.
Shalom has formally challenged Bibi to be head of Likud twice and both times he has lost, but he is still constantly looking for an opening. Today, while speaking to Moshe Rosenbaum, who is the chairman of the Beit El regional community council which has jurisdiction over Ulpana, Shalom called for an authorization law that would retroactively legalize all settlements and outposts since he believes that fighting for individual hilltops on a case by case basis is not supportive enough of the settlement project at large. These comments came after a cabinet meeting of senior ministers (which did not include Shalom) in which no decision was taken on whether to comply with the High Court order to demolish Ulpana by July 1, and in the midst of pressure from Likud MKs for the government to pass a law bypassing the High Court entirely.
As I have said a couple of times this week, bringing Kadima into the government gives Netanyahu lots of room to maneuver within the larger coalition, but it does nothing to alleviate – and even intensifies – his problem within his own party. Shalom is naturally trying to seize upon this, knowing that Netanyahu needs to placate the hardline members of what is after all a pro-settlement party but that doing so will cause trouble for Netanyahu with Mofaz and Kadima. Likud’s fault lines are being exposed, and it is going to be a Herculean task to try and keep the party in one piece without causing a major political crisis between the Knesset and the High Court. I don’t know that doing so is feasible, and I remain convinced that Likud is going to fracture and that an official split is coming at some point. Meridor staked out his position yesterday and Shalom has staked out his position today – the question is, where does Netanyahu ultimately stand? The answer is not one that he is going to be able to avoid providing for too much longer.
May 1, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Moshe Arens is a longtime Likud wise man, having served as foreign minister and three tours as defense minister, but his compass is off this morning. Writing in Haaretz, Arens argues that forcing the settlers in Ulpana to leave their homes is wrong similarly to the way that uprooting settlers as part of disengaging from Gaza was unjust. This is a perfectly understandable viewpoint, albeit one I disagree with. The problem is that Arens then makes an unfortunate comparison which is incorrect on a number of levels. Arens writes:
The government decision involved a blatant violation of the civil rights of thousands of Israeli citizens, and a petition against it was filed with the High Court of Justice – the ultimate protector of the civil rights of Israeli citizens and all those living under Israeli sovereignty or Israeli jurisdiction, the ultimate arbiter of complaints against injustice and unlawful acts. The court, nevertheless, upheld the government’s decision.
In retrospect, the massive uprooting of so many Israeli citizens from their homes, by force, is now seen by many as a gross miscarriage of justice, similar to the case of the expulsion of U.S. citizens of Japanese origin from their homes in World War II. That government decision was also upheld by a supreme court and regretted in later years. In both cases, force was used against citizens who had violated no laws.
No matter what your view is of the Gaza disengagement, the comparison with Japanese internment during WWII is a bad one. To begin with, Arens’s characterization of what happened during WWII is ahistorical to an extreme degree. Arens asserts that Japanese-Americans were expelled from their homes and thus compares them to settlers in Gaza who were also expelled from their homes. The problem with this is that U.S. citizens of Japanese origin were not simply expelled from their homes; they were also put in detention camps. It was not a matter of only telling Japanese-Americans where they couldn’t go, but also confining them to a specific area and keeping them there by force. The settlers who were forced to leave Gaza were placed under no such restrictions. Once the disengagement was carried out, they were free to go and live in any place of their choosing in Israel. Arens purposely muddies the waters here by referring to “expulsion” without once mentioning internment, thereby creating a false parallel between the two cases. No doubt he is aware of the entire history of the treatment of Japanese-Americans during WWII, even if he is counting on the fact that some of his readers are not.
Furthermore, Arens’s comparison between the two cases does not work because the circumstances are too dissimilar. Gaza was not Israeli sovereign territory but was under Israeli military control and administrative jurisdiction. This gave the state a lot more leeway in how it made and carried out decisions related to Gaza, and enabled the government and the military to take unilateral actions in the name of national security that would not be allowed within Israel’s borders. In addition, all settlers in Gaza were ordered to leave regardless of their race, ethnic origin, or any other category, because the disengagement applied to any Israeli citizen residing within a defined territory. No distinctions were made between different types of citizens since the military directive was a blanket one.
In contrast, the executive order signed by FDR designated parts of the West Coast as military areas despite the fact that they were on sovereign U.S. soil and were not under attack or part of any arena in which warfare was taking place. Their legal status was more complicated during wartime, but nobody was asserting that they constituted permanent extra-judicial territory. Furthermore, Civilian Exclusion Order Number 34 removed from the Western U.S. all citizens of Japanese ancestry and only citizens of Japanese ancestry. This was not a military order related to a particular territory like the Gaza disengagement, but was rather a military order related to a particular group of people. The dissents in Korematsu (with the exception of Justice Jackson’s) did not object to the notion of expelling citizens from a particular area for reasonable national security reasons but were predicated on the fact that citizens were expelled and then interned in camps solely because of their ancestry without regard to any other factor. This is certainly not what happened in Gaza. Arens implies that Korematsu is now viewed as a “gross miscarriage of justice” because it uprooted citizens from their homes, but that is only a half-truth. It is viewed this way because it uprooted citizens from their homes and then also detained them, and both of these decisions were based solely on race. As Justice Murphy wrote in his dissenting opinion:
The judicial test of whether the Government, on a plea of military necessity, can validly deprive an individual of any of his constitutional rights is whether the deprivation is reasonably related to a public danger that is so “immediate, imminent, and impending” as not to admit of delay and not to permit the intervention of ordinary constitutional processes to alleviate the danger….Justification for the exclusion is sought, instead, mainly upon questionable racial and sociological grounds not ordinarily within the realm of expert military judgment.
The Gaza disengagement does not fit the facts of Japanese internment during WWII at all. The settlers were not deprived of their rights in any way (Israel has no constitution, which is a completely separate problem) since any right to live in Gaza disappeared once the order was given to evacuate a territory under military administrative control, and the settlers were not discriminated against in any way. Arens understandably wants to connect what is now universally viewed in the U.S. as a national disgrace to what he views as an Israeli national disgrace, but the situations are too completely different to successfully make that comparison without purposely misleading on the facts, as Arens does.
The settlers who were uprooted from Gaza in many ways got a raw deal. The state encouraged them to go there in the first place and subsidized their lives there, and then following the disengagement did an abysmal job of compensating them for their economic losses. Their standard of living has dropped dramatically and the government has not followed through on its efforts to make them whole again. Nevertheless, the comparison to Japanese internment during WWII is an atrocious one, and Arens undermines his larger argument by making it.
April 26, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Today is Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, and while Israelis of all stripes are celebrating, it is pretty clear that Israeli politics is badly dysfunctional. This is not a new phenomenon by any means, but it appears to have gotten worse over the last decade. Amir Mizroch had a fantastic post yesterday outlining some of the problems, and almost all of them stem from the legislative gridlock and political hostage-taking that characterize the Knesset and government by coalition. As Mizroch puts it,
It is crystal clear that we need to change the system of government, to make government more accountable to the voters, to break the power of small sectoral parties, and to stabilize our governments so that they can rule for at least 4 years and carry out long-term projects of national importance. We cannot continue to swap governments every 2 to 3 years. Nothing of consequence gets done.
The problem, of course, is that the party that gets the most seats in elections (or in the current Knesset, the second most seats) never has even close to a majority and so has to rely on an increasingly disparate set of smaller parties to form a coalition. Each of these parties has different interests and demands which conflict with those of its coalition partners, and the prime minister’s party ends up making concessions to the most extreme coalition members, who know that they can hold the government hostage by threatening to leave if their demands are not met. In addition, little is actually passed or implemented since only legislation that appeals to every party in the coalition will get through the Knesset, except for certain situations when the opposition parties agree with a measure that the ruling party introduces. Knesset coalitions are inherently unstable because of this constant tension between conflicting interests, and thus governments fall with alarming regularity. The problem has only worsened over the past twenty years, as the share of the leading party has shrunk from 44 seats in 1992 to 28 seats today (and Likud, which formed the government, only has 27). This means that Israel is likely to see politics pulled even more to the extremes as smaller parties gain even more leverage to advance their particular issue.
Take the example of the current Netanyahu government, which has appeared to buck the trend and has been remarkably stable. In the past two weeks alone there have been numerous threats from Likud partners that they will pull out of the coalition if the government complies with a High Court order to demolish the Ulpana neighborhood in Beit El, while at the same time Ehud Barak has insisted that the neighborhood must go (although he has since appeared to back down). The Tal Law, which exempts Haredim from military service, was ruled unconstitutional in February, prompting Shas and UTJ to threaten to leave if a legislative workaround was not passed, and Yisrael Beiteinu to then threaten to leave if it was. All the while, Netanyahu and Likud have no choice but to cater to their partners’ demands as the only way out would be to invite Kadima into the government, which cannot happen since Shaul Mofaz has one more Knesset member than Netanyahu and would therefore never agree to serve in a coalition in which he was not prime minister.
How did Israel arrive at this morass? It has come about through Israel’s system of party list proportional representation voting, meaning that voters cast one vote for a single party and then Knesset seats are allocated in rough proportion to the percentage of votes each party receives. The big advantage to this system is that of proportionality, which allows for many different voices in the Knesset and gives smaller parties that would never have a chance of winning a seat in a multi-district first-past-the post election an opportunity to actively participate in legislative politics and even be part of the government. The disadvantages, which are obvious to anyone who has either taken an introductory comparative politics course or spent a minimal amount of time observing Israeli politics, are that there is less accountability as people don’t know who their direct representative is and parliaments get bogged down and become more susceptible to extremes in order to placate small coalition parties. Sound familiar?
Aside from the practical issues laid out above, there are some genuine philosophical problems with a proportional representation electoral system as well. In a sense, it is extremely anti-democratic because more voters will have voted against the ruling party than for the ruling party. Bibi Netanyahu is prime minister despite his party getting only 21.6% of the votes cast, and the Interior Ministry is controlled by Shas with its 8.5% of the vote, which seems like a fundamental problem when we think about the fact that we associate democracy with majority rule. This is not an issue that is particular to Israel at all, as it plagues all proportional representation systems. In fact, it is not even particular to PR, since it rears its head in winner-take-all voting systems as well, such as the one we use right here in the United States. For instance, in the 2010 House elections, Bill Owens won the election in New York District 23 with 48% of the vote. This means that a majority of the voters in his district voted to send someone else to Congress, yet Congressman Owens won anyway. Similarly, Bill Clinton became president in 1992 with only 43% of the vote, meaning that 57% of voting Americans wanted someone else in the White House.
Furthermore, when Israelis go to vote, they are not able to express their true range of preferences because they only check off the name of one party. Most voters though have strong opinions about the full slate of parties competing, and would jump at the chance to communicate those opinions and have them translate into results. For example, when an Israeli looks at his ballot during the next Knesset elections, he may want Labor to win but want just as much for Likud to lose, or he may want Atid to win if Labor does not, but there is no way of communicating that preference as he only gets to put his first choice on the ballot. This is another way in which party list PR restricts democratic choice, and it also has the unintended consequence of making politicians write off voters who might favor someone else. A voter who is decided in favor of Labor but likes Atid as a second choice is of no value to Yair Lapid, and Lapid has no incentive to appeal to that voter or take his views into account. This in turn encourages a less open-minded approach on the part of parties and politicians, as the incentives are structured to appeal only to those who list you as their first choice and to ignore everyone else, furthering a narrow set of partisan interests and hardening viewpoints.
So what is the solution to this whole mess of a broken Israeli political system? There are undoubtedly others, but mine is a system of voting that encourages parties to appeal to the widest group of people possible, while simultaneously taking into account the full range of voters’ preferences in an effort to make elections even more democratic. Such a system is used in Australia and Ireland, and it is called single-transferable voting. It works by having voters rank the parties on the ballot in order of first preference to last preference, rather than only checking off one, and a party has to meet a quota in order to get a seat (for anyone interested in the math, the quota is generally the number of votes divided by one more than the number of parliamentary seats, plus one). When votes are tallied, these preferences are taken into account so that being listed as a voter’s second or third choice boosts a party’s chances of winning the election, in a manner similar to how Major League Baseball and the NFL vote for their season MVPs.
The advantages to voting this way are manifold. Because voters get to indicate their full range of preferences, outcomes are more representative of voter opinion. More importantly for our purposes, however, parties have to appeal to as many voters as possible, since being listed at the bottom of voters’ ballots makes it extremely difficult to win a seat. This desire to be people’s second and third choice, and not only their first choice, means that parties running in the elections cannot afford to ignore voters who have decided on someone else, as each marginal vote is important for winning. This has the effect of eliminating extreme single issue parties that are only looking for benefits for their constituents, but it also does not mean that single issue voters are ignored entirely since parties are looking to pick up votes wherever they can. In addition, in order to appeal to a wide range of voters, parties must also consider a wide range of viewpoints, making moderation, compromise, and bipartisanship a hallmark of STV voting systems.
Translated to the Knesset, this would mean larger parties representing a wider swath of voters, making unstable coalitions with multiple conflicting interests a thing of the past. It would also make for less extremist positions, as someone like Avigdor Lieberman or Danny Danon would turn off so many people that it would hurt his party’s prospects of winning by garnering so many last place votes. In short, Israel would have more stable governments that were less in thrall to smaller extremist sectoral parties, and far more would be accomplished. I am under no illusions that this system will ever be instituted in Israel since it would threaten far too many entrenched interests, and the Knesset is too dysfunctional to even enact such a change if it wanted to, so it will remain a pipe dream. But for anyone who is at their wit’s end over the state of Israeli politics, it is worth realizing on this Yom Haatzmaut that it does not have to be this way, and that Israel’s political system is a victim of its own structure.