…let it be this. I clearly do not share Steven’s reluctance to write about Israel, but he should do it more often since he is dead on about a one-sided view that has taken hold among center-left intellectuals and commentators about Israeli leadership. Do I think that Netanyahu is a particularly good prime minister? No, I don’t. Would I vote for Likud were I an Israeli citizen? Absolutely not. But there needs to be a greater recognition among those who tend to pen critiques of the current Israeli government that to some extent it is trapped into a corner by coalition politics and the Israeli electoral system.
This does not excuse a host of wrong-headed Israeli policies that restrict speech or minority rights, and it certainly does not excuse much of what takes place in the West Bank. It does, however, mean that Israel is like any other democracy that uses a proportional representation system of voting and that requires coalition building. For a variety of reasons, Knesset coalitions increasingly rely on smaller parties to sustain them as the traditional powerhouse parties no longer command the share of votes that they once did, and this means that shifts in policy can more easily bring down a government and that extremist parties and figures can hold the government hostage.
In 1992, Labor won 44 seats and Likud won 32. In 1996, Labor won 34 and the Likud alliance won 32. In 1999, the Labor alliance won 26 and Likud 19. You can obviously see the developing trend, bringing us to 2009 when Kadima won 28, Likud 27, and Labor was a distant fourth with 13. It takes 61 seats to control the Knesset, and the percentage of seats that the winning party controls has nosedived. As I pointed out yesterday, there is no slack at all in Netanyahu’s current coalition and so whether he is inclined to moderate on some issues or not, he is for all intents and purposes stuck.
In addition, it cannot escape notice that the Israeli populace is a lot more hardline these days in light of the Palestinian response to the Gaza disengagement (and yes, I know the withdrawal was and still is in many ways incomplete, but rockets aimed at civilians are still rockets aimed at civilians), the 2006 war with Hizballah, the global BDS movement, and last but certainly not least an imminent nuclear Iran. It is easy to blame everything on right wing reactionary politicians, but in democracies politicians reflect their constituent populations, and Israelis have many good reasons to feel shell-shocked these days. Sure, Bibi is rightwing and hawkish by nature, but attributing illiberal trends in Israeli politics to nothing more than “Bibi is a fascist” is lazy analysis that does not capture even a smidgen of what is going on in Israel today.