More from the text of my talk to the Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut, delivered in New London, Jan. 20:
Ehud Barak won about 57 percent of the direct vote of Israelis in 1999 on Barak’s claim that he would finally end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But Barak ran up against a problem that few of us look at: Israel’s electoral system is dysfunctional.
We start with the fact that Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, is elected with an extreme form of proportional representation. There are no single constituency districts for seats in the Knesset; for the sake of elections, the entire country is one giant constituency with competing parties presenting electoral lists and how many of each party are elected depends upon how many votes a list gets in relation to these competing lists. It’s a mathematical exercise: lists that don’t get enough votes to elect two people do not pass the qualifying threshold. But this threshold, at about two percent, is very low relative to other countries with proportional representation. So many small parties are able to get into the Knesset and no single party has ever been able to win an outright majority of the vote. As a result, every government has always been a coalition that is blackmailed– in effect– forced to protect certain minority interests.
There was a short-term effort to reform this system that failed dismally: for three elections– 1996, ‘99 and 2001– the electorate cast one separate vote for prime minister, and another for a party list running for the Knesset. Actually, 2001 was only a vote for prime minister, something that would have been impossible under the previous system. Immediately after the 2001 election, the Knesset eliminated the separate ballot for prime minister and the old system was mostly restored. As a result of the most recent election in 2006, Members of the Knesset represent 11 separate lists and as many as 17 distinct political parties– some of these 11 lists include an alliance of two or three political parties which have agreed to run on a common list.
The reason that I’ve gotten into all this is that this proportional representation system makes Israeli governments weak and unstable. They are weak in that they often have to incorporate a large number of parties and different interests to achieve a majority in the Knesset; in a parliamentary form of government (unlike the separation of powers system we have in the US with a separately elected Congress and executive), a government cannot stay in office if it cannot command the support of a majority of the 120 Members of the Knesset.
The major political parties are weak and getting weaker. The current government of Ehud Olmert has a ruling party, Kadima, with only 29 seats. Olmert has cobbled together a coalition government in partnership with four or five other parties. The traditional major political parties have both plummeted in strength to historic lows: 19 seats for Labor and 12 for Likud.
Going back to Ehud Barak’s short-lived government in 1999-2000, his failures were partly due to the unstable coalition that he led. One of his coalition partners was the National Religious Party– an old Zionist party that has become quite right-wing in recent years because it is the most fervently supportive of the militant settler movement. Due to a combination of his sense of pragmatism and his bad judgment, Barak allowed this party to drive his policy on the settlements, and in fact during his short rein, even though he was the defacto liberal or left-wing prime minister, settlements were expanded.
As bold as Barak was in certain ways, he was not so bold as to break with precedent and have one or more Israeli-Arab parties in his coalition. This would have given him a more stable base than having right-wingers as part of his government. Since support from Israeli-Arab voters was critical in his decisive election victory, Israeli-Arabs felt insulted and grievously alienated from Israel because Barak failed to reward them politically. They were further alienated when 13 Arab citizens of Israel were killed by police in violent demonstrations in October 2000, after the intifada had started. It is widely agreed that the police used lethal force unnecessarily in this incident.
There were important ways that Barak failed his test as a political leader and a diplomat. But his unstable coalition forced him into a make-or-break desperate negotiation with Arafat at Camp David in the summer of 2000. This was after Barak had let a year go by without any effort at negotiation or agreement with the Palestinians (guaranteeing that he’d alienate the Palestinians).
Probably all who were involved made mistakes at Camp David. Barak was guilty of not taking, nor even seeking, advice and ad libbing his way in these negotiations. He proved that he had not made a successful transition from being a military officer and commanding general who gave orders to subordinates, rather than a political leader who needed to negotiate and compromise with other political leaders.
I wish that Arafat had responded positively to Barak’s take-it or leave-it style of negotiating, but he was disinclined to do so. It is possible that Arafat was never reliable as a partner for peace, but I don’t think it was because he was incapable of peace. I think rather that Arafat was always a schemer who was alert to keeping his options open; but if the peace process had been going well, I think he would not have opposed it. When it was failing, after the Camp David Summit, he was not inclined to go out of his way to save it. I don’t believe that he orchestrated the violence that became the second Intifada at the end of Sept. 2000, but he thought wrongly that some violence would help his negotiating position. He also thought that once started, he could control it to his advantage. He was entirely mistaken.
Instead, he destroyed Barak politically and caused the entire peace camp to be thrown out of power in the election of Feb. 2001, which overwhelmingly elected Ariel Sharon. Sharon himself had helped instigate the Intifada by insisting on marching on the Temple Mount, with the provocative escort of hundreds of Israeli security personnel; the Intifada broke out the very next day as Arab protestors started to pelt Jewish worshipers at the Western Wall with rocks. Israel responded with tear gas and lethal gunfire.
Even so, we can look back at Barak’s short stint as prime minister for not only his failure, but also for how close he came to success. In the time that he was not negotiating with the Palestinians, he came to literally within a few meters of a peace treaty with Syria; a few meters one way or the other is all that separated the parties. And in January of 2001, Israelis and Palestinians again met at Taba, Egypt, where they came very close to finishing a deal when time literally ran out, the elections took place and Ariel Sharon took office with a mandate NOT to negotiate. Click for Part 4.
You did a good job of explaining the problems with Israel’s political system. The standard history of Zionism and Israel cited a study that termed Israel’s democracy “the most dysfunctional democracy in the industrialized world.” The problem is that the system was designed to be inclusive rather than effective and was designed by those who had little practical experience in democracy. Remember, the vast majority of Israeli Jews came from either Eastern Europe or the Muslim lands–regions that were not democratic when they left. And the direct-election “reform” of 1996 was not designed in consultation with political scientists, but rather by parochial politicians who did not understand the difference between a parliamentary system and a presidential system. Worse, many Israelis harbor deeply anti-democratic attitudes typical of Latin America or 19th century France.
Regarding the Oslo process if you read Shlomo Ben-Ami’s memoirs he explodes the myth that Taba was a major advance for the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and that the two sides were close to a solution. The Palestinians never gave up their demand for a “right of return” of refugees to Israel and Arafat collaborated with the Islamist terrorist organizations as much as he acted against them. Barak did come close to a deal with Assad, but lost his nerve at the last minute and attempted to renege on his previous understandings. This is why Israel should focus its negotiating on a deal with Syria now rather than on the Palestinians. Basher al-Assad’s father was ready for a deal with Israel on terms that the latter could live with; Israel should determine if his son is also ready for such a deal.