The Lebanonization of Israeli politics and next week’s Knesset elections


Daniel Levy, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, has written in Foreign Policy what’s perhaps the best piece I’ve read in the U.S. media — or the Israeli media, for that matter — on next Tuesday’s upcoming Israeli elections, where he makes the point that Israeli politics has become both incredibly fragmented and ossified: ISrel Flag IconLebanon

Alongside [Naftali] Bennett’s rapid rise, Jan. 22 is best understood as a “Tribes of Israel” election — taking identity politics to a new level. Floating votes may exist within the tribes of Israel, but movement between tribes, or political blocs, is almost unheard of. Israelis seem to relate their political choices almost exclusively to embedded social codes rather than contesting policies.

By Levy’s estimation, although voters may swing from party to party within a larger bloc, most Israeli voters remain within one of four essential ‘tribes’:

[Prime minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s Zionist right (including the far right and national religious right), [former foreign minister Tzipi] Livni’s Zionist center (only Meretz still defines itself as Zionist left), the ultra-Orthodox bloc, and the bloc overwhelmingly representing Palestinian Arab citizens.

Not so long ago, you could make the credible argument that Israeli politics was essentially a two-party democracy, with the center-right Likud (הַלִּכּוּד‎, ‘The Consolidation’) of figures like Yitzhak Shamir and Menachem Begin and the center-left Labor (מפלגת העבודה הישראלית) — and from the 1960s through the end of the 1980s, the ‘Alignment’ (המערך) — of figures like Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres.

Sure, there were third parties and ultra-orthodox and Israeli Arab parties back then, too, but Likud and Labor/Alignment would often win two-thirds or more of the seats in the Knesset (הכנסת), Israel’s unicameral parliament.  In the most recent 2009 Israeli elections, however, Likud and Labor won a cumulative 40 seats — exactly one-third of the Knesset, and given the proliferation of personality-based parties in Israeli politics, it’s clear that Israel has moved to a system with much less long-term party affiliation and discipline.

As Levy makes demonstratively clear in his piece, however, each of his four identified ‘tribes’ contain multiple parties:

  • The ‘Zionist right’ includes not only Likud and its campaign partner, the secular nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu (ישראל ביתנו‎, ‘Israel is Our Home’) that appeals especially to Russian Jewish immigrants and is led by former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, who has resigned in light of ongoing legal troubles, but also Bennett’s upstart, conservative Bayit Yehudi (הבית היהודי, ‘The Jewish Home’).
  • The ‘Zionist center-left’ is more or less hopelessly fragmented into five parties — Labor, under Shelly Yacimovich, which is pushing economic issues in this election; Livni’s new party, Hatnuah (התנועה, ‘The Movement’), which is pushing mainly Livni in this election; Livni’s old party, the now-hemorrhaging Kadima (קדימה, ‘Forward’); Yesh Atid (יש עתיד, ‘There is a Future’), another personality-based party formed in 2012 by former television news anchor Yair Lapid; and Meretz (מרצ, ‘Energy’), the only truly leftist party in Israel with any remaining strength.
  • the ultra-Orthodox, or the haredim, the most conservative (in this case, religious conservatism, not necessarily political) followers of Judaism, including both the Middle Eastern sephardim that back the largest of the haredi parties, Shas (ש״ס) and Am Shalem (עם שלם, Whole Nation), a breakaway faction from Shas, as well as the Central and Eastern European ashkenazim that back the United Torah Judaism (יהדות התורה המאוחדת) coalition.
  • the Israeli Arabs, which include three parties that are each expected to win a handful of seats in the Knesset — Balad, Hadash and the United Arab List-Ta’al.

A look at the recent polling bears out Levy’s thesis — there’s a shift away from the ‘Likud Beiteinu’ alliance and a shift toward the Jewish Home, and there’s a massive shift away from Kadima in favor of Livni’s party, Labor and Yesh Atid.  By and large, however, the ‘right/religious’ seats would go from 65 to 67, and the ‘center/left/Arab’ seats would go from 55 to 53.  That’s not a whole lot of change, and that’s why, since Netanyahu called early elections, it’s been almost certain that Netanyahu will remain prime minister (though it’s more unclear whether he’ll govern with a more rightist or centrist coalition).

Levy’s harsh conclusion is that Israel is coming to resemble apartheid-era South Africa.

But it looks to me even more like the highly choreographed confessional politics of its northern neighbor, Lebanon.

Israel’s demographic trends make it very likely that its population will become more polarized (like Lebanon’s) in the coming years — Israeli haredi and Israeli Arab populations are growing much faster than secular Jewish populations, such that the haredim and Arabs, taken together, will outnumber the rest of Israel’s population within the next 40 years.  As such, the disintegration of two-party Israeli politics into de facto confessional politics in Israel is cause for worry.

First, some background.

Lebanon’s elections are conducted according to an idiosyncratic method of ‘confessional distribution.’  Under the Taif Agreement, which ended the Lebanese Civil War in 1989, each confession — or religious community in Lebanon — receives a set number of allocated seats in Lebanon’s 128-member unicameral parliament (مجلس النواب).

Currently, Sunni and Shi’a Muslims each hold 27 seats, while the Druze have eight and the Alawite have two; on the Christian side, Maronites hold 34 seats, Greek Orthodox hold 14, Melkite (Greek Catholic) hold eight, Armenian Orthodox five, Armenian Catholic, Protestant and other Christians one each.

It adds up in such a way that Christians and Muslims each hold half of the seats, though the two main coalitions in current Lebanese politics are much more complex than just ‘Christian’ and ‘Muslim’ — indeed, throughout much of Lebanon’s modern history, the Maronite and Sunni elite often joined forces to the detriment of the poorer Shi’a.

The two current Lebanese coalitions, the ‘March 8’ and ‘March 14’ coalitions, were originally formed in 2005 on the basis of their stance vis-a-vis Syrian influence on Lebanese politics.  So while the ‘March 8’ coalition includes many Shi’a and Greek Orthodox, it also contains some high-profile Maronites and Sunni as well, although the ‘March 14’ coalition includes many Maronite Christians and Sunni Muslims.  Lebanon’s top Druze leaders originally supported the ‘March 14’ coalition, but forced a change in government and prime minister when it switched its backing to the ‘March 8’ coalition in 2011.

The good news is that Lebanon’s system, with the glaring exception of its decade-long civil war in the 1980s, has generally worked well — in the past two decades, the country has weathered numerous military attacks from Israel, the assassination of a prime minister and tumult from the horrific civil war in neighboring Syria, all without returning to sectarian violence.

The bad news is that, as the Lebanese population diverged from the parliament’s distribution (set at a ratio of 6:5 between Christians and Muslims from 1943 until the agreement of the Taif Agreement), Shi’a and other groups became increasingly disenfranchised and the Lebanese government remained too divided among varying interests to wield sufficient power to prevent a collapse into civil war.

So when you think of the breakdown of Israel’s current Knesset (which, as a 120-member unicameral parliament, already features a strikingly similar structure to Lebanon’s) and the breakdown of the Knesset after next week’s elections, it’s not difficult to see a similar religio-political distribution.

Those ‘tribal’ distribution are not set as de jure law, but the lines have become nearly as calcified, though as haredi and Arab populations grow, you might expect their ‘tribes’ to win a larger share of the seats (barring massive disenfranchisement of Israeli Arabs).  Despite the lack of a formal ‘Israeli Taif Agreement,’ however, Israel remains a Jewish state — Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip cannot vote, and the political and civil rights of Israeli Arabs remain under constant pressure (i.e., attempts to ban Arab parties or candidate from running in Knesset elections, such as the recent attempt to bar Balad MK Haneen Zoabi).

As the Israeli Arab population increases, the concept of a strictly Zionist nation, rather than a pluralist, multinational state of Jews, Arabs and even Christians (both Arab and non-Arab Christians comprise over 2% of Israel’s current population) becomes increasingly problematic, in the same way that a growing Shi’a population became increasingly disenfranchised within Lebanon in the 1960s through the 1980s.

I’m not certain we can foresee what the ‘Lebanonization’ of Israeli politics will mean for policy in the next half-century, least of all with respect to Israel’s approach to Palestine, a potential peace deal, the ongoing West Bank settlements, water policy, the status of Jerusalem, etc. And that’s not even starting to think about regional relations, U.S.-Israeli relations, economic issues or the effect on, say, Arab and haredi participation in the Israeli Defense Force (one of the biggest issues in Israeli politics in 2012 was how to handle haredi objections to military service and the Tal Law that deals with exceptions to obligatory national service).

But the days of two-party Israeli politics are likely over for good, and with them, it seems, the ability of a Begin or a Rabin or even an Ehud Barak to mobilize sufficient political support to effect major policy acts, including, of course, the ever-elusive possibility of a peace deal with the Palestinians.

Correction: The mistaken use of the plural ‘haredim’ for the singular ‘haredi’ has been revised from the original version.

2 thoughts on “The Lebanonization of Israeli politics and next week’s Knesset elections”

  1. ” or the effect on, say, Arab and haredim participation in the Israeli Defense Force”

    Haredim is the plural form of the word, you should be using the singular Haredi here (the same way you used Arab rather than Arabs)

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