global politics, relationally

Remedial Math: The Israeli Election of 2015


Guest Post from: Daniel Bertrand Monk, Colgate University and Daniel Levine, University of Alabama

With one day remaining before Israel’s Knesset elections, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party appears poised to fall at least four seats short of its principal rival, the Zionist Camp (an amalgam of the Labor Party led by Yitzhak Herzog, and the remains of the Kadimah party led by Tzipi Livni), presently polling at about 25 seats.  Many pundits are now daring to suggest that a stable Left/Center coalition – unthinkable for well over a decade – may now be in the offing.   math20

The truth is quite different.  Unless a real upset occurs, the brute mathematics of Israeli politics suggest that it will be nearly impossible for anyone to build a stable coalition that can also govern the country. The President of Israel, Re’uven Rivlin, understands this well. Last week he summoned Netanyahu and Herzog to his residence in order to deliver a caution: when the election results are posted, instead of charging one of them to try to form a coalition, he may call on the two rivals to form a national unity government simply for the purpose of revising the electoral system. His well-founded fear is that the Israeli electoral system can’t produce stable coalition blocks and is lapsing into something resembling Italian-style paralysis.

Few American observers understand the extent of the Israeli political stalemate, even though it threatens to boomerang on US foreign policy in the region – again. Despite news flashes that Netanyahu’s political end may be near, he still faces a much shorter path to a forming a parliamentary majority.  That holds, even if the Likud party – now polling at about 21 seats – garners fewer votes than the Zionist Camp.  In tandem with its right wing allies (the 17-odd seats of the ‘Jewish Home’ and ‘Israel is Our Home’ parties), Likud has a clear path to what Bibi calls a ‘natural’ coalition with the ultra-orthodox factions (another 17-odd seats).  Netanyahu can fatten those margins by extorting the participation of centrist parties whose leaders genuinely fear the social and economic costs of the same ‘natural’ coalition’s rule.  Coalitional stability will be achieved at the expense of governance.  This is not a new story.  Since the 1990s, the two logics – getting to a 61-seat majority in Israel’s Parliament on the one hand, and actually forming a coherent sensus communis out of an increasingly fragmented electorate on the other – have been growing ever more orthogonal.

Conversely, if present polling figures hold, Herzog’s and Livni’s Zionist Camp cannot make its way to a stable governing coalition very easily. To arrive at suitable numbers, the Zionist Camp would have to break an established taboo and form a coalition with what is expected to be the Knesset’s third-largest block, and its newest – the Joint List, a coalition of Arab parties now polling at about 13 seats. The Zionist Camp would then have to persuade its other would-be coalition partners to do the same.  The pressure on those parties to defect would be enormous, and would only grow, if serious peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority were to resume.  The Zionist Camp’s only other option is an assortment of Orthodox parties, which would have, somehow, to be persuaded to sit in tandem with the same centrist parties that are intent upon checking their power.

Whether from the left or the right, then, the essential crisis of Israeli parliamentary democracy remains the same: there is an irreducible gap between coalitional stability and political legitimacy.

This situation explains the current rise of Israel’s centrist parties, which together account for a block of approximately 20 Knesset seats.  Popular support for them has been fueled by the electorate’s prioritization of social and economic justice concerns in a country that now boasts the largest gap on the planet between rich and poor. As we’ve argued elsewhere, however, the turn to ‘social issues’ – housing, health, and education – is actually an evasion.  That is, it is a means to avoid a direct confrontation between average citizens and those extorting, through coalitional blackmail and the implicit threat of extra-judicial violence, the ongoing maintenance of two overlapping para-states: one in the occupied territories, and one in ‘Israel proper’.  The former boasts an enormous, state-supported public housing project and an equally large, and equally expensive, mechanism for systematically containing and dispossessing Palestinians.  The latter is rigorously committed to a constant, moralizing rhetoric of free-market capitalism and public-sector belt-tightening – except when coalition obligations demand monumental ‘side payments’ to clerical parties for parallel and separate infrastructures in housing, education, and more.

The unspoken convention – and this is why talk of ‘social issues’ is actually an evasion – is to deny that these ‘para-states’ even exist, or that their constituents’ support of Israel is anything but conditional.

According to this ‘public secret,’ the separate infrastructures of the occupation and of the clerics can’t be challenged seriously, and the State is expected to survive on what remains.  If the public sector in ‘Israel proper’ is starved of funds, it is because of greedy plutocrats and inter-ethnic and secular-religious rivalries among Israeli Jews, rather than because of the enormous costs of occupation and settlement building.  While it should, theoretically, be possible to confront this convention, doing so cuts across the map of electoral politics as presently constituted. No matter how many times one plays the ‘fantasy coalition’ generators like the on Israel TV’s Channel 2, all Israeli elections result in a de facto preferential democracy.

The math is clear. There is no viable coalition that can govern Israel, except by renouncing governance in favor of an intolerable status quo and by periodic turns to military unilateralism.  Israel’s democracy cannot function except in dysfunction, as the centrifugal forces of income inequality, territorial para-politics, and sectarian kleptocracy continue to fragment the polity and the state even further.   The question is, for how long?

Author: Brandon Valeriano

Brandon Valeriano is the Donald Bren Chair of Armed Politics at the Marine Corps University.

  • Michael Kochin

    “Ending the occupation” means that Islamic State moves in to the fact the IDF will leave.
    You want the “”Zionist Camp” to form a coalition with parties pledged to Israel’s destruction, and supported by force that endorse killing Jews everywhere in the world.

    • Daniel Levine

      Hi Michael, thanks for this. I’m not sure what you’d have me/us say. The fact of the occupation and its effects are what they are. THere have always been good reasons/appealing tactics which mean defer or shift this conversation — Israel’s ‘dangerous neighborhood is one’ — and these have existed since long before IS came to the scene. (We could think of the pseudo-science of ‘defensible borders’ as another such tactic — the attempt to turn zionism’s inability to figure out its borders, with all that entails for the eschatological status of the modern israeli state, which Zionism also cannot figure out — into a technical-scientific-strategic conversation. In point of fact, no state of anything like Israel’s size can be ‘defensible’ in strict terms since the emergence of tank warfare; so I’m not sure what comes of such thinking. The only alternative is to make a place for Israel in the ME that’s not predicated on the logic of 19th century european national states…but that’s easier said than done. Just ask Arendt or Magness or Butler….)

      In the meantime, the occupation has its consequences, and there’s no getting away from that…we have ‘the iron laws of the polis’ as we get them from polybius’ time to our own. What we’re doing is trying to is confront — without any prevarication — the ‘stasis’ into which this polity seems clearly to have fallen. In the good (?) old days, the solution to that problem was a two-state solution. If indeed that two-state solution is impossible, then how else do we end the occupation? Dissolving the Israeli state into a binational one? A second nakba? I don’t like either of those, and I expect you don’t either. But we might understand why such ‘solutions’ are making steady inroads from the margins. Our point here is that, however unpleasant such thinking is, it’s necessary — and fantasies about a ‘buzi-meretz’ government or a return to 1992 are just that. For my part, I think the results of the elex. bear this out pretty well. But of course I agree with myself… 🙂

      • John

        Thanks for the interesting thoughts. I just have one question, which I ask many people who seem sad about the ‘demise’ of the two-state solution (if you read Edward Said in 1994, however, this is what he predicted from Oslo): why don’t you like the idea of a binational state? Why is that an unpleasant thought? Surely an arrangement could be made with suitable freedom of movement across a kind of federalized Israel & Palestine with equal rights (this is- basically- what existed until Oslo was implemented and the wall in the WB built, just without rights for the Palestinians in the WB, but movement was possible)? If it’s because of the Jewish-identity of Israel thing, then can’t that be incorporated into a properly crafted federal system? Obviously, the pragmatics of doing this are deeply complicated, but why is it not desirable? It seems- to me any many others- the only moral solution there is.

        • Daniel Levine

          First off, I’d dispute that account of what existed before Oslo. What existed before Oslo was, by my lights, a mechanism of ‘creeping annexation’ and economic ‘de-development’ which many had considered to be irreversible even by the early 1990s. Sarah Roy, Baruch Kimmerling, and Meron Benvenisti are key thinkers there. The innovation of Oslo was that it gave the PLO — and through them, Palestinians — a national-level standing to negotiate the details of that process and endow the Palestinians with some aspects of national sovereignty; but not to change it fundamentally. That’s why Said opposed Oslo; because it didn’t produce a Palestinian state worthy of the name. Said’s move to binationalism happens gradually as he begins to consider whether such a state is possible at all; or indeed, whether one is possible for Israelis. As he becomes persuaded that it’s not, and as he begins to take non-zionist Israeli/jewish political thinking more seriously in the late 90s/early 00s, binationalism becomes an option he begins to take up. I have an essay on this coming out in an edited volume by Brent Steele and Jack Amoreux called “Reflexivity in International Relations’; I’d be glad to share it.

          Second, I think the problem with binationalism is twofold. First, that there’s not yet a version of it which, to my lights at least, effectively addresses the problems of Jewish diaspora self-identity and security in late modernity. That’s not just an ‘identity thing’; Zionism — the idea that Jews should be self-determinate — emerged because of particular crises in late-modern politics in general and Jewish politics in particular. If those problems have gone away, or could be made to do so, then perhaps a sovereign jewish state is no longer needed. But that argument must be made, not stipulated. Second, the question is how one does the crafting of that federal system, and how one persuades the polities to commit to it. There is very little evidence that either party wishes to do so except at the margins. I agree such a solution could have obvious moral advantages; but the morality of a political proposition is not a measure of its viability.

          • Daniel Levine

            Oh, and to be clear: the fact that “i don’t like binationalism” doesn’t mean I couldn’t be persuaded it was the best of all possible options. But again, and argument needs to be made and not stipulated to.

          • John

            Thanks for the reply 🙂

            I’m still a little curious though about the language people use when discussing this. You put it as an “unpleasant” thought and see quite clearly that you don’t “like” the idea of a binational state. Others are much stronger on this. But in most cases it seems to me that the rejection of the idea is not just about its pragmatics. There is thus a certain dissonance for me between your question of how the “problems” of the binational state can be solved and the language used when rejecting the idea as non-viable, which seems beyond its practicality.

            So I guess what I’m asking is why don’t you like binationalism, even if you could be persuaded it is the “best of all possible options” (don’t you mean the least bad option, to read your words perhaps a bit too closely?). My assumption is that this is because Israelis in general, and those attached for various historical, cultural, political, and social reasons to the state of Israel, would seem ‘let down’ by the idea of a not-110% sovereign-Jewish state (even if the IDF, etc., remained, and to all intents and purposes Israel remained a very well armed ‘protector’ of Jewish interests)? If the latter is true- I have no idea if it is- then do you think there is any way to change that? Can Israelis, or people who support Israel outside its borders, ever be persuaded to fundamentally LIKE this idea and not simply begrudgingly accept it if in the long-term it happens out of circumstances?


          • Daniel Levine

            Hi John, thanks for pressing me on these issues. Speaking only for myself and not for Monk — I don’t like the thought of losing sovereignty because I’m a Jew who was born in the early 1970s, and I experienced a particular kind of remembered vulnerability. The Jews I knew who were born prior to 1948 — my elders — experienced an even-more-acute kind of existential fear, one which I did not have to experience. I liked (and like) not having to experience that, and I associated (and still associate) the existence of the Israeli state with it. Certainly, I’m also aware of the moral, political and other costs that state imposes; and my right to feel safe is neither absolute nor even necessary especially exigent. Even so, its loss, were I to lose it, would still be a loss, and the contemplation of it fills me with a certain dread. So, I don’t like the idea.

            There is also the fact that Israel was for many years my home, and one’s home is hard to replace. There are worse things than losing one’s home and my preferences may not be the most important considerations. But again, that loss would be experienced as a loss.

            Your last question is an important one: how would one learn to like the world that could come after…to replace that combination of antipathy and a vague sense of duty with the promise of something better — akin to HG Wells’ imaginings of a better world. Perhaps we need to start writing those stories — the star trek-like imaginings of something new and better, and building communities around those who respond to them. That’s a really exciting and interesting possibility. I’d love to read stories like that, or even — perhaps — to try and write them.

          • John

            Hey, thank you so much also for taking the time to reply: your response really resonates. I find it quite troubling that a lot of the discourse surrounding Israel-Palestine has forgotten, as it were, the fundamental emotional or experiential basis behind the creation of Israel. It’s definitely something that has to be brought back to the fore. This is also true for the Palestinians, of course. On the question of stories, I’ve always found Israeli and Palesitnian poetry most hopefully in this regard (the symmetry between Mahmoud Darwish and Yehuda Amichai is quite remarkable at times). IR should definitely make more space for this and if you wrote something I would be the first to read it 🙂