Tuesday, 9 February 2010

The Need for Israeli Electoral Reform

[This text was first published approximately a year ago as an article in "Dateline: Middle East" (http://www.isranet.org/Dateline/DatelineHome.htm)]

On January 12th, the Knesset Central Elections Committee voted to ban two Arab lists from participating in February’s national elections. The ban, which had been proposed by the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party, was to apply to the Arab nationalist Balad party and to the joint list of the United Arab List and Ta’al. The committee’s decision to impose this ban was subsequently overturned by the Israeli Supreme Court on January 21st.

The ban highlights Israel’s acute need for electoral reform. The current electoral system based on proportional representation has become a major impediment to the stability and moderation of Israeli political life. Israel is a country of sharp social cleavages, and while proportional representation may once have been necessary to represent diverse groups within the state, today it undermines that state’s very cohesiveness.

The two banned Arab lists represent another brand of Israeli political extremism. Balad’s former leader, Azmi Bishara, has been charged with collaborating with Hezbollah in wartime and has chosen to go into exile rather than face this accusation in Israel‘s courts. His replacement, Jamal Zahalka, loudly denounces Israel as an apartheid state. The Or Commission set up to investigate the violence of October 2000, during which twelve Israeli-Arab protesters were killed by police, found that both Bishara and Abdulmalik Dehamshe (of the UAL) had contributed to the conflict by suggesting the use of violence in achieving the goals of Israel’s Arab minority.

While the possibility of banning extreme political parties is necessary for the defense of legitimate public dialogue, the events of this year brought the ban mechanism itself into the spotlight. When Yisrael Beiteinu resorted to the ban, it was not principally because its leaders had the integrity of Israeli democracy at heart. Instead, the banning of parties served a sectarian electoral agenda. Moreover, the ban’s eventual reversal represented no great victory for democracy either, because, as has been noted, Balad and the UAL also live on the fringe of legitimate democratic debate.

The peculiar thing about the ill-fated ban is that it showcased extremist political forces, marginalised the mainstream, and poisoned intercommunal relations in Israel. The ban’s failure or success is largely beside the point: the salient fact in all this is that the ban mechanism itself served as a central issue for extremist politics, instead of a defence against them. Rather than clearing the way for moderate and rational debate, the ban issue actually forced the mainstream parties into secondary roles. This is a clear sign that a thoroughly reformed electoral system is necessary for the protection of the integrity of Israel’s democratic politics.

The unfortunate upshot of the ban saga is that both extremist camps—ethnonationalist Jews and ethnonationalist Arabs—have made political gains, and Israeli society as a whole is the loser. The unhappy events surrounding the ban have shown that Israel needs an electoral system that favours large parties. In such a system, ethnopolitical extremists would be forced to choose between relative obscurity in the electoral hinterland, or a mainstream party. It would no longer be possible for two opposing fringe tendencies, each representing the extremes of Israeli society, to set the tone of the national debate or to inject into national political discourse such an unwarranted level of bitterness and antidemocratic bombast.

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