Jerusalem Letter / Viewpoints

No. 471   19 Shvat 5762 / 1 February 2002


Haim Ramon

The Tribes of Israel / Surveying the Future Political Map / Expect Increased Political Divisions / Direct Election was Good for Labor / The Arab Sector / The Moderating Effect of the Two-Ballot System

Following the last prime ministerial elections held in Israel in February 2001, the Knesset voted to change the electoral system and restore the former system. Instead of separate ballots for prime minister and for political party, in the next nationwide elections, currently scheduled to take place by the fall of 2003, voters will again be given only one ballot -- for political party -- and the leader of the party that is able to put together a majority coalition in the Knesset will become prime minister.

The Tribes of Israel

In Israel, when referring to a political party, we mean its cultural, religious, and social identity more than its ideological identity. In fact, parties may be seen to represent tribes which have developed over the years in the State of Israel. This is not a new phenomenon, but it has become more pronounced over the years. Already in the 1970s we could identify the two largest tribes, with most Sephardi and traditional Jews voting for Likud, and most secular and Ashkenazi Jews voting for the Labor party. This is a deep-seated phenomenon that goes beyond ideology. Whoever votes for right-wing parties in Ramat Aviv is almost considered a traitor to the tribe, while on the other side, a resident of the Hatikva Quarter in Tel Aviv who votes for the Labor party is considered to be an anomaly and an exception.

As this phenomenon has increased, a number of additional tribes have appeared on the new political map:

A. The Arab tribe: In the initial decades of the state, the Zionist parties and their satellite Arab parties received 60-70 percent of the Arab vote, but today the percentage is minimal and getting smaller. In my opinion, in the next elections, all of the Zionist parties together will receive at most 20 percent of the Arab vote. This situation is due to processes which Israeli Arabs are undergoing wherein they prefer to vote for Arab parties, for reasons which are beyond the scope of this review.

B. The Immigrant tribe: This is a relatively new tribe which formed beginning in 1989 with the large wave of aliya that brought one million people to Israel, who now comprise some 15 percent of the voting public. At this point, the majority of immigrants vote for the so-called "Russian" parties. However, there is a constant movement from Russian cultural identity to an Israeli identity, although this shift is happening more slowly than with other immigrant groups in the past due to the power and size of the aliya from the former Soviet Union. Attempts by the Russian aliya of the early 1970s to establish a Russian party failed, and the immigrants of those years quickly merged into Israeli life. But this time the immigrant community from the former Soviet Union understood its strength and translated it into political power beginning in 1996.

C. The Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) tribe: This is a clear and stable tribe which includes 8-10 percent of the population who vote for ultra-Orthodox parties, whether Yahadut Hatorah (the current configuration of the historical Agudat Yisrael party) or Shas (which has a hard core of Sephardi Haredi voters).

Let us take a closer look at two other tribes that cannot be so easily classified. The Sephardi tribe does not only vote for Shas, and usually it divides its votes between Shas, for which it voted overwhelmingly in the last elections, and Likud. In general, this is a tribe of significant size that can be characterized as Sephardi and traditional.

In contrast, as indicated earlier, the majority of the secular-Ashkenazi tribe can be roughly characterized as being on the left side of the map, but geographically, members of the Ashkenazi group can be found everywhere in Israel. Most of the ideological core of the settlers in the territories, for instance, is Ashkenazi, even though they are also religious and vote for Likud and parties of the right. Therefore, a not insignificant group from the Ashkenazi tribe votes for Likud.

Mobility between these five tribes is very limited, since voting is not mainly ideologically-based. For example, people with right-wing views, including those in the "complete Land of Israel" group (according to Ben-Gurion's definition), were once counted among Labor party voters, because their culture originally developed within the Labor movement tribe. It is possible to change one's ideology, but there is no changing one's cultural identity and attachment to a particular tribe. The original party-based voting system arose in an atmosphere of thinking particular to the 1950s and 1960s, when there was, in fact, only one large party.

It is the social reality in Israel that determines the degree of sectoralism, as well as the arrogance of the two largest parties which for years did not know how to include all the tribes. Thus, there remains an Ashkenazi, mainly secular, oligarchy which did not bring in immigrants and Sephardim. For instance, the government in which I was a member in 1992 included 18 ministers, and out of those -- after Shas left the government -- there was only one minister of North African descent. Therefore, it is no wonder that each tribe decided to form its own party.

In my opinion, talk of a change in the electoral system as a solution to various problems is unrealistic. Sectoralism and the new political map are not the outcome of a change in the voting system, but rather they are the result of the social-cultural reality in the State of Israel.

Thus, in reality, those who advocated the original change in the law were living in a political and social anachronism. They did not understand that the State of Israel today is not what it once was. The secret to success today is the ability to bridge the gaps between the tribes, in spite of opposing interests, between Jews and Arabs, secular and religious, immigrants and veterans. That is the Israeli political expertise needed today.

Surveying the Future Political Map

It may be expected that, even with the return to the previous one-ballot voting system, most immigrants will continue to vote for immigrant parties, even if their strength declines by a mandate or two.

As well, the ultra-Orthodox and the Arabs will continue to vote for their own parties. Shas may drop from its current 17 seats, but even if its number of mandates drops, its power will grow.

I asked my associates in the Labor party, from where do they expect the votes that will increase Labor's power? Looking at the left side of the map, Meretz should remain at more or less the same strength. It should be remembered that Meretz reached its peak of 12 seats in 1992 when the old system of no direct election for prime minister was still being used. Tommy Lapid and the secular Shinui party will remain strong since hatred for the ultra-Orthodox has not lessened but rather the opposite. The Likud, in contrast, will take a few mandates from Shas and the immigrant parties, and will gain from the dissolution of the Center party, the majority of whose supporters were Likud people.

Expect Increased Political Divisions

In the Labor party, people wonder why we are not winning support and believe that a return to the former system will improve our position. In contrast to this, I believe that the latest change in the system will paradoxically increase political divisions, which are a constant factor on the social map of Israel and which can be expected to increase in significance in the future.

As an example, let us recall the so-called "stinking maneuver" (a phrase coined by Yitzhak Rabin) in 1990 when Labor sought to replace Likud as leader of the government coalition. In that year there were a number of coalition-signing ceremonies between Labor and Agudat Yisrael, but Agudat Yisrael continued to negotiate with Likud in an attempt to gain better terms than in their agreement with Labor. At the time, Agudat Yisrael could tip the scales since their five mandates could determine who would be prime minister -- and not the general public. In 1990, Labor came to an unprecedented capitulation agreement. We were ready to pay Agudat Yisrael with ministerial appointments, money, and religious legislation in order to take over the government.

In the elections held under the new two-ballot, direct election system, a price was paid for control, but not to such an extent. In my opinion, with the return to the former system, a religious bloc consisting of Shas and Yahadut Hatorah will again be formed, and it will be able to determine who will be the prime minister. Even though these parties will be indebted to the right, they will have the ability to maneuver between the sides. Together they are expected to get 14 or 15 seats, and the key to the government will be in their hands.

Each side, left or right, will be ready to pay a high price for "peace" or for "the complete Land of Israel," each according to their worldview. In other words, the reality towards which we are marching could strengthen the sectoral divisions even more.

In 1999, Ehud Barak was elected by an amazing majority, which was simply wasted away. Shas was ready to expel the head of its party and take other drastic actions just to stay in the coalition, aware that the prime minister was not dependent on their benevolence.

Therefore, trying to get back to the past -- adopting a system that was right for a different society, and thinking that the system will change society -- is fundamentally wrong. It is not coincidental that most of those who headed the campaign for and against changing the electoral system were either veterans of the political system or their direct spiritual heirs. They include Shimon Peres, Moshe Arens, Yossi Beilin, Uzi Landau, and, together with them, certain academic political scientists who know nothing about practical politics.

Direct Election was Good for Labor

There is no doubt that the two-ballot, direct election system was good for the Labor party. Even though we did not win in all the elections, there was a chance to win. Therefore, why did we want to change the system to our disadvantage? In the elections of 1992, Rabin ran against Shamir. After 15 years of the Likud in power, and with Shamir worn out and tired, there was a feeling of "being fed up with the corruption." The right was divided and in trouble, while in contrast stood Rabin with his impressive record.

Even under these optimal conditions Labor only won by 2,000 votes. Miraculously, Labor succeeded in putting together a majority bloc of 61. All this was because the cultural identity of the voters was stronger than its ideology. This phenomenon also occurred in the elections of 1984 -- even those who had firmly decided not to vote for Likud went into the voting booth and with a shaking hand voted for Likud, in spite of the 400 percent inflation, the war in Lebanon, and Shamir as a "gray" prime minister in place of Begin.

In the case of the immigrant vote, in the elections of 1999, under the two-ballot system, approximately 70-80 percent of the immigrants voted for immigrant parties and the right, whereas Labor's candidate, Barak, received almost 60 percent in the direct election for prime minister.

From the other side of the political map, it seems that all of the religious and ultra-Orthodox MKs are on the right, even though nowadays a majority bloc can be formed without them. Under direct elections, however, the situation became different. In the elections of 1996, Peres received close to 15 percent from Shas voters, 5 percent from NRP voters, and even 3-4 percent from Likud voters who did not want Netanyahu. It can be assumed that with the restoration of the one-ballot system, support from these groups for the Labor candidate will be nil.

When Shimon Peres ran as the Labor candidate in 1996 there was no mention at all of the issue of religion and the state. In 1996, Shas was a religious party that did not identify itself as right-wing, and the party leadership even identified with Shimon Peres. In 1999, religion and state took a central place, and the religious parties -- Shas, NRP, and Yahadut Hatorah -- totally identified with Netanyahu.

In conclusion, under the direct election system, the Labor party candidate could use his full electoral potential, whereas in the single-ballot system that has now been restored, he or she cannot do that because the MKs are committed from the beginning to support one candidate or another. Therefore, in the next elections, Labor will have to achieve a majority bloc, and the chances for this are very slim, given the difficulties that I described even in the optimal conditions of 1992. The situation has become even worse for Labor because of aliya, demography, and, of course, the political situation. Returning to the former system is one of the most politically unwise acts in the history of the Labor party and of Meretz. A large number of members understand this today more than in the past, but I do not find much consolation in the fact that I was the only one in the Labor party who voted against the change.

The Arab Sector

In 1992, out of 10 mandates won by the Arab sector, two went to right-wing parties, not out of deep ideological identity but for other reasons, including those who voted for the National Religious Party (NRP), Shas, or Likud in the Knesset elections. In the direct election system, which first took effect in 1996, the Labor candidate for prime minister received nearly 100 percent of the Arab vote.

In 1992, the Arab parties signed an agreement with Labor to support the Rabin coalition from outside. This was the first time (excluding the Arab satellite parties of the 1950s and 1960s) that these parties entered into an agreement with the ruling coalition and were part of support for the government, though not formally a part of the coalition. In contrast to this, today's alienation in the Arab sector may be expected to worsen in the future. The Arabs will continue to be part of any bloc in opposition to Likud, but, due to radicalizing trends, it will be very difficult to picture them as a bloc supporting Labor. We should remember that when the Arabs did support Labor, together with Shas, we received 67 seats and put together a very solid coalition. The return to a one-ballot system will harm Jewish-Arab relations, and I have no doubt that the sectoralism among the Arabs will become more extreme as a result of the change. I foresee a break between the Zionist political parties and the Arab sector, as these parties do not have a chance with this population.

In the year 2000, the high abstention rate in the Arab sector was, in my opinion, very abnormal and not characteristic. However, today's situation is more difficult because the Arabs will not find their place in the Zionist parties. I said this to the Arab members of the Labor party who voted for a change in the voting method. For Labor to gain even a quarter or half of a mandate in the Arab sector will require a big investment. In other words, the majority of the Arab sector will vote for Arab parties and this will increase sectoral divisions.

The Moderating Effect of the Two-Ballot System

The two-ballot system had a number of other benefits. This system forced the candidates for prime minister to present a mainstream political stand. Thus, for instance, when Netanyahu ran in 1996, he adopted the Oslo process in order to be elected. Under that system, he had to invest great efforts to gain legitimacy on the left -- he went to the kibbutzim, he sat with left-wing reporters, because he knew that if he wanted to be elected under that system he needed those who, in his eyes, had opposed him.

After the change away from direct elections, Netanyahu changed direction and now he will be elected with slogans like "destroy Arafat and destroy the Palestinian Authority," and not with slogans of peace, because he needs to be seen as clearly and resolvedly on the right. This was true of Sharon, as well, who was elected by direct election under the slogan "Only Sharon will Bring Peace." The word "security" did not appear because he wanted to be a mainstream candidate. In the one-ballot system, the candidates do not need to be mainstream because, in any case, the party gets the votes. The leader needs to get elected within his or her own tribe. This necessity of prime ministerial candidates to look mainstream, even if they did not believe in this path themselves, worked to reduce extremism in the political system.

The ability to bridge between conflicts of interest in the two-ballot system was much greater. It is a fact that the government which was formed in 1999 included almost everyone and offered an incredible opportunity to integrate immigrants, ultra-Orthodox, the right, and the secular -- an opportunity that was lost due to poor management.

Today the Labor party is in the national unity government. Labor's problem is its actual current relevance in the eyes of the public. If the Labor party loses its relevance in the coalition or in the unity government, its voters will ask why they should vote for it and not directly for Sharon. I do not support leaving the unity government immediately, but Labor should not lose its own political, social, and economic identity. If it cannot offer alternative political, economic, and social ideas, then its existence is in danger.

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Haim Ramon is a Member of the Knesset from the Labor party who served as Minister of Health and Minister of Interior in the governments of Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, and Ehud Barak. In the early 1990s, as the elected chairman of the Histadrut General Federation of Labor, he oversaw a major restructuring of that organization, and was a leading advocate of legislation that reformed Israel's national health insurance system. This Jerusalem Viewpoints is based on the author's presentation at a conference on "Israel's Changing Political Map," sponsored by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in November 2001.

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