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20 2011

Israeli Politics 101 – Part 1

Syndicated from: Steve Paikin

This is the time of year when Christian pilgrims visit the Middle East to express their joy over the birth of Jesus.  And given that the holiest sites are both in Israel and the Palestinian territories, that is never a simple feat.   So, over the next few weeks, we'll be rolling out a daily blogpost on the historic challenges facing Israel and its Arab neighbours. 'Tis the season, after all.  We'll look at Israel's foreign policy challenges, particularly in light of Iran's quest for nuclear capability of some kind, new governments coming to power thanks to the Arab Spring, the impact of what increasingly looks like a civil war in Syria, and the perennial Palestinian problem.  We'll examine the massive problems within Israel itself: political, demographic, social, and economic.  Jewish worshippers praying at the Western Wall of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.   And at the end of it all, we'll present some conclusions about where this extraordinary state finds itself at the dawn of the 21st century.  These posts are all based on information gleaned during a week-long trip to the Middle East a few months ago.  First up: politics inside Israel. It's not like anything else you've ever seen. Here's a primer on Israeli Politics 101.  Enjoy... *   *   *  Both Israel and Canada have parliamentary democracies, but the similarities end there. In Canada, recent musings notwithstanding, coalition governments are extraordinarily rare. But in Israel, coalition governments are the norm, and the political skills required to keep them together are extraordinary. In Canada, if one of Stephen Harper’s cabinet ministers runs afoul of him, the prime minister can simply sack the minister. In Israel, not so, because chances are, the PM and the minister in question aren’t members of the same party. Try running a government when the prime minister, the finance minister, the foreign minister, and the defense minister all represent different parties. But the PM needs these strange bedfellows to stick together, or the government falls and he could lose his job. In Canada, the country is divided into 308 ridings and voters can place their X beside the candidate of their choice.  In Israel, there are no ridings, and no candidates’ names on the ballot --- only party names. There are 120 seats in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, making it one of the smallest national legislatures in the world. Why? Two thousand years ago, Israel was ruled by 120 wise men, as decreed in The Bible. So, when the state was recreated in 1948, the founders decided to keep that 120-member political body. Those 120 seats are divided on a pure proportional representation system. So plain and simply, if the Likud Party gets 10% of the votes, it gets 10% of those 120 seats. And which politicians actually get to sit in the Knesset? Unlike in Canada, the voters don’t get to decide that on election day, because there are no ridings. So the parties themselves do it. Each party has a convention to select a “list” of candidates. The more votes you get, the higher up the list you go.  The higher up the list you are, the better your chances of actually becoming an MK. The Knesset, Israel's Parliament, in Jerusalem.   Dozens of parties contest Israeli elections, and 13 of them got enough votes in the last election in 2008 to win some representation in the Knesset. Usually, only 1 or 2% of the votes cast is enough to win a seat. Israeli Arabs make up 19% of the country’s population, and they tend to vote for Israeli Arab parties. So they get seats. Immigrants from the former Soviet Union have their own party. The ultra-orthodox have several parties to choose from. They’re all represented in the Knesset. In fact, only 3% of Israeli voters marked their ballot for parties that ultimately didn’t get some representation in the Knesset. It also means there are NEVER majority governments because no single party ever gets a majority of the votes. After each election, the president calls on the party leader most likely to be able to form a coalition government. Last time ‘round in 2009, President Shimon Peres asked the man at the top of Likud’s list, Benjamin Netanyahu, to form the government, even though Netanyahu didn’t have the largest number of seats. But Peres rightly concluded that Netanyahu COULD form a government, whereas the party with the most seats, Kadima, couldn’t. The reason Kadima couldn’t form a coalition will be the subject of our next post.

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