In "Two fingers from Sidon ", a 1986 Israeli movie about the last days of Israel's occupation of Southern Lebanon, before the retreat to the "Security Zone", a young officer, fresh out of officers' course, arrives to take up his command. Someone gives him a crash course on local Lebanese politics, giving him the run down of all the many factions and parties, and their alliances and rivalries. Very confusing. In summing up, the impromptu guide explains that no matter how much the different groups may hate each other, they all hate the Israeli soldiers more.
An e-mail I received this morning from a reader (I feel very uncomfortable saying that. Who do I think I am exactly? A reader, noch!) that helped me get a feel of just how confusing Israeli politics must be to the uninitiated. So I will attempt to answer the questions she asks, within a wider framework.
First the basics, as found in the Knesset website:
“Israel has an electoral system based on nation-wide proportional representation, and the number of seats which every list receives in the Knesset is proportional to the number of voters who voted for it. The only limitation is the 1.5% qualifying threshold. In other words, a party must receive at least 1.5% of the votes in order to be elected. According to this system, the voters vote for a party list, and not for a particular person on the list”.
Now what that means is that, unlike the American and British winner-takes-all systems, in Israel the more votes you get, the more seats you get. This allows for representation in the Knesset of the full spectrum of the diverse Israeli society. In Israel there is a lot of confusion about the left-right continuum. Although there is, of course, some measure of compatibility, in Israel, when you talk about right and left, you are mainly talking about hawk and dove. There is very little difference in the outlook on economic matters between the two largest parties, the right of center Likud Party or the left of center Labor Party. The difference is mainly in their perception of the conflict with the Arabs and the solutions they offer (these have changed considerably over the years for both parties).
The current success the previously marginal party, Shinui, is having is due to its being perceived as a central party in matters of security and peace, although in matters of economy it is decidedly right wing. The Likud and the Labor parties did start off as real right and left. The Likud is the descendant of a fusion between Menahem Begin's Herut and the historical General Zionists, and the Labor Party is the descendant of Ben Gurion's Mapai, which translates literally as the Party of the Workers of the Land of Israel. This was a socialist party and this is why you can still see Labor Party elder, Shimon Peres, regularly proudly singing "The Internationale" at the Socialist International conferences in various delightful locations in Europe (much to the glee of his TV imitators and their audiences, who love to ridicule his frequent trips to different corners of what Rumsfeld has recently called "Old Europe").
The problems new Labor Party chairman, Amram Mitzna, is having in the polls, besides his lack of personal charisma, is that he has taken a sharp move to the dove side of the hawk-dove continuum. At this point in time, a lot of traditional Labor Party voters (Myself among them, I was even a party member at one point) do not feel it is wise to renew negotiations with the Palestinians right now, especially not while they are still being led by Yasser Arafat, or to retreat unilaterally under fire, as Mitzna suggests.
Now because of the proportional representation, a lot of small parties get voted into the Knesset, making a coalition necessary in order to create a government with a majority of Knesset members backing it. The party that gets the most seats, or has the best chance of creating a coalition gets to form the government.
Because of the proportional representation, we also get all sorts of weirdo parties running for Knesset each elections, from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's Natural Law Party (I think they're sitting this one out, actually, or should I say, floating this one out?), through Men's Rights in the Family (These guys are fighting for men’s rights in divorce. Now I know fathers often get a raw deal in divorce, but considering Jewish divorces in Israel are finalized by the patriarchal and inherently sexist Rabbinate, I doubt this is the worst place in the world for men to get divorced) to a very hopeful group called "A Different Israel" who seriously thought that they would take Israel by storm by offering the novel idea of politics without politicians (Don't ask). These groups rarely get enough votes to pass the qualifying threshold.
"Green Leaf” who are advocating the legalization of the use of marijuana, is one of the more popular of these quaint marginal parties, for obvious reasons. Last elections, I think they mainly got the votes of drug dealers and people who were too stoned to notice or care what they were putting in the ballot. This time, confusion is such, that they are being perceived as a hip protest vote and have a good chance of getting in. Thus my attempt to put things in context about the actual political views of their chairman and number one of their list. It's one thing to vote a protest party into Knesset. It's quite another to discover, after the fact, that you've voted for someone who holds radical left-wing views and will use his vote accordingly in his capacity as Knesset member.
"Green Leaf" is not to be confused with Women in Green (the ones with the green hats), which is a group of right wing settlers, headed by the radical Nadia Matar, that demonstrate in favor of the settlements and against any land concessions. Women in Green was created as a reaction to the veteran Women in Black, an equally radical group of women, who have spent each Friday afternoon for many years now, demonstrating in the center of Jerusalem against the occupation, aggravating the rather right wing Jerusalemites and often being attacked verbally and physically by passers-by who don’t see eye to eye with them.
Confused yet? But wait, I haven't even started on the small parties that do get in, the different types of religious parties, the various Arab parties... Maybe we'll leave that for another time.
Moving right along, a few words about Israeli newspapers: It is a pity that foreign readers don't get to read any of Israel's mainstream (if slightly yellow) newspapers, Yediot Aharonot (center-left) and Maariv (center-rightish), because they are not available in English (Although look what I’ve just found: Maariv in English. But you have to pay). What you do get, sadly, is the more political margins. Israel National News, which doesn’t have a print version, as far as I know, is run by Arutz Sheva, a far right wing radio station representing the settlers, which is still not allowed to broadcast in Israel and operates from a small ship outside Israel's territorial waters. Attempts are constantly being made to pressure the state into giving it a license. Arutz Sheva is said to have broadcast incitement against Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in the months running up to his murder. Lately it has been blamed of broadcasting illegal election propaganda.
The Jerusalem Post is also right wing, although less than the Israel National News (On Friday, the Post endorsed former prisoner of Zion, Natan Sharansky and his party, Yisrael Ba’Aliyah, who has made a special effort to target the English-speaking community in these elections). Haaretz, on the other hand, is very much left wing (This morning’s editorial in Haaretz endorsed the Labor Party). Neither newspaper has a large readership within Israel, although Haaretz, is naturally more widely read than the Jerusalem Post, because it comes out in Hebrew. Most Israelis dislike its rather gray and dull looking layout. The Jerusalem Post is read by the small English-speaking community, while Haaretz is favored by the intellectual and business elite, and my dearest husband, Bish. Haaretz comes out in Israel in English along with the local edition of the International Herald Tribune, thus targeting the English speakers who dislike the right-wing slant of the Post.
I think that’s about it.
I'm still not very well, so if none of that makes any sense, please forgive me.
A clarification: Women in Green and Women in Black are not political parties and do not run for Knesset. They are activist groups. Women in Black are not to be confused with the ultra-religious men who wear black hats.