Democracy is Difficult and Wonderful

By John Michaelson, January 28, 2013

Yesh Atid Democracy is Difficult and Wonderful

Making sense of Israel’s election results is difficult, even for Israelis.  Israelis certainly find it bewildering and they’ve lived with the process their entire lives.  American outsiders looking in find it inscrutable.  Despite their difference in appearance, Israeli and American democracy share the same goals: to reflect the voices of the people, but to restrain the majority from trampling the rights of the minority.

Israel is a parliamentary democracy.  When a citizen votes in Israel he or she casts a ballot for a party, not a person.  Every time a party gets enough votes, it gets another seat in the Knesset—Israel’s legislature.  In the United States citizens vote for a specific politician in their region—the party is less important than the person running for office.  Before each election parties publish lists all of their members who are ranked from the leader on down.  So ballots are cast and parties are allocated seats in the new session of the Knesset.  In this election, Benjamin Netanyahu’s party, Likud, won 31 seats (out of 120) in the Knesset.  That means that his party won roughly a quarter of all votes.  Even with just over a quarter of seats in the Knesset, Likud is the largest single party.  How can anyone get anything done in this situation?

This works because Israel’s executive is not one person, it’s a cabinet composed of leaders from several parties.  It has to be, because the only way laws can be passed is if a majority of the Knesset votes for it and that means that the members of the cabinet have to be party leaders.

Israel has a president, but the president’s executive powers are intentionally limited.  The president’s job is to ensure stability and serve as a check on the Knesset.  Real executive power resides in the Knesset.  The opposite is true in America where the legislature (Congress) makes laws and the executive (the President) enforces them.  Not so in Israel.  The cabinet is a group of ministers whose job it is to oversee particular government duties.  So, there is a Foreign Ministry, a Treasury, etc.  The United States has a cabinet appointed by the President, approved by the Senate, and responsible to the President alone.  The American cabinet cannot have legislators and they are only supposed to enforce the President’s will.  Israel’s cabinet, unlike the United States, is composed of legislators.  These legislators are always leaders or important figures in their political parties.

Israel’s cabinet is particularly important then.  Nothing can be done without consensus in the cabinet, because if the cabinet does not agree, then it is unlikely that there will be enough votes in the Knesset to pass a new law.  How do you get several political parties to agree?  Well, the first thing you do is to divide up the responsibilities of the cabinet.  The largest party typically gets the post of Prime Minister, plus one or two plum positions.  The next largest party might get the Foreign Ministry or Treasury—two very important positions.  Everyone knows that when a party gets a ministry it has a responsibility to follow through on its promises as much as it can within that ministry.  So, to get your party’s agenda passed you have to play well with others.  It’s the ultimate in leadership by consensus.  And reaching consensus takes time.

John Michaelson

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