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'Democratically elected majority' has a different meaning in Israel

A vote on the Reasonableness Standard Bill at the Knesset assembly hall in Jerusalem, July 24, 2023. (Photo: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Sherwin Pomerantz, CEO of an international business development consultancy firm, sounds a bit sympathetic when he states, “Last week’s Knesset vote to limit the application of the doctrine of reasonableness in order to rein in the Supreme Court’s ability to question decisions of the prime minister and the Knesset left many of us disappointed.”

Yet he willingly accepts that there was a legitimacy to the whole process since “it was “spearheaded by the democratically elected majority of Israel’s legislature who used the democratic process to do something that many believe will lead us to a non-democratic government framework.”

As one of those who believes that axing the Reasonableness Law will lead us to a non-democratic framework, it’s, first and foremost, important to examine the claim of a “democratically elected majority,” because, in Israel, that term is completely relative.

Similar to the two-party Republican/Democrat system of the U.S., Israel once also had two major parties. They were Labor, a more liberal-leaning party and Likud, a more right-leaning party. Amongst those two, there were other smaller parties – some centrist, some left and some right, but the two major parties remained Labor and Likud. In an election year, one of those parties would end up receiving the largest number of mandates (votes), and they would ultimately be tasked, by Israel’s president, with building a coalition. That coalition would be comprised of a confluence of lesser parties which, when added together, would meet the minimum threshold of 61 mandates.

Of course, it goes without saying that the major party, which received the largest number of votes, would endeavor to bring in like-minded parties that would support and agree with the larger party’s agenda and political aspirations. Sometimes that would be difficult, because if those compatible, smaller parties couldn’t provide the minimum-needed number, they would have to invite a less-sympathetic party or, in the worst-case scenario, one with opposing views.

In the case of Israel’s last election, Likud won 32 seats, meaning that it needed a minimum of another 29 mandates. In the end, they managed to garner 64 seats, rather than the mandatory 61. How did they do that?

Likud chose all of the right-wing, religious parties, many of which are viewed as extreme and who, on their own, would have never risen to a number rivaling that of Likud or Yesh Atid, the centrist party, which came in second place, by gaining 24 seats. All other parties were mostly in the single digits, with the exception of the Religious Zionist Party which got 10 seats, but, again, nothing close to what has become the two main parties of today, Likud and Yesh Atid. 

However, when adding all the seats amassed by those smaller parties, of which there are many, it wasn’t too difficult to arrive at the 64 mandates in order to give Likud the victory of becoming the governing political force.

While some might say that a right-wing coalition was, indeed, the will of Israel’s majority, given the massive protests, one would have to conclude that either the electorate did not understand just how extreme these religious parties were…or the nation is experiencing the mother of all buyer’s remorse!

So, when thinking about the term, “democratically elected majority,” we first have to recognize that this type of system does not always end up serving the will of the majority, even though elections are democratically held.

Because the idea of an election, which produces a majority voice, is generally not the result of the larger party choosing from amongst a smorgasbord of tiny extreme parties which, in the end, holds the voice of the larger party hostage by threatening to quit, which would then topple the government.

After viewing 30 weeks of intense and unrelenting protests, my gut reaction tells me that, had most Israelis understood that the make-up of this government would be achieved by rolling out the red carpet for extreme parties, none of which have ever had the full support of the country’s citizens, they might have had second thoughts about voting for Likud. 

In fact, Likud stands to be the big loser in Israel’s next election cycle, because now the voters know that they cannot trust them to build a coalition from more measured and saner parties, especially if the dirty “C” word (compromise) will be a resultant factor. Consequently, seven Likud party ministers, when confronting and internalizing the deep unrest which has shaken our country, concluded that a broad consensus must occur in any future judicial reforms, lest it be viewed as non-democratic.

Among these Likud rebels were those who threatened not to “advance measures not created through consensus” in the future.

One idea being floated was to expand the coalition, allowing for more centrist voices such as National Unity party head Benny Gantz and Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid. 

The big takeaway is that finally, there seems to be a crack in the Likud ranks which, undoubtedly, has come from the realization that an electorate, which feels coerced and forced against their will to adopt a new set of laws being pushed on them, has no resemblance to the democracy which they believed would be preserved in the last election. 

Once that revelation was felt, as angry masses of citizens flooded Israel’s streets and highways, following the adoption of the first reform, those Likud ministers began to understand how this would impact them. To remain silent and supportive of extreme religious political groups, would not be met with approval, either to them or the party to which they belong. 

This is why they have finally reacted, even though some may say, “a day late and a dollar short.” Another saying goes, “Better late than never.” And given the profound rift in the country, perhaps, the only way to salvage anything, is to be willing to work together as one, looking at the C word as a “Catalyst” to peace, harmony and unity – rather than continuing to hold the country hostage with a gun to our heads.

Israel’s brand of democracy is definitely not perfect, but, for now, it’s what we have, and the trick may be to use the plurality of voices, which comes from a parliamentary system, as a strength and not as a weakness. 

In the end, the best deals are said to be brokered when neither side is 100% happy, and it appears that this may be the only way to restore order in our beloved country but to get there, it will demand a release of the total power that this coalition has held tightly in their grip. 

Dare we put our hope in seven lone voices who would rather work together than see their own political aspirations go up in flames?

A former Jerusalem elementary and middle-school principal and the granddaughter of European Jews who arrived in the US before the Holocaust. Making Aliyah in 1993, she is retired and now lives in the center of the country with her husband.

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