Politics of Personality and Israel's Election Some 32 Parties Are on the May 17 Ballot, with Many Smaller Ones Fueled

By Ilene R. Prusher, Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, May 11, 1999 | Go to article overview

Politics of Personality and Israel's Election Some 32 Parties Are on the May 17 Ballot, with Many Smaller Ones Fueled


Ilene R. Prusher, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Each night on Israeli television, campaign advertisements ahead of the May 17 elections look like a cross between late-night infomercials hawking Ginsu knives and a public-access channel at the United Nations.

Vote for the handy-dandy Casino Party, and you'll help solve all the country's economic problems by legalizing gambling. Vote for the legalization of marijuana, the custody rights of fathers, or the use of communal meditation to achieve peace. Are you an oppressed ethnic minority within the Jewish state? Vote for one of the three Arab parties, three Russian parties, or the parties for immigrants from Romania, North Africa, or the Caucasus region. Or, if you have a hero whom you admire, chances are, he or she is running a party, too.

Never in Israeli history has it been easier and more attractive for anyone with a trifling cause, an ethnic advantage, or simply a brand name to found a political party. Any one of the 32 parties needs the support of only 1.5 percent of the electorate to win a seat in Knesset, Israel's parliament. And voters get to cast two ballots: one for a party, and one for prime minister. Historically, Israel's multiparty system focused more on ideology, and the leader of any given movement was supposed to be - like the prime minister - merely first among equals. But today, the politics of personality matter more than ever before, with many smaller parties almost entirely by the popularity of their leader, rather than by an actual agenda. With tensions now soaring between two of the most powerful ethnic parties - one representing new immigrants from Russia and the other, Jews with roots in the Islamic Middle East - some Israelis are concerned that politics here are growing more tribal. But others say it's more likely that they're simply becoming more egotistical. Cosmetics magnate and former beauty queen Pnina Rosenblum, who launched a party in her own name to run for Knesset (see story below), rejects the notion that parties like hers are making Israeli politics too motley a mix. "There is no other choice. This is democracy, and they cannot force us to vote for someone else." Others see it differently. "{Ms. Rosenblum's} party is just like the party of driving instructors," says Meir Shalev, a leading Israeli novelist and political analyst, referring to one of this year's more absurd parties, which has since dropped out of the race. "I hope there will be a higher barrier in future," rather than the 1.5 percent, "so we'll be able to deal with just right and left. The smaller parties just divide power in a very destructive way." Direct elections in 1996 Political scientists attribute the proliferation in the number of parties mainly to Israel's introduction of direct elections for prime minister in 1996. That made Israel the only Western democracy where voters cast one ballot for a party and one for premier. It's a little bit like voting a Republican into the United States Congress and a Democrat to the White House. But where that only spells two-party gridlock, Israel's next parliament may have some 20 parties in it - a situation that retiring Knesset speaker Dan Tichon warned might be an "anarchistic jungle." For years, proponents of the change to direct election of the prime minister argued it would decrease the influence of small parties and make Israel's government more stable. …

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