But on Monday we did something different in Israel and the Occupied Territories class.
What we did was a simulation of the forming of coalitions in the Israeli parliament, or the Knesset.
Here's a quickie fact-list about the Israeli electoral mechanism:
- Elections are held at least once every four years.
- Voters vote for parties, not candidates.
- Any party that wins at least 2% of the entire national vote gets a Knesset seat (naturally, the more votes they get, the more seats they win). This also means that there will always be around 10 or more parties represented in each Knesset.
- The President of Israel then goes around asking the parties about which party leader they think should lead the government. So far, only leaders of the Labour and the Likud parties -- the two largest major parties -- have led the Israeli government. This man or woman then gets to be Prime Minister, normally. Depends on the party.
- That person then has the unenviable task of forming a coalition. In other words, get as many other parties as possible to join them. The largest coalition then forms the government. The Knesset has 120 seats, so the ideal majority is 60+1 or more seats, but so far no coalition has ever managed to get that many seats.
To be honest, my eves are glazing over, myself, by typing this all out. This is an example of basic things that I have to know, and I find hugely interesting and relevant for what I do, but is hard to explain without boring myself or the people I talk to. But that class drove home some very important lessons about the Israeli political system that many people are unaware of, so here you go]
D'accord. Simulation. We postgrads have an extra hour of discussions with the lecturer before the actual 2-hour lecture begins, so in Monday's session, Dr. Ranta asked each of (the three of) us, what would we do to stop the Intifada (the first one, which broke out in 1987) if we were the Israeli PM at that time? That stumped me. Remember this: no matter how "dovish" (pro-peace negotiations, more supportive of territorial compromise, anti-settlements, you get the idea) an Israeli PM is, he or she will not be able to carry out dovish policies unless his/her ideas are supported by a majority in the Cabinet.
The MA History guy (I'm not sure how to spell his name so I won't try. He is, in his own words, "very pro-Palestine") suggested conducting secret negotiations with the Palestinians to grant them autonomy, then break the news to the Knesset as a fait accompli. Dr. Ranta asked, "but how are you going to convince Israelis and Knesset members (MKs) who strongly oppose the idea of Palestinian autonomy?" *Also, at this point, it was illegal for Israelis to have any contact with anyone affiliated with the PLO.
I suggested that Israel should've just annexed the West Bank and Gaza (proclaim both as Israeli territory and give Israeli passports to West Bankers and Gazans who want to be Israeli). Because it'd be cleaner that way. No ambiguity about status. Then again, "How would you convince Israelis who are against accepting Arabs (and other non-Jews) as part of the Israeli state?" Because if there are more Arabs than Jews [and Palestinians have a higher birth rate than Israelis so there has always been the fear of Arabs taking over demographically] in Israel, Israel would lose its Jewish character. Or, if some system was established to exclude Arabs from the political system, it'd threaten Israel's democratic character.
OKlah semua tak boleh. So how about withdrawing the IDF troops from the territories? If I were a Palestinian living in the West Bank and Gaza, that'd be the first change I want to see happening: to have no more, or at least significantly less, foreign military personnel on duty in the midst of the local population. Again the question: "How would you do that? The intifada increased Israeli security concerns, especially when Israeli civilians have been attacked. You can't simply withdraw the soldiers."
Basically none of us could provide a satisfying solution. As if that wasn't enough difficulty for one evening, Dr. Ranta revealed our next task: he assigned each of us an Israeli party (with a sheet stating our positions about the occupied territories, peace-negotiation opinions, ministerial post demands, and budget limit -- the MA History guy got Labour [the dovish one], and "to make it interesting", Kate and I got Likud [the hawkish one]. Our job: when the lecture starts, everyone else in the class (there were about 20 of us) will be assigned a different party each, and we have to persuade them to join our coalition. The goal is to form a majority to be able to form a government.
The great thing was that Dr. Ranta outlined the party stands to reflect real factional positions of Israeli parties after the 1988 elections, so it felt real enough to make me anxious. I wanted to win -- yes I was assigned to be the stubborn party, but if I failed to win enough support and Labour does, I won't be in a position of power to initiate policies. Being in opposition is not the quickest way to get things done in a government. If we fail to form a government, there'll have to be re-elections.
Ah the chaos. I immediately turned to the friends I know in the class and said, "you have to join us" even though they didn't tell me which faction they were from yet. See there? How useful it is when an Israeli PM knows a US Congressman from college (dorm-mates), or were uni-friends with this or that MK? Very politicky, very real, and ultimately very human. You know him, you know her, why not? And of course, not all of our friends will end up sharing our political opinions, so friendship or acquaintance is no guarantee of political support.
Case in point: Anca was ready to join us (all her party, Agudat Yisrael, wanted was 20 shekels, and they have no solid position on the Palestinian issue), but when Labour offered to give her more subsidies, we have to cave in and give her more. And then when she's settled, the Shas party guy said, "Hey if you can give her that much, I want more too, for the yeshiva schools. How much she gets, I want the same." And then Dr. Ranta, as President of Israel, told him "why do you want to be in the same coalition with (Agudat)? You're Sephardi, they're Ashkenazi." Man.
We haggled over ministerial portfolios and subsidies. And of course, the Palestinian problem. "Any Arab parties here? Huh? Any Arabs here? If there are, I'm not joining." But hey. We were the Likud. Not exactly Arab-friendly.
After about half-an-hour of shouting, dazed calculations of the budget -- we were allocated 100 shekels, 40 of which we need, and 60 to give away -- and confusion, Kate and I managed to get 66 MKs in our coalition and I stood, with enormous relief, to announce "We have a government!"
And then the lecturer asked "So what is your position on the occupied territories?"
We didn't have a clear position. The truth is, in all the bargaining we did, the most pressing issues were (a) subsidies/the economy, and (b) which ministerial positions each party gets in the Cabinet. The Palestinian issue does generate strong feelings in certain factions, but the first thing every politician needs is support from the electorate, and in most cases, the first thing Israeli voters want is to have a prosperous country. To live well. Security is paramount, yes, and that is exactly why parties who promise a hard stance against PLO/jihad/Hamas terrorists will get huge support from the voters, especially when any attacks were launched on them before elections season comes.
Anyway, one of our coalition members remembered the past lectures and replied, "We have decided not to decide." Because that was what the Israeli government did after the 1967 war, right up to the first intifada.
Still, our lecturer reminded us that "Coalitions that don't have a strong position in the issues usually don't get much support, or won't last long". It's true. The government could collapse from sheer disagreement over policies.
You decide what you want to learn from this.