Shas is claiming credit – or should we say “responsibility”? – for the recent approval of construction in the bedroom settlement of Givat Ze’ev. The ultra-Orthodox party was looking for a justification to stay in Ehud Olmert’s coalition; now it can say it melted the settlement freeze. Who wants to bet that Secretary Rice will not provide any counter-pressure?
On the surface, Olmert has little choice but to give into Shas. Without its 12 Knesset members, his coalition shrinks to 55, and he needs more than 60 to rule. Inside and outside Israel, this leads to criticism of proportional representation, of weak coalition government and of the power of the ultra-Orthodox to blackmail the majority. That’s a mistake.
On paper, Olmert has an alternative. He could tell Shas to take a walk, and bring Meretz (5 seats), Hadash (3) and Ra’am-Ta’al (4) into a coalition that would be dedicated to making peace.
He won’t do that, though, because Hadash and Ra’am-Ta’al get their votes almost entirely from Israel’s Arab citizens. So does the more radical Balad, which has three seats. Arab parties are never part of the coalition. That means Olmert needs a coalition of 61 out of 110 Knesset members, rather than out of 120.
In a coalition system, eliminating certain parties as partners significantly increases the power of other small parties. There’s a standard formula for working out the relative power of parties within a voting body, which you can find in a monograph called “Topics in the Theory of Voting” by Philip Straffin. (Be warned: The math involves permutations and factorials, requiring lots of computing power.) But without the numbers, the principle is obvious: The more potential partners that the ruling party has, the less each can demand for its participation. Eliminate some potential partners, and the remaining ones raise their price.
That is, refusing to countenance Arab-backed parties as coalition partners gives other small parties more power than they earned at the ballot box.
So politically excommunicating the Arab parties is anti-democratic several times over. It denies Arab citizens the right to horsetrade for their interests and goals. It gives clericalist parties too much power to horsetrade for their interests and goals – and many of those goals are anti-democratic in themselves. And in the current circumstances, it contributes to settlement construction, to undermining peace talks, and to continuing the occupation, which is flagrantly undemocratic.
The boycott of the Arab parties, not proportional representation, is what cripples Israeli democracy.