The surprise agreement between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Shaul Mofaz, leader of the Kadima party, offers some glimmer of hope for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, because a government that includes Mofaz’s centrist party is more likely to seek a peace deal than a government involving only the Israeli right. But the greater consequence may unfold over time, as Netanyahu and Mofaz begin to address a little-discussed problem — the unstable nature of Israeli politics.
Because of Israel’s system of proportional representation and parliamentary voting, as well as its long history of small parties hotly contesting elections, Israel’s governing process rests on the ability of numerous competing parties to form a coalition. When serious disagreements arise, the coalition falls apart, and new elections must be called. That happens so often that the last time an Israeli government finished a full term was 1988. Indeed, a key interest binding Netanyahu and Mofaz now is that both wanted to avoid early elections.
The two leaders have pledged to put the system on firmer footing. One way to do so would be to raise the percentage of votes needed for any party to enter parliament, which currently stands at just 2 percent.“I wouldn’t be surprised if they raised it to 5 or 7 percent,” said Brent E. Sasley, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Texas at Arlington. That could give larger parties more influence.
In the long term, such a move could also improve the chances of making peace. Each time the Israeli government swings unpredictably from one party to another, Palestinian negotiators have to start from scratch. Fragile coalitions that rely on the support of religious parties are less likely to take the political risks necessary for peace.
In the short term, however, the prospects for peace look grim. There is little sign that either Israelis or Palestinians are willing to make the compromises necessary for fruitful talks. Palestinians continue to demand a settlement freeze before coming back to the table. Meanwhile, the Israeli government is reportedly exploring ways to sidestep an Israeli court’s order to dismantle an unauthorized settlement outpost built on privately held Palestinian land. That is an ominous sign not just for Palestinians, but also for Israelis concerned about their government’s respect for the rule of law.
The silver lining is that Kadima’s Mofaz, who has argued for a greater emphasis on trying to reach an agreement with Palestinians, is now a key member of Netanyahu’s government. If Netanyahu suddenly decides to try to make peace his legacy, he now has the political clout to make historic progress.