How Netanyahu stays in power

Hussein Ibish recently wrote an analysis of how Netanyahu has formed a durable coalition from quite different parties: leaders of the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party and the ultra-Orthodox Shas party hold key positions, as does the former Labor PM Ehud Barak. The largest party bloc in the Knesset is Kadima, which is not part of the coalition. This has allowed Netanyahu to serve for a long time.

Ibish also believes that the stability of the coalition leads to gridlock in policymaking.



  1. Ibish’s article is entitled “Netanyahu governs like Arafat did“. Now that’s just mean. πŸ™‚

    I enjoyed your most excellent summary quite a bit, as well as the details Ibish provides. But addressing Ibish’s main point (which you tastefully side-stepped :-)), the question is, how much of the comparison is true of most politics, and how much is unique to Arafat and Netanyahu? And does that remainder actually make the comparison useful or is it subtly ad hominem?

    It is interesting that Netanyahu’s coalition is edging out “the largest group in the Knesset, Kadima,” (by one seat) but that is not that unique and Ibish doesn’t even claim that Arafat also did that, even though to him that is “ultimately the whole point of the exercise” (which itself seems to hint at confusing a per party plurality with a majority).

    Ibish’s comparison seems to begin and end with “a quota system in which everybody got enough of the action to keep them on board” which just so happens to sum up the underlying nature of politics itself. Well done, Ibish. So, what does that leave? Is Ibish trying to make some general claim comparing Israel’s democracy under Netanyahu to Palestinian “democracy” under Arafat?

    Ibish’s appeals to “meritocracy” and “bold decision-making” (ala Obama?) was a little funny. It reminds me of a counter by Milton Friedman, as so much does nowadays:

    Milton Friedman and Phil Donahue Discuss Capitalist β€œGreed” vs. Socialist Redistribution of Wealth [1979]

    Donahue: But it seems to reward not virtue as much as ability to manipulate the system.

    Friedman: And what does reward virtue? You think the communist commissar rewards virtue? You think a Hitler rewards virtue? You think – excuse me, if you will pardon me – do you think American presidents reward virtue? Do they choose their appointees on the basis of the virtue of the people appointed or on the basis of their political clout? Is it really true that political self interest is nobler somehow than economic self interest? You know I think you are taking a lot of things for granted. Just tell me where in the world you find these angels who are going to organize society for us? Well, I don’t even trust you to do that.

  2. Excellent clip from Friedman. I’ve seen it before, but it’s always a pleasure to see it again. I liked the introduction from the blogger: ” as charming as he is brilliant. As gentle as he is razor sharp.”

    Your questions about the uniqueness or lack thereof of this arrangement are good. There are definitely general principles of politics at work here, but the specific arrangements as he describes them seem to be particularly frail: a coalition of disagreeing members that have the votes to avoid a no-confidence vote but can’t agree on much else. That seems pretty dysfunctional in a way that not all governments are.

    I think that Ibish, as a supporter of democracy, would grade democracy under Netanyahu as better than the PLO under Arafat.

  3. If the Israeli government is reasonably reflecting the aggregate will of its People, then I would say it is actually functioning quite well, even when that results in stalemates.

    I am very wary of the temptation to define “functional” government as “fast acting”, in part because that invariably leads to a centralization of power. The slowness inherent in a democracy is almost always a feature rather than a bug.

    I don’t know the Israeli polls, so maybe I’m wrong, but since Ibish did not argue that a majority of Israelis agree with his specific policies, I suspect that the government only seems dysfunctional to him because it is not doing what he thinks it should be doing. Everybody wants “bold decision-making”, they just can’t agree on what that decision is. Same thing with “peace”. That’s why they don’t have it. Or maybe they do have it.

    I agree with your last paragraph, but democracy is the underlying reason why inaction under Netanyahu is not comparable to inaction under Arafat, so it’s strange to me that Ibish overlooks that essential point.

    Aggregating diverse interests is an interesting topic. πŸ™‚

  4. Yeah, that’s right that people want bold decisions that they agree with. Would you say that a divided populace would probably produce a stalemated government that would therefore reflect the will of the people?

    I don’t think that Ibish is comparing the Israeli political system to the Palestinian political system, since one is a real democracy and the other was something of an authoritarian democracy like Russia or Venezuela. Instead, I think that he’s comparing their management of their parliaments, the Knesset and the PLO. For a lot of the time that Arafat was the head of the PLO, it didn’t govern and seems 9at least from Ibish’s article) to have had something of a democratic polity within the organization. Netanyahu, on the other hand, has worked with a Knesset elected democratically from a democratic political culture. So I don’t think that he’s saying that the Israeli and Palestinian polities are comparable.

    • Yes, generally speaking, a divided populace should result in a correspondingly divided government that reflects the will of the People. A democratic _republic_ allows more wiggle room (or “rope” :-)) for more cohesive decision-making, judged in hindsight, but the less a government is representative of its People, the less it is a democracy, by definition.

      Government is designed for decisions which absolutely must be made as a People and imposed, even violently. So, it should not be quick to change based upon a mere plurality or bureaucracy or ruling. That would be even worse than a tyranny of the majority.

      I’d imagine that most (all?) power structures develop some sort of hierarchical “democratic” polity at the upper levels, like the PLO did. A dictator cannot hold a country by himself. At the very least, he needs the support of influential military leaders, but really, he also needs the influential leaders in most major industries to believe in his power.

      If the Israeli and Palestinian polities are not comparable, then how can we reasonably compare their parliaments? Their parliaments’ representativeness of their Peoples is essential to their moral authority and our moral judgement of their gridlock. We can’t abstract that fact away and still expect a meaningful moral comparison.

      Ibish wrote: “The distortions in policy are all too obvious. The only real reason why Israel has not apologized to Turkey over the deadly flotilla incident is that both Netanyahu and Lieberman are perfectly ready to condemn each other for any such move, although refusing to do so makes absolutely no sense.

      It is Ibish that makes no sense. He makes it sound all too obvious and real and absolute that a properly functioning Israeli government would apologize to Turkey, but at least one poll “of a representative sample of 482 adult Israelis (including Israeli Arabs)” indicates that 64% believe Israel should not apologize.

      Ibish actually implies as much by saying that Netanyahu and Lieberman will “condemn each other for any such move”. “Condemn” to whom? To The Israeli People, I’d guess. So he is saying that “the only real reason why Israel has not apologized to Turkey” is _democracy_, even as he tries to exclude the polity from his comparison and make it seem like it’s just an elite political power play analogous to those in dictatorships. But democracies are different.

      It reminds me of people’s surprise and offense at the international backlash when the Palestinians democratically elected Hamas. “But it was democratic!” They apparently didn’t understand what democracy means.

  5. Also, I watched the whole Friedman appearance on Donahue and really enjoyed it. He just had an answer for almost everything Donahue asked about, and was so convincing and eloquent that it would be hard to tell if there were any legitimate objections.

    One interesting thing that comes to my mind is the role that culture plays in economics. To what extent do you need to have a certain cultural morality to make the free market work? Are there societies in which the free market can’t work because their cultures will not support it. Could the US lose the ability to support a free market and need more government intervention if trust breaks down?

    • Great questions. I’m curious how Friedman would answer them. I really want to watch his whole series when I get a chance. I think most people can see truth in what he says, but they can’t quite integrate it into their own ideology because they can’t fathom all the implications. No one can, really, because liberty means greatly decentralized control. There will be uncertainty and holes that people will point to and say, “see, we need a rule for that”. But the truth is that they cannot fathom the full ramifications of that rule either. They just think they can.

      I think culture plays a huge role in the effectiveness of an economy (i.e. how well people create value for each other), but ultimately, trust must be rooted in the justice of a coercive government. That is, you must be confident that if someone cheats you, you have effective recourse through a just judiciary’s coercive mediation, with equal protection under the law, etc. Notably, this role of government happens _after_ the exchange — it is not preventing free exchange between willing parties.

      In theory, as long as government can protect that integrity of free exchange, the free market will exist regardless of culture. It might not function all that well at first, but the culture will adapt to it. Realistically, however, government and culture are intimately connected. For example:

      – A communal culture that doesn’t respect private property will result in a government that won’t protect people’s property, and vice versa.

      – A hypersensitive culture that fears major market valuation corrections will result in a government that coercively bails out huge failures, essentially destroying the linchpin of a free market: justice.

      – A charitable culture may result in a government that coercively collects charity, or perhaps encourages bad home loans through regulations intended to help the poor, etc.

      – There are also SCOTUS rulings or legislation where government affects culture. In theory, Congress should be a reflection of the culture (they are representatives of The People, after all), but in practice there have been laws opposite the majority will of The People. Of course, there are a lot of laws supported by The People which also have a negative impact on culture as a side-effect.

      Yikes, this another long one! πŸ™‚

      The short(er!) version is:

      (1) Yes, cultural morality not only improves the free market, some minimal amount of it is also necessary to support the proper role of government in order for the free market to exist at all.

      (2) Yes, there are societies where the free market will not work well or at all, primarily as the culture affects government’s proper support of the free market.

      (3) The US is already losing its ability to support a free market due to decreasing liberty and justice, but I wouldn’t characterize the way to re-establish trust as “more government intervention”. It’s actually closer to the opposite. The US has overreacted. Fear has made it myopic.

      There are cases where a government is too weak to support a free market and more government intervention is needed to establish liberty and justice, but that is not the US’s dilemma. The US has lost its cultural understanding of liberty and justice and the proper role of government, but perhaps it can regain it.

      It’s fun talking with you about this! πŸ™‚ I apparently have a lot to say… I hope it’s not overwhelming.

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