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Two Towers of Babel

In 1960,the late Israeli satirist Ephraim Kishon viewed Israel as a land rebuilding the Tower of Babel.

Written by Sudeep Paul |
January 30, 2009 3:00:01 am

In 1960,the late Israeli satirist Ephraim Kishon viewed Israel as a land rebuilding the Tower of Babel. India is that Tower of Babel. The post-1992 diplomatic bonhomie has set to rest decades of mutual discomfort,shyness and curiosity; decades when one compared Nehruvian socialism and Israeli Labor socialism or Indian and Zionist nation-building,but from a distance. Then it was the Hindu Right and Jewish Right.

Today,terror attacks have ensured a common bloody fate that makes greater demands,especially on the Indian Right,for collaboration in defence and security. The Indian Left,for its part,must express its reservations on growing Indo-Israeli ties,its voice getting shriller when Israel undertakes operations like Cast Lead.

Israel is just 12 days away from the February 10 Knesset elections. But apart from these ideological salvoes,the Indian non-academic public discourse on the subject lacks understanding of the institutions,polity and daily business of Israel — how we converge on fundamentals and differ in details,as India too heads for general elections.

Israel suffers from too much democracy,not too little. It is a pluralistic polity with a multi-party system,a heterogeneous society where one in every five Israelis is an Arab. Let alone the myriad Jewish denominations. Meandering and chaotic,Israel is also West Asia’s only democracy worth the name.

At the time of Israel’s declaration of independence,controversy arose over the reference to God in the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel. The secular Left wanted nothing to do with a text referring to the immaterial. Religious,and non-religious but identity-conscious,Jews couldn’t conceive of a Declaration without “God” that would determine Jewish destiny. The solution was the term “Tzur Israel (Rock of Israel)”. This tradition-loaded phrase denoted God,but was ambiguous enough for secular connotations to proliferate. Confusion,controversy,disagreement and compromise remain symptomatic of Israel’s functioning. Israel’s building block was the not easily defined “Jewishness”,which includes but is not synonymous with Judaism. The secular Zionist Left built Israel,where subsequently the religious Right and Zionist Right emerged as powerful players. Religion lay behind India’s bloody Partition: an identity ever present,ever denied in the declamatory secularism of a country where too the Right rose to political prominence after the heyday of centrism.

India’s ponderous,written Constitution came from debate over apparently unbridgeable differences. Israel doesn’t have a written constitution but is still committed to the writing of one. The First Knesset that convened in February 1949 was a constituent assembly. Every subsequent Knesset,including the outgoing Seventeenth,remains so. A formal,single-document Israeli constitution never came about because the religious groups would accept only the Torah and the Halakhah while the socialists opposed a constitution sans Marxism. Thus David Ben-Gurion proposed a “piecemeal” approach — enacting fundamental laws through consensus. Israel has since enacted 11 Basic Laws (impacting government,human dignity and occupational liberty,state lands,the status of Jerusalem,etc) which should,some day,form the constitution. Israel operates within this constitutional framework,with its Supreme Court increasingly taking upon itself judicial review of the constitution-making process and the Knesset’s legislation — again,like India’s liberal,activist Court.

Israel does not have constituencies; it has party lists with candidate names in an order deter-mined by the party or primaries. The more votes,the more Knesset seats for the party,with candidates at the top of the list making it first. But a party must obtain at least 2 per cent votes to get its first Knesset seat. This proportional representation system itself isn’t half as confusing as it sounds,and it might work for a small country. The real problem is the “low threshold” for Knesset entry. That,coupled with proportional representation,means almost every Israeli government is an unwieldy coalition,even Right-with-Left ones. It also allows smaller coalition partners power over government and legislation disproportionate to their Knesset strength — something that there,as here,can destabilise.

As in India,a centre-left grand old party dominated politics till 1977; Labor-led ruling coalitions were the norm till centre-right Likud formed the government that year. The second departure came in November 2005 when Ariel Sharon broke with Likud to form centrist Kadima,which won the March 2006 elections — its first — to lead a new coalition.

The outgoing Knesset has 18 parties with Kadima and Labor leading the incumbent executive. Till date,most opinion polls show Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud has a clear lead over Kadima with Labor a poor third. Twelve days is a longer time for a 120-member legislature in a small country than for one with 545 in a large state. But in that other land of miracles,Likud’s return at the head of a new coalition,forged and preserved as laboriously as always,is almost certain. The re-ignition of conflict along the Gaza border this week can only help Likud.

sudeep.paul@expressindia.com

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