Consociational Democracy and Israel

Short Essay on this topic:
To what extent are the mechanisms of consociational democracy implemented in Israel? Does it enhance the stability and effectiveness of Israeli democracy?
Comparative Politics and Israel

Consociational democracy consists of a cooperative effort between elites of various pillars or communal groupings (usually delineated by religion, ideology or even ethnicity) within a society to create a plural and fair social atmosphere in order to establish stable democratic governance despite deep social cleavages.

Theoretically, this sort of democracy involves four different mechanisms which the elites of the communities agree to in order that the state have better capacity and respect for each of the distinct social groupings.

The four mechanisms of elite accommodation are:
• Executive power sharing (usually in the form of grand coalitions)
• Segmented autonomy (giving each minority group full self-rule within their community)
• Mutual veto (giving each minority power of veto over the government’s decisions)
• Proportionality (the distribution of resources reflects the population size of each group)

In Israel, only 2 of these 4 mechanisms are implemented by any means: executive power sharing and segmented autonomy.

Executive power sharing is exemplified in the Israeli polity by the extensive coalition building processes necessary to build a working and governable coalition within the Knesset. Almost any type of party (excluding racist and blatantly anti-state parties) can run in Knesset elections, which are proportionally representative by design in order to ensure that social groupings have representation through their preferred political party (religious, ethnic, right, left or any combination). These political parties, as elected officials and members of the Knesset, negotiate to form governmental coalitions to share executive power. These governing coalitions generally have their basis in the political bloc rather than by party, however it is not unprecedented for parties of opposing political blocs to form a working unity government. The unity governments of the 1980s provide very unique examples of executive power sharing based in political elite accommodation, however a more common example of executive power sharing is the plethora of middle parties, be they religious or otherwise, that represent differing segments of the population but actively take part in the countries governance by making coalition deals with either of the two major political blocs.

Segmented autonomy is seen within Israel most clearly along religious lines. In some regard, Israel has co-opted and adapted the Ottoman millet system of governance with regard to minorities. The Israeli system entitles religious minorities autonomy over their individual community’s affairs by granting them complete legal authority over personal and family status issues. This means that for each religious community within Israel there is an individualized legal system for issues such as marriage, inheritance, etc: the Jews decide for the Jews how these will work, the Christians decide for the Christians and the Muslims decide for the Muslims. Similarly, within the framework of education Israel has allowed for a degree of segmented autonomy as three distinct (possibly four, if private schools are counted as their own category) categories of education. There is a national education track, catering to secular, western ideals of education, a national religious track, which mixes secular learning with religious study, and a completely autonomous fully religious track which sets its own curriculum based on religious concerns to the exclusion of secular learning. This division of the education sphere allows for the Israeli minorities (in this case particularly Jewish orthodox and ultra-orthodox communities) to have complete control over their educational curricula.

An example of a mixture of both the executive power sharing the segmented autonomy is the Status Quo agreement. Informally established at the founding of the state, the agreement represents an accommodating compromise between religious and secular elites (particularly leaders of the religious establishment and Ben Gurion respectively). The agreement details the setting of certain standards and norms for the governing of religious and secular clashes within the public sphere. Specifically, it delineated issues such as where public transport would be allowed on the Sabbath, a promise of all government institutions adhering to Kashrut laws, and the Rabbinate’s jurisdiction over conversion and personal status issues within the state.

Mutual veto and proportional distribution of resources are not fully implemented within Israel. In no case are ethnic minorities, such as the Arab or religious minorities for example, given a powerful veto over government activities. They have recourse to the Supreme Court to call in question specific governmental actions, however no ability to veto policy or decisions. Resources within Israel are not distributed proportionally to the population size of the minority groups. Again, as only one example, Arab constituencies, which constitute nearly 20% of the country, do not receive a proportional amount of resources. They also do not have full representation in the Knesset according to their population size. Whereas this is probably due to voting patterns among Arabs, it still disqualifies Israel from attaining a fully proportional distribution of resources.

The full implementation of 2 of these 4 mechanisms does contribute to the stability and effectiveness of the Israeli democracy. The executive power sharing and segmented autonomy each provide a method of compromise in the governance of an extremely divided and fragmented society. The coalition governing allows different voices to be heard and compromises to be made which allow for stable democracy to be present ensuring the continuity of the state. The segmented autonomy allows for compromise and give-and-take on issues that otherwise would cause intractable conflict and possible governmental paralysis.