U.S. Politics Through an Israeli Looking Glass

by Stuart Rothenberg July 17, 2006 · 12:02 AM EDT

A recent trip to Israel got me thinking about a question that I can safely say I had never considered before: If it plays well in Petah Tikva, a Tel Aviv suburb, can it also play in Peoria, Ill.?

The Israeli political system is very different from ours, since it is a parliamentary system. But the dramatic change in that nation’s politics following years of partisan polarization — especially a growing consensus among Israelis in favor of a barrier to separate Israel from its neighbors — immediately raises the question of whether the centrist consensus that has developed in Israel eventually could surface in the United States as well.

After decades of two major parties — the left-of-center Labor Party and the right-of-center Likud — battling for control of Israeli politics, a new, centrist third party, Kadima, placed first in the country’s parliamentary elections earlier this year.

Although Kadima won only 29 seats out of 120 in the Knesset, it quickly formed a broad-based governing coalition government along with runner-up Labor (19 seats) and smaller parties, making Kadima’s Ehud Olmert the prime minister.

The creation of Kadima was the brainchild of then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who announced his intention to leave Likud and form the new party in November 2005. But early in January, Sharon suffered a massive stroke that effectively removed him from Israeli political life. That’s when Kadima turned to Sharon’s No. 2, Olmert, a one-time mayor of Jerusalem and former Likud member of the Knesset.

Kadima primarily was established by Likud moderates, as well as some high-profile Laborites, such as Shimon Peres, the former prime minister and current vice prime minister, and current Justice Minister Haim Ramon.

The new party came together because conservatives finally accepted the inevitability of an independent Palestinian state, while those on the left, finally tired of suicide bombings and rocket attacks from Gaza and the West Bank, concluded that Palestinian political leaders either couldn’t or wouldn’t deliver on a negotiated peace.

While it isn’t clear that Kadima will remain a strong player in Israeli politics for years to come — parties have a tendency to appear and disappear quickly in Israel — the party’s victory last year was a stunning development in Israeli politics. Suddenly, the country had a strong centrist party.

Given that political sentiment in Israel has been polarized over security issues for some time, much like the polarization that has occurred over the past dozen years in this country, is there any chance that a similar political realignment could take place in the U.S.? Could America have its own Sharon-Peres combination waiting in the wings?

The answer appears to be a resounding “no,” even though Republican Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) would be exactly the kind of commanding political figure who could rally a wide spectrum of voters behind a center or center-right political movement.

America’s system of single-member districts makes third parties largely irrelevant. Ross Perot’s Reform Party flopped, and no recent state third party — from A Connecticut Party to the Alaska Independence Party to Minnesota’s Independence Party — even made much of an effort to coalesce into a multistate movement.

Sure, in rare cases, a third party or an Independent nominee can win a race. But those results are aberrations, and no third party has ever shown enough staying power to threaten the two-party system.

Israel’s system of proportional representation, in which parties receive seats in the Knesset based on the percentage of the popular vote they receive, encourages a multiplicity of parties. And given the country’s history of parties appearing, disappearing and consolidating, the formation of a new party, such as Kadima, doesn’t seem all that unusual. In fact, another party formed just weeks before the November election, the Pensioners’ List, picked up seven seats in the Knesset.

Given state election laws in the U.S., as well as fundraising needs, the predominant method of drawing Congressional districts and the nature of the two-party system, a third party formed at the last minute in the U.S. would have no chance of becoming relevant in an election.

In other words, the problem for third parties in the U.S. is structural, not a lack of room on the ideological spectrum.

If you’re looking for a final twist to the Israeli politics/U.S. politics story, consider this: The Israeli politician most often mentioned as Olmert’s successor is a woman: Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. Livni, who was described to me by Israeli political strategists and insiders as smart, politically savvy and charismatic, joined Kadima from Likud, where she was one of the party’s less hawkish members.

Livni is the second woman to hold the job of foreign minister. The other is Golda Meir, and she rose to be prime minister.

Could both the U.S. and Israel have women leading their countries in a few years? Let’s wait and see.