V15 campaign poster in Tel Aviv
V15 campaign poster in Tel Aviv Amir Levy/Flash 90

Is personality playing too much of a role in Israeli politics? That is one of several burning questions for political scientists in the wake of the last Israeli elections and as the country forms a new government. It is making Israeli politics more contentious, says Professor Gideon Rahat of the Israel Democracy Institute. It is also driving up the price of personal loyalty.

“I think that personalization as expressed in the case of ministers is not the question of who but how many,” says Rahat. “When the State of Israel was established, we had one minister on average for every 6 members of the Knesset. We reached a peak of 1 for every 2 members.”

The importance of the party leader was clear in the campaign slogans of the recent campaign. In the 2015 elections, the Zionist Union and Likud targeted their campaigns toward the leadership of their main rivals: “It’s either him or them” in the case of Likud; “It’s either us or him” in the case of the Zionist Union.

“In the past you could have bought the loyalty of a party relatively inexpensively,” says Rahat. “Today it is much more expensive as a consequence of personalization.”

Rahat went into more detail in a 2013 op-ed, where he highlighted the strength of personalization in the political arena relative to the prominence of the party platform or political ideology:

“Personalization of politics is also prevalent in the Israeli media, which has been downplaying political parties increasingly since the 1980s, emphasizing individual candidates—and especially party leaders—instead,” he noted.

Rahat brings another example in his conversation with Arutz Sheva, where David Ben-Gurion broke away from Mapai to lead the Rafi Party, winning only 10 seats and losing to the far less charismatic Levi Eshkol. The point was that his personality in this case did not carry the weight of the party he had led.

Contrast this with the way that Tzipi Livni simply broke away from Kadima when she lost that party’s primary, founding Hatnua (and actually winning more seats than Kadima, 6-2).

Rahat also expressed in 2013 that for the sake of Israel’s political stability, “Politicians must also play their part. Veteran politicians should remain in their old parties and try to change them from the inside. They need to know how to lose.”

Likud’s top brass are clamoring to undo the linchpin legislation of the last government for one likely reason: they want to be ministers. With 18 spots (22 when including deputy minister positions, 23 with the Prime Minister), that still leaves even people in the #5 spot for Likud precariously locked out of the ministries.

That #5 position belongs to Miri Regev, who has been campaigning furiously since the end of the election to at least amend the law if not repeal it. She uses the above math in an argument against the law which she primarily associates with Yair Lapid.

"I think there is no problem with increasing the number of ministers to 23, the same as in the outgoing government,” she said, adding, “It was convenient for Yair Lapid to have 23 ministers in the last government, right? So just as it was convenient for him in the outgoing government it should be convenient now.”

Her comments do not speak to the possibility that increasing the number of ministers to 23 would not include the number of deputy ministers and the Prime Minister, which would presumably remain the same (making the total number actually 28).

According to Rahat, personality politics and self-interest in promoting personal political careers have made the primacy of the party and its platform secondary.

“(It’s) because the group is not strong enough to be cohesive and you need to buy them off one by one,” says Rahat. “This is the reason we hear these arguments for raising the number of ministers.”

Regev is hardly the only MK pushing for a change. The Likud party in general is reported to be giving an ultimatum to smaller coalition partners to allow an increase in the number or else see Likud snag 12 of the 18 spots

When asked if a ministerial increase would lead to the creation of ministries with little substance, Rahat said it really depended on the needs of the country also and not just the whims of rewarding politicians. Some ministries still had authority.

“Some do and some do not have formal authority. The important issue is that we need a limited number of ministers and that 18 are probably enough,” he said.

“This may also have to do with specific needs.”

Rahat points to the very real priority of regional development in the Galilee and the Negev that led to the creation of a special office dedicated to those causes. The position has largely been under the purview of Likudnik Silvan Shalom. Yet Rahat does not dismiss the possibility that as much as new or sometimes-toothless ministries can placate politicians looking for prominence, it can also be used to minimize the influence of someone if the position is considered inferior by stronger politicians.

“There is the Ministry of Regional Development (of the Galilee and the Negev), which is kind of a way to put someone aside like the Prime Minister did to Silvan Shalom or Ehud Barak did to Shimon Peres.”

“It’s kind of like humiliating someone.”