Four days before Election Day in Israel and the race seems to be tightening up (see here and many other places). But what really puzzles those observers isn’t the rise of Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beiteinu party, or the decline of Labor. It is the fact that Israel, traditionally a country of 2 major parties (Likud and Labor), and in recent years of three major parties (Likud, Labor and Kadima), is turning into a land of 4 or 5 “major” parties – Likud, Kadima, Israel Beiteinu, Labor, and maybe Shas (Shas is a little behind in the polls, but it often performs better on election day than polling reflects).
This means that an unstable political system may become even more so. This development raises the possibility that no two parties will be able to claim a clear majority, thus making a “unity” government much harder to define. On the other hand, the additional parties haven’t changed the ideological landscape all that much.
Thus the irony. On the one hand, it’s a “parliamentary” system gone wild with an unlimited menu of nuanced agendas. On the other hand, votes for particular parties have lost meaning, leaving Israel with something very similar to a presidential system. Differences between Labor, Likud and Kadima are quite slim, and choices are mostly personality-driven: a contest between Netanyahu, Livni, Barak and Lieberman. This is no longer a contest between parties, but between leaders.
And if this is a personality contest, it’s quite clear why Lieberman will be the big winner. Of course, he will not have enough votes to become the Prime Minister. But with his bluntness, aggressiveness, sarcasm, (and, yes, Russian accent)- he has the advantage of being the only candidate with, well, a distinct personality.