Netanyahu and the Size Principle

The Washington Post reports that the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attained a major triumph in his party’s leadership race on Wednesday. Defeating his ultranationalist challenger, Moshe Feiglin, Netanyahu secured 75 percent of the vote in the Likud Party primary. Netanyahu owed this victory, the Post noted, in some part to a recent housing subsidy approved by the Israeli government for West Bank settlements, in effect mollifying hard-liners upset with Netanyahu’s 2009 endorsement of an independent Palestinian state. Unsurprisingly, the Palestinian government denounced the subsidy as detrimental to the Arab-Israeli peace process. The so-called “Quartet on the Middle East” – the United Nations, the United States, the European Union, and Russia – are also likely to be critical of the settlement enticement. Indeed, the Los Angeles Times observed that President Obama have quarreled over the issue of West Bank settlement construction in recent years. As Netanyahu delves into a re-election campaign, one might have expected him to moderate his maneuvers, to win domestic and foreign support on promises of reconciliation and negotiation rather than appeasing extremists. Yet the assumption that political leaders will seek to maximize support by creating large coalitions neglects the fact that truly astute leaders will minimize concessions by building coalitions sufficient to win but no larger. This theory, manifest in William Riker’s “size principle,” helps to explain why Netanyahu is making a concerted effort to consolidate his right-wing coalition rather than attract centrists to his side, either locally or internationally.

In his 1957 work, An Economic Theory of Democracy, Anthony Downs asserted that leaders, acting rationally, would strive to win the most possible votes obtainable on the electoral market, and in so doing would appeal to voters based on policy or ideological positions. Downs claimed that leaders (or, more accurately, political parties) did not so much care about the best interest of their country as did winning and holding on to political office. As such, they would have little compunction about situating themselves in the “middle of the road” of public opinion, thereby only alienating those outlying voters on the far ends of the political spectrum. There is some truth to the effectiveness of this tactic, as evidenced in Israel by the Kadima party, which boasts politicians formerly of both left-wing and right-parties, and previously ruled the country from 2005 to 2009. In the 2009 legislative elections, Kadima even won the most seats. Yet it was Netanyahu’s Likud that was able to form a governing coalition, through alliances with the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party and the highly religious Shas, United Torah Judaism and Jewish Home parties. Why, in contravention of Downs’ theory, have the Israeli moderates lost out to the radical right?

The answer lies in Riker’s aforementioned size principle. According to Riker, leaders are not as reckless with their promises as they are under Downs, and will limit those promises those blocs required for a government cornerstone. Rather than trying to be all things to all people as Kadima and its figureheads had done, Netanyahu and Likud utilized their consistent right-wing stances to get the other right-wing parties on their side. Rather than mire themselves in the unenviable quagmire of attempting to satisfy peace-minded doves and national security hawks, peace promoters and Zionist nationalists, Netanyahu and the Likud leadership placed themselves firmly in the latter camps of each policy debate, and therefore were able to assemble a functional union from the highly fragmented interest groups that constitute Israeli politics. Kadima, meanwhile, faltered in the aftermath of the 2009 election, coming off as opportunist when it solicited the Yisrael Beiteinu nationalists, a move that alienated the center-left Labor and Meretz parties, which shared economic programs with Kadima. By keeping its pledges focused on only the right-wing parties, Netanyahu and Likud have forged a coalition large enough to win power and stay there, and no larger. The housing subsidy to West Bank settlers can thus be seen as a fulfillment on one such pledge, and Netanyahu’s overwhelming primary victory as an affirmation that he is delivering on those pledges.

Of course, it cannot be said that Riker’s “size principle” entirely captures what is happening at present with Netanyahu and Israeli politics in general. For example, neither Riker nor Downs factors in external pressures into the decision-making of leaders.  Netanyahu – like all Israeli leaders – contends with influence from the Middle East Quartet on a regular basis. Indeed, his 2009 conditional support for the two-state solution cannot be regarded as arising from domestic necessity so much as a consequence of his needing, at the time, to be considered as a facilitator of the peace process rather than an obstacle to it. In light of the conditions Netanyahu attached to recognizing an independent Palestinian state (including that Palestinians recognize Israel as a legitimate Jewish state), it is clear that the gesture was meant to conciliate the Quartet abroad while suggesting to his core supporters that the peace process would not see advancement – as the conditions would never be accepted by the Palestinians. Riker, like Downs, sees leaders as thinking in economic terms – that is, in regards to resources and their allocation – but not in regards to other considerations, such as diplomacy and walking the tightrope of global politics.


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