Can new Israeli elections ensure a stable government? | New
Jerusalem – The Israeli government has collapsed once again. With the process of dissolving the parliament, or Knesset, complete, the country’s fifth election in three and a half years will take place later this year.
The instability of Israeli politics in recent years has led many to wonder what is wrong with Israel’s electoral system. Israel’s proportional representation system means voters vote for a party, not a person, with the percentage of votes received translating into the percentage of seats a party will win in the 120-seat Knesset.
Sixty-one seats are needed to form a government, too many for any one party to realistically achieve, meaning coalitions involving multiple parties are needed.
When the leaders of Israel’s current coalition government, Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, announced that they would dissolve Israel’s 36th Knesset and go to elections, it was no big surprise. The coalition, which included eight parties spanning Israel’s ideological divides, no longer had a majority following statements by some of its members that they would no longer support it.
“It is common to say that Israel is not a stable country because it has so many elections. But that’s not true,” said Avraham Diskin, professor emeritus of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “Until the last four elections, there have been 20 elections in 75 years. That’s an average of one every three and a half years, just under a full four-year term.
But there is currently a problem that prevents sustainable coalition governments from taking office.
After the April 2019 parliamentary elections, despite a majority of Knesset members being right-wing, Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of Israel’s largest party, the right-wing Likud, was unable to form a government and the Knesset dissolved. Another election six months later also failed to produce a government, and the Knesset once again dissolved. Then, in March 2020, a unity government between Netanyahu and Blue and White’s Benny Gantz was formed, only to collapse in December of that year.
Is ‘Bibi’ the cause?
Experts point to one of the main reasons for the current weakness of the Israeli political system: Netanyahu.
“Since 2019, it’s been a crazy situation because of the personal animosity towards Netanyahu. It’s ‘Only Bibi’ versus ‘Anyone but Bibi’,” Diskin said, using Netanyahu’s diminutive. That brought us to the current situation.”
In 2019, Netanyahu, who previously served as prime minister for a total of 15 years, including 12 consecutively, lost support from some Likud voters and some right-wing political parties after being accused of deception, breach of trust and of concealment bribes in three different corruption cases.
Moreover, his political maneuverings earned him the ire of some of his natural right-wing political partners when his so-called “magic tricks” worked at their expense. Now some of them refuse to form a government with him.
“The game of politics has become more personalized,” said Gideon Rahat, a fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute and director of the political science department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “The right had the majority, but not Netanyahu. He has a very strong base of support, far more than any other leader in Israel. But his support base is not a majority. His party and the other parties that support him let him try again and again, which shows how powerful he is.
Netanyahu’s setbacks provided an opening for Bennett and Lapid, who did the unimaginable, and formed a coalition that included both right-wing and left-wing parties in Israel, as well as an Islamist party representing Palestinian citizens of Israel. Israel.
These ideological differences within the same coalition were a first for Israel.
Since the capture of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967, Israeli political groups have largely identified themselves with whether or not they favor the continued military occupation of Palestinians – in order to maintain control over what Jewish nationalists call it “Greater Israel” – or if they wanted to live side by side with a Palestinian state.
There are further divisions on the size of this hypothetical state, where its capital would be located, and how many people would be allowed to live in this state.
A comeback from Netanyahu
Yet it seems that these ideological divisions could only be set aside for so long, and the failure to pass a routine bill that extends Israeli law to Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank ultimately proved to be the water drop.
“He [Netanyahu] has a trial and the only way he thinks he can defend himself in this trial is to stay in politics and use his political power to defend himself,” Rahat said. “He remembers what happened to [former Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert, who went to jail [for corruption], and he is afraid that the same thing will happen to him. I think once he gets the chance, he’ll try to change the [judicial] system for his own good to make sure he doesn’t go to jail or have his trial take forever.
The main problem here is a crisis of democracy, said Gayil Talshir of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s political science department.
“Over the past decade, Netanyahu has changed things,” Talshir said. “It is no longer about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s about the state perceiving Judaism as a religious rather than a national-secular concept, and it’s about government control over the justice system.
“Netanyahu has a personal stake in a continuing cycle of elections because he wants to overturn his own trial and to do that he is prepared to change the judicial system in Israel,” she added.
The question now is whether a new round of elections will ultimately lead to the formation of a government that can endure.
“In principle, there is no limit,” Diskin said, referring to election cycles. “According to the law, this could go on forever.”
Legislation could help.
Rahat suggests passing a law that would make it harder for the Knesset to dissolve, like in some other parliaments, like Norway and New Zealand, where that is not even an option.
Talshir and Diskin say the participation of Mizrahi Jews (those from the Middle East) – Netanyahu’s political base – and Palestinian citizens of Israel, is essential.
Another potential outcome that could lead to the end of the cycle would be if Likud does poorly in the election.
“As long as he insists on being involved, I don’t think we will get stability,” Rahat said. “And the only way for him to leave voluntarily is if he loses in a very humiliating defeat and Likud doesn’t want him anymore.”
Potentially, once Netanyahu is removed, the Israeli right could unite, both pro and anti-Netanyahu, to create a right-wing government that has a chance of surviving and ultimately reflects much of Israeli society, which supports growing Jewish nationalism.
As for the left, it will have to return to the opposition.
“A purely left-wing government is not possible in Israel today,” Diskin said. “The best the left can do is ally with the right.”