Can new Israeli elections secure a stable government?

Israel dissolves parliament, prompting new elections on November 1 and the possible return of Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Finance Minister Yair Lapid leave after a joint news conference in Jerusalem July 3, 2013.
Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Yair Lapid (R) [File: Ronen Zvulun/Reuters]

Jerusalem – The Israeli government has collapsed once again. With the process to dissolve the parliament, or Knesset, complete, the country’s fifth election in three and a half years will now be held later this year.

The instability of Israeli politics in the past few years has led many to ask what is wrong with the Israeli election system. Israel’s proportional representation system means that voters cast their ballots for a party, not a person, with the percentage of votes received translating into the percentage of seats a party will take in the 120-seat Knesset.

Sixty-one seats are needed to form a government, a number too high for any party to realistically achieve, meaning that coalitions involving several parties are necessary.

When the leaders of the present Israeli coalition government, Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, announced that they would move to dissolve the 36th Knesset of Israel and go to elections, it was not a big surprise. The coalition, which included eight parties spanning Israel’s ideological divides, no longer had a majority since declarations by some of its members that they would no longer support it.

“It’s 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 took place, there were 20 elections in 75 years. That’s an average of one every three-and-a-half years, just short of a full four-year term.”

But there currently is a problem preventing sustainable coalition governments from taking office.

After the April 2019 parliamentary elections, despite a majority of Knesset members being right-wing, Benjamin Netanyahu, the head of Israel’s largest party, the right-wing Likud, was unable to form a government and the Knesset dissolved itself. Another election six months later also did not lead to a government and the Knesset dissolved itself again. Then, in March 2020, a unity government between Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, of the Blue and White party, was formed, only to collapse in December of the same year.

Is ‘Bibi’ the cause?

Experts point to a primary reason for the Israeli political system’s current weakness – Netanyahu.

“Since 2019, it’s a crazy situation because of the personal animosity towards Netanyahu. It’s ‘Only Bibi’ vs ‘Anyone but Bibi’,” said Diskin, using Netanyahu’s diminutive. “This has brought us to the present situation.”

In 2019, Netanyahu, who has previously served as prime minister for a total of 15 years, 12 of them consecutively, lost the support of some Likud voters and some right-wing political parties after he was charged with deception, breach of trust and receiving bribes in three different corruption cases.

Moreover, his political manoeuvring earned him the ire of some of his natural, right-wing political partners when his so-called “magic tricks” came at their expense. Now some of them refuse to form a government with him.

“The game of politics has become more personalised,” said Gideon Rahat, a fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute and the chair of the department of political science at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “The right wing had a majority, but Netanyahu did not. He has a very strong support base, much more so 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 travails allowed an opening for Bennett and Lapid, who did the unimaginable, and formed a coalition that included parties from Israel’s right and left, as well as an Islamist one representing Palestinian citizens of Israel.

These ideological differences in one coalition were a first for Israel.

Since the 1967 capture of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Israeli political groups have largely identified themselves by whether they were in favour of continuing the military occupation of the Palestinians – in order to keep control over what Jewish nationalists call ‘Greater Israel’ – or whether they wanted to live side by side with a Palestinian state.

There are additional divisions over the size of that hypothetical state, where its capital would be, and how many people would have the right to live in that state.

A Netanyahu comeback

Yet it appears that those ideological divisions could only be put to one side for so long, and an inability to pass a routine bill that extends Israeli law to Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank eventually proved to be the final straw.

Enter Netanyahu.

“He [Netanyahu] has a trial and the only way he thinks he can defend himself in this trial is by staying in politics and using 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’s afraid the same will happen to him. I think that once he has the opportunity, he will try to change the [judicial] system for his own good to make sure he doesn’t go to jail or that his trial will take forever.”

The main issue here is a crisis of democracy, said Gayil Talshir, of the department of political science at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

“Over the last decade, Netanyahu has changed the issues,” Talshir said. “It’s 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 the government controlling the judicial system.”

“Netanyahu has a personal interest in a continuous cycle of elections because he wants to cancel his own trial and in order to do that, he’s willing to change the judicial system in Israel,” she added.

The question now is, whether a new round of elections will finally lead to the formation of a government that will be able to last.

“In principle, there is no limit,” said Diskin, referring to the 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 itself, as in some other parliaments, such as Norway and New Zealand, where it is not even an option.

Talshir and Diskin say the turnout of Mizrahi Jews (those from Middle Eastern backgrounds) – Netanyahu’s political base – and Palestinian citizens of Israel, is key.

Another potential outcome that could lead to an end to the cycle would be if Likud fairs badly in the elections.

“As long as he insists on being involved, I don’t think we’ll get stability,” said Rahat. “And the only way he will voluntarily leave is if he will lose in a very humiliating defeat and then the Likud won’t want him any more.”

Potentially, once Netanyahu is out of the picture, Israel’s right wing could come together, both pro and anti-Netanyahu, to create a right-wing government that has a chance of surviving, and that ultimately reflects a large proportion of Israeli society, which is increasingly supportive of Jewish nationalism.

As for the left, they will have to return to the opposition.

“A pure left-wing government is not possible in Israel today,” said Diskin. “The most the left can do is to join forces with the right wing.”

Source: Al Jazeera