I was asked to offer some remarks on current “instability” in Israeli politics.* Instead, I am going to argue that Israeli politics suffers from too much stability—at least at the level of party and electoral politics. The fact that Israel underwent three elections between April, 2019, and March, 2020, might seem to imply political instability. So might the government recently formed, with its unwieldy power-sharing provisions and the parties’ need to reform constitutional provisions (Basic Laws) in order, at last, to prevent what could have been a fourth election within two years.
However, if we go a little deeper, there are two aspects of fundamental stability that have led the country’s politics to this current situation. First is the fact that a right-wing nationalist bloc of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and the two Haredi (ultra-orthodox) parties, usually also joined by an ultra-nationalist and religious-Zionist party (currently Yamina), has been unwilling to break up in order to facilitate government-formation. Likud and the Haredi factions function almost like one party nowadays, even though they run as three separate ones in elections.
The second factor is the persistence of anti-Zionist ideology among the Arab parties, who in their alliance known as the Joint List, have emerged as a (potentially) powerful force able to command about 12% of the Knesset seats. One can hardly ask parties representing the Arab sector to be Zionist, but if they would cease being opposed to the very nature of the political system (or be replaced by more pragmatic parties), they could participate in governments and bring benefits back to their voters who polls show care much more about better public services and integration into Israeli society than about ideological goals or the wider Israeli–Palestinian conflict.
Because of these two aspects of excessive political stability (or we might say stasis), it proved impossible after the two elections of 2019 and almost impossible after the 2020 election for a government spanning the political center to form. Yet consider that in three elections within eleven months, the right-Haredi bloc headed by Netanyahu failed to win a majority of seats. It did especially badly, relative to the 2015 election, in the second election of 2019, held in September. It recovered only slightly this past March. Yet at the same time, the Blue & White electoral alliance headed by Benny Gantz and its potential coalition partners also failed to win a majority for an alternative government. Blue & White could have formed a government only with the cooperation of the Joint List—or else it needed the Likud.
In most parliamentary democracies with complex multiparty systems, what happens when no bloc of ideologically similar parties wins a majority of seats is that a coalition of the center forms, leaving the extremist parties of both left and right out. But owing in part to Netanyahu’s preoccupation with his own legal problems, he was unwilling to break up his loyal bloc. Meanwhile, many of Gantz’s secular and left-leaning allies were unwilling to enter a government with the Haredi parties due to sharp differences over issues of religion and state.
Only with the unwillingness of the key parties to go to fourth elections, particularly in the context of the covid-19 crisis, did such a center-right coalition (which excludes the far right Yamina, as well as the most secular components that had been included within Blue & White) finally form. They could have arrived at a similar destination much sooner if the right-Haredi bloc had been more flexible, and alternative governance options would be more feasible if the Arab bloc could be part of a government or of its Knesset support base.
In other words, Israeli politics would benefit from just a little bit more instability.
Before concluding, I want to add two final points—one on the institutional context and one looking ahead:
(1) It is not the case, as some commentators claim, that Israeli politics would be more stable if it would change its highly proportional electoral system. The country has about the number and relative size of parties we expect from the electoral system it has (based on mathematical models I have contributed to developing and testing). But it does not follow that the country would be better served by changing the system to reduce the number of parties. The system suits the country’s social divisions well. A more disproportional system would create more, not less instability, by making it less transparent how popular support would be turned into baragaining power in the Knesset and government.
(2) Will the current government last? The constitutional reforms that were passed as a condition of its formation make it likely that it will, at least for a while, by instituting a rotation in the Prime Minister position and making it harder than usual for the leader of one bloc to depose the other and break up the government. However, by August, it must pass a budget. If Netanyahu wants to prevent a budget deal, he probably can, and this would force an early election. Polls consistently show that the right-Haredi-ultranationalist bloc would win a majority if an election were held now. However, it is not clear that he would want such an outcome even if he could engineer it. All of Netanyahu’s coalition governments but one have had at least one party of the center-left in them in order to balance out the ultranationalist parties (and the farther right of his own Likud). The exception was the one formed after the 2015 election, which was a narrow right-wing government. And it was precisely his small right-wing partners who maneuvered to bring that government down, precipitating the first of these three recent elections when no election actually would have been due until November, 2019. Netanyahu may be quite happy with the deal he has now while his legal process slowly plays out. In other words, Israeli politics may be a good deal more stable than it appears to many observers.
* At an on-line meeting of Davis Faculty, scheduled for 5 July. In addition to drawing on several earlier posts on Israel at this blog (some of which are linked in this post), I also draw on my teaching of Israeli Politics at UC Davis, as recently as this past spring quarter.