The Israeli coalition’s judicial reform: What would it mean for democracy?

I have given a semi-public lecture on the Israeli judicial reforms in comparative-institutional perspectives three times since late March. Now, with the permission of the hosts, I have uploaded one of them to YouTube.

In this lecture I offer my perspectives on the proposed judicial overhaul in Israel, speaking as a specialist on constitutional design of democracies around the world, as well as someone who has followed and taught about–and sometimes published on–Israeli democracy for years. I gave this for Congregation Beth Israel in Ann Arbor, Michigan, at the invitation of my friend, Rabbi Nadav Caine, who also serves as host of the lecture.

It’s bargaining all the way down

A correspondent asked me recently if I thought the refusal of Israeli opposition leaders to hold talks on the government’s proposed judicial overhaul, unless the government first pulled the bills from currently scheduled committee consideration, was “legitimate.” She did not think so, and her reason was sensible enough and certainly not something I can disagree with: Committees are where the details of legislation are worked out, after all, and the final version could be quite different from the initial draft.

My response was that I did not think there was anything illegitimate about the opposition’s stance. Basically, that anything that is not illegal is fair game in a democracy, because of what the title of this post says. It is all about bargaining.

What I mean is that the opposition has a weak hand in the legislature and its committees–the government has a majority of the Knesset and the key committees. Israel has no entrenched constitution (aside from a few specific provisions of some Basic Laws), and a majority of members present and voting can change just about anything it wants. That is, the ruling coalition of Likud, Haredi (ultra-orthodox) parties, and nationalists can implement institutional reform without compromising with non-coalition parties or societal actors–provided it remains united. I see the range of opposition tactics–including the protests and various letters from a wide range of actors in society as well as the insistence on a pause in the process before talks–as an effort to exacerbate and expose fissures within the coalition. It may even be working and a possible compromise has been floated via a process outside the Knesset committees. But whether it works or not, and whether it is really their best strategy or not, I think it should be seen as precisely a means of driving wedges in the coalition. At the end of the day, only members of the coalition can decide whether they either want to meet some opposition demands to calm the situation, or simply pass what they are currently proposing. The lack of a super-majority requirement for constitutional matters means everyone playing this game knows the government can do what it wants–unless sufficient members within it refuse to go along.

Another interlocutor said that the proposals should be seen as just an opening gambit, meant to stake out a position that will be compromised later. While such an understanding is consistent with a bargaining game, I have my doubts regarding the inferred intention. If a government is committed to the rule of law, it does not lead with proposals that would subordinate the judiciary to the government and its parliamentary majority. Whatever the governing parties’ “true” intentions, I can certainly understand why the opposition has seen these proposals as a mortal threat to the rule of law and refused to negotiate when the government could, at almost any moment, just put its preferred version into law. (Even while I think claims that this would be the end of democracy are over the top.)

A bigger point is that the entire episode has made me question just a little my basic understanding of what form of democracy is best. I would always answer such a question with “unicameral parliamentary system with proportional representation” (PR). This is, of course, what Israel has.1 As a student of elections, legislatures, and executives, I tend to give short shrift to judiciaries. I tend even to have my doubts about judicial review, because it may serve for a minority veto, and my premise in favor of unicameral PR-parliamentarism is that majority coalitions of multiple parties are the surest preserver of democratic liberty. The idea being that if one party in a coalition demands too much, it can be replaced by a different party. This of course “works” theoretically, and presumably empirically, to the extent that shifting majority coalitions are possible (whether changes in cabinet or simply changes in the complexion of coalitions passing different legislation). If you get a situation where parties comprising a narrow majority can govern and there are no opposition parties available to replace high-demanders in the current coalition, the result might be unbridled majoritarianism if there is no court (or other body) to check it. As I have written in recent plantings about current Israeli politics, the country seems to be in precisely such a situation now–indeed, with a narrow majority coalition whose component parties did not even win a majority of the vote. In that context, preserving a judicial check–in some way–seems essential. So, yes, PR-parliamentary remains my clear choice for “best” form of democracy, but don’t forget about the judiciary.2

Finally, what are some examples of constitutional reforms on any fundamental institutional provisions that were put forth in such extreme initial form? I ask this with a limitation of the sample of possible cases to countries we would recognize as long-standing and well established democracies. I can’t think of many good parallels–maybe the recent measures in Hungary and Poland (depending on what “long-standing” means). I would think that governments with ambitious agendas of changing fundamental institutional balances would tend to seek consensus from the start, and not as part of a bargaining game after introduction of radical proposals. But I may be overlooking good historical examples, or it may simply be that elsewhere such proposals typically need larger-than-bare majorities to be enacted, which then constrains what gets proposed at the outset. Electoral system reforms in majoritarian systems come to mind as offering possible examples. It is something I have written on, and generally processes contemplating reform to PR are set up with broader consultation and a referendum even though there is often no constitutional constraint requiring pro-reform governments to do so. And that’s with reforms that would restrain the majoritarianism of future governments, not empower them, as the Israeli government’s judicial proposals would do. So, for various reasons, I think that what we are seeing is quite exceptional, and in this light I can understand why the opposition has elected to take the bargaining outside of regular channels like legislative committees. It’s bargaining all the way down, and bargaining need not be confined to the normal channels (provided it remains legal and non-violent) when the stakes are so high.

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  1. However, I would argue that the unicameral, PR-parliamentary combo works better if the threshold is low (yes, 3.25% is too high, at least for Israel), there is districting (perhaps a two-tier PR system, introducing local representation while preserving nationwide proportionality), and/or there is some degree of preference voting within the party lists. I would never argue that nationwide-district closed-list PR is the “best” system, even though I have generally been more favorable to the Israeli electoral-system design than many commentators have been.
  2. What about the unicameral part? I still prefer that in principle, but I could see a case for some sort of second chamber being a good idea for Israel. The important proviso is: not anything like the US Senate! Not both malapportioned and possessing a full veto. But “to cool the coffee” as I recall from the title of a paper on bicameralism I read long ago, maybe. Israeli politics could certainly stand to have its coffee cooled a bit these days.

When did Israel become “majoritarian”?

I have run across various articles, tweets, and other items decrying an unbridled “majoritarianism” in Israel, as the current government moves rapidly towards granting parliamentary majorities control over the previously independent judiciary.1 One example of the genre is by Natan Sachs for Brookings, which refers to “Israel’s majoritarian nightmare.”

For those of us who are familiar with Arend Lijphart‘s work, this characterization of Israel comes as quite a surprise. Consider that his Patterns of Democracy rated Israel the third least majoritarian of his set of democracies. I am referring to his “executives-parties” dimension. The other dimension Lijphart calls “federal-unitary.” This includes judicial review, so it is relevant here, too. But I will focus on executive-parties. (Israel is highly unitary—no regional governments of any real powers.) Lijphart’s graph of his two dimensions is shown below. Note how Israel (ISR) is plotted the upper-left corner. On the executive-parties dimension, it is among the furthest to the left, corresponding to the consensus democracies on this dimension.

Source: From Arend Lijphart, Pattens of Democracy, Yale University Press, 2012, p. 244.

So Israel, according to Lijphart, is one of the highly “consensus” democracies—the opposite type to “majoritarian.” What does he base that on? Several things, but key factors are:

  1. Use of proportional representation. No argument here.
  2. Tendency for (a) short-lived cabinets, which are (b) often oversized (contain at least one party that could leave without depriving the government of its parliamentary majority).

It is 2b that is the rub now. The current cabinet is anything but oversized. It is a minimal winning coalition with a bare majority. It consists of only right-wing parties (unusual, as Benjamin Netanyahu’s past coalitions have never had his Likud as the left-most party in the cabinet). It has just 64 seats (of 120).

This is not the first such cabinet, however. When did Israel last have a cabinet that was minimal winning with a bare majority? Not so long ago! The one in question was not ideologically narrow (far from it!), but it was politically narrow. I am referring to the “change” government led by Naftali Bennet and Yair Lapid, which was in power in 2021-22, and about which I mused whether it was “majoritarian” or “consensus.”

So perhaps we might criticize Lijphart for using a behavioral indicator (e.g., how big and broad coalitions tend to be) for what is mostly an institutionally based typology of majoritarian vs. consensus democracy.

There’s nothing is Israel’s constitutional rules requiring oversized or diverse coalitions, after all. Examples of features that might impel political leaders to build oversized coalitions (if not outright require them) might be strong bicameralism, whereby government leaders want to ensure a majority in both chambers, or a detailed and entrenched constitution, which might lead to governments with super-majorities because their policy agenda requires constitutional amendments. No such features are to be found in Israel.

We might note that the role of the courts—and just about everything else—and the constitution itself (Basic Laws) always could be changed by a bare majority. Other than some specific provisions, the Basic Laws that map out the functioning of the Israeli political system and define limits on government authority (e.g., protecting rights) are subject to change by a Knesset majority.2 Questions of court powers and ease of constitutional amendment are features of a democracy that Lijphart places on the federal-unitary dimension (which always struck me as a little odd, actually).

In other words, it has always been the case that the judiciary had the powers it had–such as the ability to strike down a regular law as being inconsistent with a Basic Law–only because a majority in parliament had never acted to say it did not have such powers. Moreover, the Knesset had passed legislation setting up very independent processes of appointing supreme court justices and other judges and the attorney general. Almost none of the supposed overreach that proponents of judicial reform are moving to change was ever codified in the constitution (i.e., a Basic Law). Yet a Knesset majority at any time could have codified such powers–or limited or abolished them. That is arguably a pretty non-consensus feature of any political system!

So at the end of the day, what is a “majoritarian” democracy? One that typically has single-party bare-majority governments and limited checks on what the government can do (in a nutshell, Lijphart’s definition)? Or one in which a parliamentary majority encounters limited checks, whether or not coalitions or single-party governments form?

Over time—and well before Israel’s current move to cut judicial power—I have come to believe that this second definition better suits “majoritarian”.

When a parliamentary majority is unchecked, but there is a multiparty system, we might ordinarily expect that coalitions will be short lived and will shift, meaning no single combination of parties comprising a bare majority is likely to remain in power for long.

A system bare-majority coalitions certainly describes Israel since about 2018 quite well. (The government formed in 2015 was initially oversized but became minimal winning when Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu defected. That defection help precipitate the deadlock with four elections 2019-21 and yet another in 2022.)

We do not know, of course, how long this current government will last. Its members are sure acting like they know it could break apart at any moment. Earlier I noted that one of the criteria for “consensus” government, according to Lijphart, is short-lived cabinets. This maybe has not changed!

But Israel in 2023 sure does not look like a “consensus democracy” anymore.3

And the root of why it does not is inherent in its rather extreme case of parliamentary-majority sovereignty, but also rests on contingent factors like Netanyahu having burned bridges with center-left parties (and even right-wing parties that joined the previous “change” government).

Israel in 2023 thus stands as a significant case for understanding how we think about patterns of democracy more generally.

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Notes

1. I will not attempt to summarize the entire package of judicial overhaul measures. But the key features are to give the government a majority on the judicial appointments commission, to require a super-majority (in some versions, unanimous) decision of the Supreme Court to declare a law unconstitutional (i.e., in conflict with a provision of a Basic Law), and to allow a Knesset majority to override any such declaration of unconstitutionality.

2. In many cases, moreover, that need not be an absolute majority (61) but merely a plurality. For instance, two of the Basic Laws on which the Supreme Court has based many of its rights-broadening rulings were initially passed with well fewer than a third of members voting in favor (with many abstentions), although some subsequent amendments to these Basic Laws obtained large majorities.

3. And not only because of the unusual situation for PR-coalitional parliamentary systems by which the current government rests on a manufactured majority: The parties comprising the cabinet collectively won less than half the vote. (Manufactured majorities are, of course, common in majoritarian democracies.)

When does a coalition partner have a veto?

Does entering into a coalition government imply that a political party is a “veto player”? Some scholars would say yes, while others raise cautions about such a generalization. I would side with those who sound the caution and say that it depends.

The issue arises because in Israel, the Otzma Yehudit party leader, Itamar Ben Gvir, has issued another demand that is gumming up the process of forming what in theory should be a highly compact minimum winning coalition of the right–orthodox bloc in Israel.

According to the Times of Israel, Ben Gvir said “We want a deputy in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation” and without this, “we can’t form a government.” The news update notes that a spokesman has clarified that he means that veto power is his intention with this demand.

As the article notes, the rules of procedure for the Ministerial Committee for Legislation are subject to each government’s internal agreements. It is not as if law specifies who sits on this committee and what each member’s powers are. The issue raises the more general point in the questions at the top of this entry. Does a coalition partner possess a veto by the very nature of coalition government or must it be agreed to explicitly?

Tsebelis, in his work on “veto players” would say that in a unicameral (or effectively so) parliamentary system like Israel’s, the veto players are the parties in the government. The implication is that no policy is changed without the consent of all veto players–all cabinet parties. Let’s leave aside cases of minority governments, which complicate the discussion (but are important to understand!) or oversize cabinets.1 I will focus on the simplest case of coalition–one in which there are two or more parties whose personnel populate the cabinet, the parties together command a majority, and there are no extra parties beyond what is needed for that majority. This is essentially what the emerging coalition in Israel will exemplify.2

In the situation resulting from the election and the bargaining positions of the various parties, each party that is expected to enter the incoming cabinet indeed would appear to be a veto player. There would seem to be little need to codify this in the operating procedures of a key cabinet committee. Nonetheless, I do not believe it is by definition the case that any cabinet coalition partner has a veto. It depends on the circumstances, and those can vary across governments within a country and could even vary across time within a government. The latter, of course, is a reason a party leader with extreme policy demands (like Ben Gvir) might insist on both personnel (a deputy chair of a key cabinet committee) and rules to codify the veto.

As a general rule, however, cabinet membership should not automatically make a party a veto player. Many cabinets will let a partner vote no on something without bringing down the government or categorically blocking the passage of a bill. In fact, this is arguably the purest form of “consensus” “majoritarian” democracy–one in which legislative majorities are sufficient to change policy (no minority veto/super-majority rules), but legislative coalitions need not be the same as the cabinet coalition on every piece of legislation. Policy-enacting majorities can “cycle” from one set of majority-holding parties to another, depending on the issue and the bargaining strengths of a wider set of parties than those that comprise the cabinet. See works of McGann & Latner, Li, and others on this point. 3

The reason Otzma is probably a veto player in the emerging government is that there appear to be scant options for the leading party, Likud and leader Benjamin Netanyahu, to construct legislative coalitions that replace one or more of his coalition partners with votes (let alone influential posts) from parties outside the cabinet. The current divide is stark–pro-Netanyahu vs. the rest–such that cross-bloc votes could not be counted on. That could change, of course, depending on various events that change the incentives of various parties. (Benny Gantz, Defense Minister in the outgoing government who is currently ticketed for opposition, hinted as much yesterday.)

Thus the veto player potential of a coalition partner depends on the degree of fluidity of blocs in parliament. It should not, it seems to me, be assumed from the mere role as a coalition partner. I doubt Ben Gvir has read much political science, but he seems to be learning fast, and to get the basic point. He does not trust Netanyahu and Likud to follow through on policy promises in their coalition agreement: he says that it “may be that they don’t really want to pass what they promised us.” Of course, a deputy committee seat within the cabinet and a codified veto will not help him pass anything that he wants. But it would give him leverage by allowing him to block things Likud might want, and bargain (logroll) for things he wants.

Again, however, if a government decides to change its internal rules it always can. And if Ben Gvir pushes too hard with his vetoes–codified or not–and the PM sees an opportunity to strike a more flexible deal with another party initially outside the government, such options remain at least potentially open. The veto is only conditional, not guaranteed by cabinet partnership or even by specific deals struck at the government’s formation.

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1. A minority government is one whose component parties (whether one or more) do not collectively have a majority in parliament. An oversize coalition is one that has at least one party that could leave without depriving the rest of the government of a majority in parliament. The former may give vetoes to parties lacking cabinet-level posts, and the latter may or may not give vetoes to all cabinet-member parties, depending on factors discussed here, as well as others that may be specific to that type of coalition or to institutional settings in which they commonly occur.

2. Essentially, because there is one mathematically superfluous party that has signed an agreement with Likud–the very unpleasant one-man band that is Noam, which won a seat on the same alliance list as Otzma Yehudit and the Religious Zionism party. Technically, Noam will not be a cabinet party, as its member’s post will be only a deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s office.

3. The title of the McGann and Latner piece says it clearly: “The Calculus of Consensus Democracy: Rethinking Patterns of Democracy Without Veto Players.” The piece it a rejoinder both to the Tsebelis point, and to Lijphart’s definitions of “majoritarian” and “consensus” democracy. Li’s book is about how “cycling” majorities are democracy-preserving, and require majority rule in a dominant legislative assembly.

Additional note: In thinking about these issues, I have benefitted greatly from communication with JD Mussel who frequently comments on, and writes for, this blog. But he bears no responsibility for whatever aspects I am getting wrong!

Further note (19 Dec.): It took me a whole week to realize I had called the cycling majorities possible under parliamentary coalitions the purest form of consensus government. Obviously I should have said majoritarian! That is, majoritarianism can be thought of as a situation in which elected representatives of an actual majority rule–rather than a manufactured one that is typical of Westminster-type systems referred to by Lijphart and others as “majoritarian”–but that majority need not consist of the same set of parties on every bill passed during the tenure of a given government. Lijphart would call any parliamentary system with coalition governments as its norm as tending towards the consensus pattern. Other scholars–including me when not suffering from a brain cramp–would say that multiparty coalition government is–or can be–more meaningfully majoritarian than the sort of system in which the party with the majority of parliamentary seats has been elected by less than half the voters, yet can rule alone.

Bilateral bargaining in multiparty coalitions

This is just a follow up to the previous planting. As I noted there, the incoming Israeli PM’s party (Likud) will sign separate coalition agreements with each of five partner parties (three of whom ran on a joint list in the election but maintain their separate “faction” status in the Knesset).

I believe this is typical of multiparty coalitions in parliamentary democracies: that when there are multiple partners, each one signs its own bilateral deal with the incoming cabinet head. I know it is the way it has been done in Israel for as long as I have been paying attention. It is also how it has been done in recent bargaining in New Zealand. I actually do not know if other counties with coalitions uniformly do this, or if there are cases where coalition agreements are joint among all the parties entering government. (There are some cases with no public agreements; that seems to be rare nowadays.)

Maybe someone knows of a case.*

The bilateral deals raise the specter for a party that a deal with another partner contradicts something in their own deal. Presumably the government-leading party seeks to avoid contradictions that will only cause headaches later. But some contradictions can’t be avoided, presumably, and some may even be strategic. This is precisely why parties also care about who gets junior ministers and committee chairs–the stacking vs. checking I talked about in the earlier entry. The agreements often contain a clause that they cover only the areas explicitly mentioned in the text, and do not preclude the PM’s party from striking agreements with other parties (presumably on different policy topics, but each party cares about more issues than those it gets in its own agreement). This is also why most coalitions create additional mechanisms, like coalition coordinating committees or inner cabinets, to work out inevitable disagreements.

The alternative agreement strategy would be to do a grand multilateral bargain. But that would be extremely complex and unwieldy to hammer out! But I wonder if there are countries, or specific governments, where that approach is taken.

A humorous (to me, anyway) aside is there was a report during the past weeks that Benjamin Netanyahu proposed having a single agreement with all parties. This was quickly shot down by his proto-partners, and presumably for good reason, from their perspective. He also went so far as to ask them to simply agree to form a right-wing government and delegate to him the personnel decisions for awarding each partner with posts. Naturally, that went over like a lead balloon. Nice try, though.

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* I since have been told that in Belgium and the Netherlands, they do multilateral coalition bargaining and agreements.

Stacking vs. checking: Otzma Yehudit in the emerging Israeli coalition

In a recent publication (details below), Reut Itzkovitch-Malka and I investigate when parties “check” partners in coalition governments and when they “stack” via the committee overseeing a ministry. Here’s a clear case of stacking in the incoming Israeli coalition: Otzma Yehudit reportedly will get both the ministry it most wanted as well as the chair of the parliamentary committee overseeing that ministry as part of the new Israeli government.

Broadly put, when coalitions are bargained, the parties forming the government have a choice of “stacking” whereby they agree to give one party full control over certain policy portfolios, or “checking” whereby two parties are given organizational bases from which to check one another in a given portfolio. There is considerable literature in political science on questions such as these, mostly focused on the degree of authority delegated to cabinet ministers. For instance, Laver and Shepsle (1996) famously developed a model to predict which cabinet deals would form, based on the policy preferences of the parties to the deal, and with the theoretical claim that the holder of a portfolio was a “policy dictator” in that policy domain. Within the cabinet coalitions literature, this has been challenged by the observation that often junior ministers are appointed from a different coalition party than the one that gets the (senior) minister in order for one party to “keep tabs” on the other (see Thies 2001). These views of the process are in direct tension with one another. The first assumes that what makes a coalition “work” is that all parties understand they get to do whatever they want in their portfolios and thus the bargain is credible (everyone knows this up front, so they won’t intervene in each others’ domains over the life of the coalition). The second assumes that what makes it work is the parties can have agents monitoring other parties to be sure they stick to compromises reached at formation of the coalition (the junior observes some “ministerial drift” and reports back to his or her own party).

In recent years, more attention has been turned to how parties might use parliamentary committees and their chair positions as part of the overall coalition bargain (e.g., Martin and Vanberg 2004, 2011). The notion of stacking vs. checking can also be applied here. For instance, the coalition agreement could see the party that gets a given ministerial portfolio also get the chair of the parliamentary committee that is charged with overseeing the ministry. That would be stacking. Alternatively, the committee chair could be from a coalition partner, creating an opportunity for checking within the coalition. (A third possibility is that the chair is from an opposition party. Most parliaments in coalition-based systems parcel out the chairs proportionally to all parties, so some committees will be allocated in a way that facilitates “monitoring” by the opposition.) All of these combinations assume chairs have some authority. That is generally true–they have agenda power within the committee. Even though a majority of the committee typically can override decisions of the chair, everyone’s time and attention is limited, and thus chairs should be in a privileged position in terms of hearings to schedule, witnesses to call, etc. And, at least among coalition partners, they may prefer to resolve things quietly rather than let conflicts erupt in the open. The ability of the chairs to acquire information on behalf of their parties serves to keep partners in line, or so the argument goes for checking. For stacking, it’s the opposite: the chair may be able to bury information that would raise the ire of a coalition partner or the opposition.

The deal first reported last week between Likud, the party of incoming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Otzma Yehudit, led by Itamar Ben Gvir, offers a clear-cut case of stacking. Ben Gvir will be named Minister of National Security, in charge of the national police and various other functions. It is a newly expanded ministry and portfolio, and thus a plum position for the far-right party leader. In addition, a member of his party is expected to be named chair of the Knesset Public Security Committee. Thus Otzma Yehudit gets both the policing ministry and the parliamentary committee chair responsible for domestic security policy and related matters.

The stacking, and evident cession of considerable autonomy to Otzma, in the area of public security grants Ben Gvir one of the aims he most regularly called for during the campaign leading up the recent election. He said repeatedly that he would demand the policing portfolio. And he got it. While this might not quite make him a literal “policy dictator,” that he also has the associated legislative committee surely limits the risk that he gets stymied by Likud or other partners.

In addition some reports had said he, or a member of the party, could obtain the agriculture ministry. I never would have imagined a far-right ultra-nationalist (and, frankly, racist) party being the defender of Israeli famers, but I’ve been informed that this is also related to his public-security interests. Theft of animals and equipment has become a serious issue in parts of rural Israel, and the politics around the problem is often tinged with racism. I wonder if his emphasis on this issue during the campaign actually earned him votes in the farm sector. The agreement does not grant Otzma the agriculture ministry, but it does transfer from that ministry to the new super-ministry Ben Gvir will head certain agencies responsible for the sector.

Ben Gvir is notorious for a history of racist comments and convictions for incitement against Arabs, along with admiration for the late Meir Kahane. In this election, his Otzma faction was part of a joint list with Religious Zionism. Together the RZ alliance list won 14 seats out of 120. Six of those elected from the list were Otzma candidates. The parties had declared their alliance a “technical bloc” and, as planned, formally split shortly after the election. Thus the two parties (plus a third, Noam, with just one of the electoral alliance’s seats) have been bargaining separately with Likud. This has made Shas (the Sephardi Haredi party), with 11 seats, technically the second largest party in the emerging coalition. It also means there will likely be five separate coalition agreements between Likud and a partner (Otzma, RZ, Noam, Shas, and the other Haredi party, UTJ) . It will be interesting to see which of the major ministries each partner gets will be “checked” by a coalition partner and in which portfolios the party will be granted “stacked” control via the committee chairs allocation.

The question of stacking and checking is a major theme of my paper with Itzkovitch-Malka. We find that stacking is quite common in Israel. We suggest that this may be due to the need of parties under conditions of high party fragmentation to make credible commitments that a partner, having been given a privileged position over the portfolio (via the minister) will be more able to deliver by also having the committee chair (given agenda control over proceedings, which Israeli committee chairs definitely have).

An interrelated theme of the paper is the expertise of the Knesset Members who obtain committee seats and chairs (expanding the party personnel research). Expertise is a subordinate, but still important, consideration that Israeli parties use. We do the first–to our knowledge–statistical analysis of any parliamentary system’s committee assignments to combine data on individual member attributes with an indicator of the partisan relation of chairs and ministers. Parties are somewhat more likely to appoint someone with pre-legislative experience to chair a committee when the party also has the associated minister, especially, we show, in “public goods” policy areas (like health and education). We suggest this is a further form of stacking–ensuring that the chair overseeing a co-partisan minister also has expertise in related policies. I am not sure yet which Otzma legislator is getting the Public Security committee chair in the new Knesset; I will take note of whether it is someone with any expertise in the policy area.

As for Ben Gvir himself, I suppose having been arrested and convicted on security matters counts as “expertise” of a sort in policing and public security, although not quite in the way I normally would code it.

The paper mentioned above is:

Committee assignment patterns in fragmented multiparty settings: Party personnel practices and coalition management, by Reut Itzkovitch-Malka and Matthew S. Shugart, Party Politics, 2022. Abstract:

This paper addresses the way parties assign members to parliamentary committees in fragmented multiparty settings. Thus, it analyzes how the two most central institutions of parliamentary politics––political parties and parliamentary committees––interact with one another. To the best of our knowledge, no research into this subject has systematically explored the intersection of considerations based on individual legislator characteristics and coalition management in committee assignment. Using Israel as our case study, we show that legislators’ expertise modestly shapes committee assignment patterns. However, parties in coalition often have another set of considerations to take into account when assigning members to committees. We show that parties in coalition do not only bargain on ministerial positions or committee chairs––they also bargain on their members’ assignment to committees and use this resource to allow (or hinder) each other to augment influence and control in a given policy area, or to perform affective monitoring.

Works cited in this entry:

Laver M and Shepsle KA (1996) Making and Braking Govern- ments: Cabinets and Legislatures in Parliamentary De- mocracies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Martin LW and Vanberg G (2004) Policing the bargain: coalition government and parliamentary scrutiny. American Journal of Political Science 48(1): 13–27.

Martin LW and Vanberg G (2011) Parliaments and Coalitions: The Role of Legislative Institutions in Multiparty Governance. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Thies M (2001) Keeping tabs on partners: The logic of delegation in coalition governments. American Journal of Political Science 45(3): 580–598.

This is a short list of important works in the topic. Many more are cited in the article.

Coordination failure under nationwide PR: Manufactured majority in Israel 2022

The votes are not yet final from the 1 November 2022 Israeli general election, but the outcome is quite clear. The right-wing bloc of parties supporting current opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu will have won a manufactured majority. Media are calculating the bloc’s combined seats at 65 out of 120. Yet the bloc currently has just 48.1% of the votes.* That is actually lower than the clear majority of the vote they got in April, 2019, yet at that election the result was deadlock while this one will produce a majority coalition government. What explains the difference? Coordination.

The reason for the manufactured majority in this election, despite a nationwide proportional representation electoral system, is coordination failure. The strategic choices of political leaders and voters in both the left and the Arab political camps have made Netanyahu’s impending return to government possible. On the left, Labor has barely cleared the 3.25% legal threshold, with 3.56% as of now (around 20:30 Israel time), while Meretz is below, at 3.19% (and its percentage has declined in recent hours as more votes are counted*). Even if–as appears unlikely–Meretz ultimately clears, and thus wins 4 seats instead of zero, it would not drop the right below 61 seats. For that to happen, it would also be necessary that all three Arab lists in this election cleared the threshold. But Balad is sitting on only 3.03%, so that looks at least as unlikely.

Had Balad stayed in alliance with the remnant Joint List (i.e., Hadash-Tal, which won 3.93%) and had Meretz either won just enough to clear the threshold or formed an alliance list with Labor, as Interim PM Yair Lapid openly encouraged, the additional seats won by these camps surely would have blocked Netanyahu from winning. Then there either would have been some unexpected coalition possibilities emerging, or another election next spring, with Lapid of the Yesh Atid party remaining Prime Minister during that time (and until a new government eventually formed). Thus it is hard to exaggerate just how much the left and Arab political camps blew it–assuming blocking the return of Netanyahu was important to them. (Frankly, I doubt Balad’s leaders care, although many of their voters must, and leftist leaders and voters alike surely do.)

I should add here that the third piece of the former Joint List, Ra’am, which backed the outgoing government, cleared the threshold easily with the highest vote percentage of any of the three Arab lists (4.34%). This appears to be vindication for leader Mansour Abbas’s consistent message over the last two years of normalizing Arab participation in national governance; in 2021 Ra’am had 3.79%. I will count this as one piece of good news from the election.

In some respects, this year’s outcome is a mirror image of the first of this recent run of frequent elections, in April 2019. In that first of two elections in 2019, the right suffered a coordination failure when New Right fell just below the threshold, with 3.22% of the vote. In that election, the combined right-wing vote was 55.4% if we include Yisrael Beiteinu or 51.44% if we do not. But the non-Likud, non-Haredi right was splintered: Union of Right-Wing Parties (3.70), Kulanu (3.54), New Right (3.22), and Zehut (2.74). Thus the right bloc had only 60 seats, or with Yisrael Beiteinu (4.01% of the vote) included, 65. Had New Right cleared the threshold, the combination without YB would have been 61 or 62, depriving YB leader Avigdor Lieberman of the pivotal position. (It was only after the election that he earnestly said no to the coalitions with Haredi parties that he had willingly been part of up to a few months before.) Thus coordination failure on the right probably prevented a right-Haredi government from forming in 2019, and kicked off the four-election cycle of deadlock and attempted “unity” governments.

In this year’s election, coordination on the right returned in a big way. The non-Likud, non-Haredi right was almost entirely consolidated on one list, that of Religious Zionism, which won 10.31% of the vote and probably 14 seats. There will be much consternation and condemnation over the prominent role that RZ leaders Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir will play in the likely new government. Much of it will be deserved. They are genuine extremists. However, it will be portrayed as a far-right surge when it really only is the non-Likud, non-Haredi electorate converging on its only viable option. Consider that in the 2021 election, RZ won 6 seats (5.12% of the vote) and Yamina won 7 seats (6.21% of the vote). That is 13 seats and just over 11% of the vote. This time the remaining option will have actually lost vote share while picking up (apparently) one seat. It is not a far-right surge, it is a right-wing coordination success. To these votes we could also add Jewish Home, now led by Ayalet Shaked, which won 1.16% of the votes–far below the threshold, but suggesting the combined vote share for this more-rightwing-than-Likud flavor of politics basically did not change.

It is quite striking how much of the movement from utter coordination failure on the right in 2019 to smashing coordination success in 2022 is the story of Naftali Bennet and Ayalet Shaked and their supporters. Their gambit in 2019 was that there was political space for a strongly right-wing option that is less tied to the old religious Zionist parties, represented at the time by the Jewish Home alliance (in which both were prominent figures and Netanyahu coalition partners). But for a very small number of votes, they could have been vindicated, but instead the last three and a half years turned this on its head, with the list of Religious Zionism commandeering this segment of the vote in 2022. On the way here, Bennet and, more reluctantly, Shaked tried another gambit, teaming up with Yesh Atid, Labor, Meretz, Ra’am, and Yisrael Beiteinu (among others) on the “change” government. Bennet was at the time leader of Yamina, which did not even run in this election. We could say it was hardly a party at all, in terms of the disciplined outfit we’d expect of a party providing the prime minister, as it did for the initial period of the government formed in 2021. It only shed members of Knesset and voters from the moment it announced the coalition. And now its voters have a home and a government, in the form of the most hardline party to have entered any of Netanyahu’s cabinets to date.

As for the left, Labor and Meretz refused to forge an alliance. This is understandable, but also blew up on them in a big way. They had run on an alliance list in the March, 2020, election and won only 7 seats and less than 6% of the votes. Compare that to 11 seats (and over 9% of the vote) in September, 2019, for their separate lists and then in 2021, 13 seats (and combined 10.7% of votes) for their again separate lists. Thus they have reason to believe that together they are worth less than the sum of their parts–conditional on their two separate parts clearing the threshold! In this election they combine for only 6.75% of votes and 4 seats–8 if Meretz ultimately squeaks over the threshold as now seems unlikely. It was a gamble, and it looks to have failed.

There are already recriminations against Lapid for not properly “managing” the center-left bloc (see under “cannibalistic pig“). But he tried to encourage a Labor-Meretz alliance and was rebuffed. I am not in position to say whether he could have done more to prevent center-left voters from choosing him over his threshold-challenged partners. It seems to me that’s not really the bigger party leader’s job, even though it was obviously in his interests that both win seats. Once the Labor and Meretz leaders concluded they could clear the threshold running alone, it was incumbent on them to deliver their votes.

Frankly, it seems that Labor and Meretz are yesterday’s news, and they should either merge or fold. The future of the center-left is Yesh Atid. Over seven elections in just under a decade, Yesh Atid has proven it is not just another centrist flash in the pan, but a serious option with staying power and organization. It is, nonetheless, unlikely ever to be the head of a center-left/Arab government. As the 2021 experience shows, you need a party of the right to cross over and make that a majority (or you’d need Ra’am or some other cooperation-minded Arab party to supplant Hadash-Tal and Balad). It is not clear where another right-wing splinter could come from; it won’t be from the right of Likud, and there just isn’t a “soft right” anymore to its immediate left. Maybe after Netanyahu finally leaves the scene there will be. The future of the center-left is thus probably mainly as a potential coalition partner to a post-Netanyahu Likud, and it would be better for it to be one strong partner than to be fragmented into Yesh Atid and two minnows farther to the left (if they both could clear again in a future contest), plus whatever becomes of Benny Gantz’s Blue and White. (The latter is the real “soft right” in the current party system, but is already firmly tied to the center-left as of now.)

Many supporters of proportional representation in the US, Canada, and elsewhere speak as if PR means no need for strategic electoral behavior. The Israeli experience of 2019 through 2022 shows the folly of such belief. Coordination is still important, especially if there are any significant contra-proportional features to the PR system. And usually there are–sometimes in the form of moderate district magnitude, and sometimes–as in Israel–in the form of a moderately high legal threshold, despite nationwide PR. The right had the coordination this time that it lacked in 2019, whereas the left and Arab sectors in this election did not. And thus a bloc will have the parliamentary majority and government despite not having won a majority of the vote.

___

Update: With around 99% counted, it is now 64 seats (53.3%) on 48.4% of the vote. Meretz shrank farther from the threshold and is at 3.16%.

Israel 2022

Ah, yes, we are doing this again: Another Israeli general election. I am not going to pretend to know what will happen. As I type this, ILTV is making it seem as if the right-wing bloc has a majority with 61 or 62 seats. That would be a government of Likud, the two Haredi parties (Shas and UTJ), and the Religious Zionist list, returning Benjamin Netanyahu to the prime ministership.

HOWEVER, this is based on exit polls. These have been off before. It is downright misleading of media to treat these as if they are indicative of real results. On the other hand, it would be in no way a surprise if the final results were to confirm these exit polls. We just don’t know yet.

I won’t get into other possible coalition scenarios till we have actual results, other than to note that there are interesting possibilities, BUT none of them look much like the outgoing government. The bottom line on that broad yet narrow coalition is that voters who voted for the right-wing parties that joined the government did not like it. So much so that Yamina, the party formerly led by ex-PM Naftali Bennet, kept losing its affiliated Knesset members and did not even contest this election and the no. 2 on that list in 2021 (Ayelet Shaked) is leading a different list that is not expected to clear the 3.25% threshold. (The other right-wing splinter that enabled the “change” coalition, New Hope, led by ex-Likud member Gideon Saar, merged with Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s Blue and White for this election.)

Yamina in 2021 gave us a rare and interesting case of what might happen to voter perceptions of a relatively extreme and quite small party heading government. Alas, it won’t be around in the next wave of voter surveys for us to know.

So, for the results and coalition scenarios, we wait and see.

Proposals for Israeli political reform–again

One thing I like about following Israeli politics is that there is no lack of willingness to propose institutional reforms to deal with (real or perceived) problems of governance. They are not always good ideas (see the term limit proposal proposed by a party in the outgoing coalition), but it is good that there is a willingness to debate ideas for political reform.

A news update from the TOI today mentions a couple that are in play during the current election campaign. The National Unity Party, led by Benny Gantz and Gideon Saar, is proposing to (1) require more than an absolute majority for the Knesset to dissolve1 itself, and (2) not make the failure to pass a budget a cause for automatic dissolution.

The second of these is an excellent idea, and I have thought for some time this should be changed. The problem with the current provision was on display in 2020 when then-PM Benjamin Netanyahu prevented the alternation of the premiership to which he had agreed from going ahead by withholding votes for the budget, thereby forcing an early election and breakup of the “unity” government. That the planned alternation would have been to Gantz is surely why the latter now wants to change this provision. Regardless of motive and experience of the proposer, the idea is sound. While it may seem straightforward that the inability to pass a budget is evidence of a lack of parliamentary confidence, it need not be so. I believe there are other parliamentary systems that can run on an automatic “continuing resolution” (borrowing a term from US politics), at least for a set period of time, if no new budget has been agreed. It is sensible as a way to prevent coalition partners from forcing an early election “passively” as opposed to actively attaining a majority for dissolution or government replacement.

As for the supermajority–specifically 70 members (58.3%)–to dissolve, the idea goes well with the proposal on the budget, and more importantly with the existing constructive vote of no confidence. Under the latter rule, in place since around 2015, the Knesset majority is not able to vote to dismiss the government unless there are 61 votes for a specific alternative. The new provisions proposed by National Unity would cement the notion that the government remains until the Knesset votes in an alternative (or the regular term ends).

Provisions for a parliament to dissolve itself are not the norm. Israel is an unusual case in this respect as far as I know.2 It is probably permitted elsewhere (see the Early Parliamentary General Election Act passed in the UK in 2019) if not specifically prohibited, but I am not sure I could name another case where a common path to an early election is the parliamentary majority passing a law to set a new election. Regarding having a super-majority vote to set an election, it is reminiscent of the debates leading up to the Fixed Term Parliament Act passed by the Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition in the UK in 2011.3

The TOI update also notes another proposal, this one from the Yisrael Beiteinu party (Avigdor Liberman). It would require at least 90 members of the Knesset to bring down a government within two years of its formation. That’s a 75% majority requirement! The TOI says the first proposal of National Unity mentioned above is “similar” to this one from YB. But it is not similar! A super-majority for dissolution of the Knesset is consistent with the parliamentary form of government. A super-majority for dismissal of a cabinet is contrary to the very core of the parliamentary principle. I do not know where else such provisions can be found, other than Papua New Guinea4–not normally a shining model of effective governance that others seek to emulate.

The constructive vote of no confidence already introduces some potential for separation of powers (more to the point, of separation of purpose) in that a government potentially can face majority opposition yet remain in office. Yet it preserves the core of the parliamentary principle by ensuring that if a majority of the voters’ elected representatives prefers a different coalition be in power, it can proceed immediately to enforce its preference. Shielding a government from such majority preference, and allowing it to govern for up to two years unless a very substantial super-majority votes it out, is a recipe not for stability but for deadlock.

Gantz’s two reform ideas are promising. Liberman’s is very bad.

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Notes

  1. As I have probably said before, technically the Knesset is never dissolved. It continues to hold legislative authority, albeit normally remains out of session, between the calling of an early (or regular) election and the installation of the new Knesset after the election. Lacking a good alternative term, I will go on calling it “dissolution.”
  2. Papua New Guinea has such a provision, I learned as I was drafting this. See Article 105.1.c: an absolute majority of parliament may vote to dissolve.
  3. The Johnson government repealed it with the passage of The Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Act 2022.
  4. See the PNG constitution, Article 145.4: “A motion of no confidence in the Prime Minister or in the Ministry may not be moved during the period of eighteen months commencing on the date of the appointment of the Prime Minister.” PNG also has a constructive provision that applies for most, but not all, of the term (145.2.a: “A motion of no confidence in the Prime Minister or the Ministry… moved during the first four years of the life of Parliament shall not be allowed unless it nominates the next Prime Minister”.)

Israel’s stable coalition

Yes, you read the headline correctly. Ever since the current broad-yet-narrow coalition government in Israel was formed, it has been something of a sport for various journalists covering Israeli politics to predict its early demise. I cautioned otherwise at the time. [Note: see UPDATE at very bottom of post, 16 June]

It may be that the coalition really is in its death throes, even as it has only just passed the one-year mark of its planned three-year term. I have lost count of the number of individual members of coalition parties who have announced a “strike” or a “freeze” whereby they stop voting with the coalition for a period of time to try to get some measure they favor passed (or something they oppose stopped). Most of them have made clear that they would not defect to the opposition or vote to call an early election. But some (I think three dating back to the original investiture vote) have outright defected. The coalition fell to a 60-60 deadlock with the opposition when Idit SIlman (Yamina), coalition whip, went over to the opposition in April. More recently, there was one member from Meretz (the left-most flank of the coalition), Ghana Rinawe Zoabi, who announced she was leaving–bringing it to 59–but then walked it back a few days later after mayors of Arab towns persuaded her to stay. The most recent defector is Nir Orbach from Prime Minister Naftali Bennet’s Yamina Party, who has said “I am not part of the coalition,” putting it back, apparently, at 59 active members (where “active” might include, at any given time, one or two on “strike” of some presumably temporary sort ).

The question is whether a government can survive when it has 61 or more announced opponents in the 120-member Knesset. A majority opposed means it is done, right? Well, not necessarily. Israel has a full constructive vote of no confidence. This means a government can’t be voted out by a parliamentary majority unless that majority is simultaneously electing a replacement government. There is almost no prospect of this happening, as it would require the Joint List (of mostly Arab parties) to be willing not just to passively tolerate a Likud-led (and, yes, Bibi Netanyahu) government, but actively vote for its installation. This is almost impossible to imagine, so in this limited sense, the government may actually be stable.

We are talking about Israel, a country whose politics are notably unpredictable, so there are other scenarios that can’t be entirely ruled out. Maybe at least two of Blue & White (Benny Gantz, 8 seats) or New Hope (Gideon Saar, 6) or Yisrael Beteinu (Avigdor Liberman, 7) will surrender their current ministerial posts and vote for a new coalition with Likud as a partner if not leader. Each has as at least as many seats as the Joint List (6), and if the two bigger of these parties defected, they could then form a majority without either the Islamist Ra’am party (4 seats), which backs the current coalition, or the ultra-nationalist Religious Zionist party. All three of the lists I mentioned as hypothetical defectors from the current ministerial team have been burned in the recent past by Netanyahu; it also means Liberman has to join up again with the Haredi parties, which would be a big backtrack from a position he’s held firm on since 2019. So it is hard to see what they gain by enabling his return to power. Never say never, but it seems unlikely. That suggests that indeed, at least as far as no-confidence votes are concerned, the coalition is still stable, and could remain so even if suffered another defector or two.

Stable in terms of remaining in power. Of course, it can’t pass legislation if the opposition unites against it. But that is a big “if.” Just this week, the first reading of a tax measure passed against the coalition’s declared position, but it was only 51–50. In other words, while the government may have trouble mustering a majority, it is not a sure thing for the opposition, either–even on a bill sponsored by a member of Likud. Then there is always the possibility of a selective member or two from outside the coalition voting with the government on specific bills. The government may not be able to pursue its most ambitious legislative agenda, but it probably can pass bills here and there (as well as continue executing laws already passed in a way favorable to its agendas to the extent permitted).

The bigger obstacle is the next budget. This is the one way a government can fall without losing a constructive vote of no confidence. The next budget bill must be passed in March, 2023. This vote, however, does not require 61 members of Knesset. More yes than no is sufficient. So that is a somewhat easier obstacle for the government, although by no means an easy one.

The final way–and the most likely way–that it could be forced out is if the Knesset votes to set an early election. This requires 61 votes, but it can be a negative coalition (i.e., we don’t want this Knesset and government to continue), rather than the positive vote (here’s a new government we are putting in now) like the constructive vote of no confidence. Orbach, the most recent defector from Yamina, stated in his announcement that, while he was leaving the coalition, he would not vote for early elections. He said instead that he would work to form an alternative government from within the current Knesset. We have already been over why that is not likely. At least as of now, it does not seem that there are 61 votes for an early election.1

Thus, unless the government simply resigns, it may continue on, despite its current difficulties. The constructive vote of no confidence really does enhance the potential for “separation of powers” (or better, separation of purpose) whereby the assembly majority opposes the government but does not have the means to replace it–in this case, because it does not agree on what the replacement should be (and does not favor going to elections).

So it may seem strange to call the Israeli coalition “stable” in its current situation. But if “stable” simply means that it can survive, then it is stable unless there are multiple further individual defections or a surprise change of heart by two or three of the party leaders who made this government possible in the first place. There are certainly other ways we might define whether a government is “stable” but by this criterion, and at this moment, it’s stable.

  1. Another consideration here is that the coalition agreement provisions that were put into Basic Law (i.e., Israeli’s constitution in all but name) have stipulations about the interim period after an “alternating” government like the current one has its term ended early via the setting of elections. If there are at least three defectors from Bennet’s (right-wing) side of the government, Alternate PM Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid (center-left) automatically becomes PM. An election would be at least three months from the passage of the bill calling the election, and given that there is no guarantee that the election would result in a Knesset that could have a majority for a government (meaning potentially yet another election or elections, like 2019–21), those on the right voting for this option would be risking a signifiant period of time with PM Lapid. An Israeli government in this position is no mere caretaker. It is a government, period. I put all this in a footnote because I do not take it too seriously. The Knesset does not actually dissolve in the period between passage of a bill calling an election and the time the new Knesset is elected. It can still function. And these measures were passed by… 61 votes. Therefore, if 61 votes exist to call an election, 61 votes probably also exist to repeal the provisions and allow Bennet to remain as PM. Still, there would be some risk to right-wing politicians doing this, as they could not do these acts–call the election and repeal the provisions–simultaneously. So an agreement to do so could fall apart. But I’d think they could pull it off.
  2. UPDATE (intended to be part of the previous footnote but Word Press won’t allow a new paragraph here without putting a number in front of it): I just heard of a twist on all this that I wasn’t aware of, from Haviv Rettig Gur on the Times of Israel Daily Briefing podcast. The bill regulating legal matters in Judea and Samaria, which expires at the end of June—and which Likud and allies say they won’t vote for (even though expiration would be bad for some of their voters)—would get an automatic 6-month extension if the government falls before 30 June. Thus some members from the right of the coalition may want to pull the plug to save (temporarily) the status quo of the otherwise sunsetting legislation—even if it meant an interim PM Lapid. On the other hand, the polls aren’t great for the opposition and Netanyahu may not want to provoke an election now—“assessments are changing daily.” (This paragraph added 16 June, 6:30 a.m., PDT)

So all can have wins for their voters

Yes, this is how coalitions work. Sometimes politicians give you quotes that are just golden, in how they show real-world recognition of the political-science understanding of political processes.

We are in continuous dialogue with everyone — the left-wingers from Meretz and Labor, and the right-wingers from New Hope — so that all can have wins to show their voters.

The quotation is from Idit Silman, the Coalition Chair for the current Israeli government. “So that all can have wins for their voters” is just what I was getting at in explaining why I think the government will be able to pass its budget and accompanying package of policy reforms. Each party has an interest in the government surviving, and for that, each party must have some policy outputs it can credit-claim for. Ensuring this can happen is precisely the job of the chair of the coalition.

The TOI article in which the quote appears also details the misogyny she is putting up with from the opposition. The Netanyahu sycophants in Likud, and its “religious” party allies really show their true values, and how bereft they are of ideas for governance.

Is the current Israeli coalition “consensus” or “majoritarian”?

The title above must seem like a trick question. The current Israeli coalition government consists of eight parties–or perhaps more accurately, seven parties that have cabinet ministers plus a formally committed support party. It bridges left and right, and includes a party of the Arab minority (the support party, without which the parties around the cabinet table lack a majority). So that would seem to fit the definition of a “consensus” government pretty well, per definitions like that of Lijphart.

On the other hand, it has just about the narrowest majority possible (61 seats, or on a good day 62, out of 120). The concept of consensus democracy, per Lijphart, is that governance encompass as wide a range of representatives of social and political groups as possible. This new Israeli government is thus both “broad” and “narrow” at the same time!

We might expect a government that has such a diverse mix of parties and a narrow parliamentary basis to be very cautious. Any bold move could cause it to break apart; in fact, in its first big legislative test it failed to pass anything and allowed a policy reversion point surely not preferred by any member party to stand. It has had other policy failures as well. Yet, as it develops the most important measure it will deal with in its first year, the state budget, it is so far looking surprisingly bold. The headline of an article by Haviv Rettig Gur from 28 July makes the point succinctly: “New budget bill shows coalition launching sweeping reforms despite fragility.” Another from 8 August states the government “aims to transform Israel.”

The measures being incorporated into the budget include reforms to the state’s relationship with it Arab citizens, competition in the kosher-supervision process, a reduction in trade protection, liberalization of the agricultural sector, easing rules concerning electric vehicles, making the banking system more competitive, and a “regulatory revolution.” As Gur explains in the 28 July article, these measures are in the so-called Arrangements Bill, a required companion to the spending bill that delineates structural and policy reforms needed to make the numbers in the more narrowly defined budget bill work.

The idea of sweeping reforms and transformative policy seems more in keeping with majoritarian models of government, which typically are on the classic Westminster model. In such a system, a bare parliamentary majority–albeit one normally not based on a popular vote majority– is able to push through its perceived “mandate” for policy change against an opposition that can complain but not block. Of course, this model assumes–by common definition–a single party controlling the parliamentary majority. How can a fragile multiparty coalition, which does not even include the largest single party, be bold like this?

The answer is certainly not because there is not resistance. Interest groups that benefit from the status quo have ramped up a campaign against reforms, and surely some of the reforms will be phased in, watered down, or dropped before the budget finally passes. Indeed, Gur notes:

These reforms share one characteristic: All have been advocated for many years, but could not advance due to resistance from industry groups, government agencies or various political factions. Haredi parties stood in the way of taxing sugary drinks and plasticware, while farmers’ and manufacturers’ lobbies resisted the agriculture and import reforms.

He further suggests that the unwillingness to advance reforms under previous Likud-led governments was grounded in a basic feature of those governments: they were built around a single relatively dominant party with a dominant leader.

The past 12 years of Benjamin Netanyahu’s rule were marked by tight control over the cabinet and the coalition. New initiatives and controversial reforms were reined in; fewer initiatives meant fewer destabilizing fights. Stability was paramount, so nothing that could cause dissension within the coalition was allowed to advance. No one even contemplated reforms to the state religious bureaucracies as long as Haredi parties were in the coalition. Wherever possible, domestic policy was farmed out to relevant interest groups.

I agree with this interpretation, and it is indeed probably what we would expect from coalitions comprised of one “large” party that is actually so small as to have held, on several occasions, only around half of the needed 61 seats, plus a smattering of small and often sectoral parties. But shouldn’t a government with no big party at all, like the current one, be even more fragile and stymied by the need to avoid defections?

Maybe not. As Gur says, “It’s a government keenly aware that any of its member factions could topple it at any moment. It is in that sense a more egalitarian cabinet than any in Israel’s history.” I think this is accurate, but I’d go a step farther. It is a government that consists of several parties that have not been in a governing majority for many years (like Meretz, or ever, like Ra’am), or were formed explicitly to get Netanyahu out of power (New Hope), or who currently exercise senior ministerial positions such as they they previously were able to hold only in a subordinate position to Netanyahu (thinking here of Yisrael Beiteinu, recent past incarnations of Labor, as well as the government’s two core power-sharing/alternating partners, Yesh Atid and Yamina). Benny Gantz’s Blue & White probably straddles a couple of those categories–formed initially to get Netanyahu out of power, and then accepting a decidedly subordinate role to him in the previous “alternating” government.

That is, this government came together around a new cleavage–opposition to the previous Prime Minister, not a specific policy or ideological cleavage. Each party in the government has reasons to prefer making this work to the alternative, which might very well be a new Netanyahu-led coalition that some of these parties would have to join for it to have a majority. No one in the new majority wants that–at least for now. And most of these governing parties might lose seats if there were a new election before the government they were in could show any progress on which to run.

The situation just described is strikingly like a majoritarian pattern of government. For at least the current moment, these parties need a record of joint achievement to run on (albeit still as separate parties) in the next election. They are thus collectively accountable in a way that more resembles a single-party majority than it resembles many past Israeli governments of one relatively large party buttressed by a bunch of small ones.

The Israeli government change earlier this year shows that accountability–the usual selling point of two-party dominant majoritarian systems–can be achieved even under conditions of party-system fragmentation. The government was made possible only because a new party, Gideon Saar’s New Hope, offered an alternative option for voters on the right that Yamina (the party of new PM Naftali Bennet) was able to go along with, and in fact end up (co-)leading. Only via those mechanisms was it possible to produce alternation in government. And now because the parties all need to work together to deliver for their own distinct interest-group and ideological constituencies it needs to push a bold reform agenda on which to be accountable at the next election. I think the point holds even if we assume that these parties will never seek a renewed collective mandate at election time, to be reelected as a government. I assume they will not do that, unless perhaps if Netanyahu is still leading Likud at the next election and none of these parties prefer working with him again. But in the meantime, they are kind of stuck with one another, and need to show results.

This moment in Israeli politics is thus quite majoritarian, despite all the parties that must forge a consensus to keep their government together. I am using the term, majoritarian, in a way that is more consistent with how some recent literature has used it, which is somewhat different from Lijphart’s sense. For Lijphart, part of the definition of majoritarianism is “single-party, bare majority” governments. However, more recent works suggest that we can conceptualize majoritarianism as parties that collectively reflect a majority of voters and can pass policy with a bare majority of parliament sufficing. Some significant works I am thinking of that have made key contributions to this conception of majoritarianism include McGann, Latner and McGann, Ganghof, and Li. This conception is in contrast to the core notion of the consensus pattern of democracy, which implies super-majorities, either due to institutional requirements (like strong bicameralism or an entrenched constitution that must be amended to carry out significant policy change) or due to oversized coalitions (those that contain more parties than needed to comprise a majority). Basically, what has happened here should become the new textbook definition of how PR-parliamentarism should work: creating the opportunity for one majority to be replaced by another majority, when a new salient cleavage emerges, but for the new majority to consist of multiple parties given that proportional representation normally does not allow for the majority to consist of a single party.

So, yes, the current Israeli government is quite majoritarian, despite the need for a consensus across a diverse range of parties in order to govern. If it pulls off the reforms in its proposed budget, it will have performed quite like a classic case of alternation in power in a Westminster-type system, only with its set of policies actually grounded in the votes of a majority of the electorate and not merely a majority in parliament. The path to such policy success will not be smooth. For instance, a group of 11 members of Knesset, from Blue & White and Labor, are threatening to block the arrangements bill over opposition to the agricultural liberalization. Expect more of this as the process plays out. It does not necessarily undermine my conclusion on the majoritarian nature of this coalition. Even single-party majority governments often have to negotiate with blocks of their own members who object to government policy changes. The difference is that in a multiparty government, these disagreements are more likely to be public, precisely because each party generally needs to claim credit as a separate party at the next election. However, if my core claim about this government is correct–that they have a collective need to hang together to produce anything to run on, given they lack good exit options for now–then they should still pull off a significant part of their transformative policy agenda (see the bill on military draft of Haredim for one other case to watch). And that is a key aspect of the majoritarian pattern of parliamentary governance, whether conceived of single-party, bare-majority cabinet (per Lijphart’s ideal type and the Westminster model) or as bare-majority coalition of parties representing a mix of policy positions in juxtaposition to an alternative majority (per McGann, Latner, Li, and Ganghof).

Israeli coalition’s first big legislative test

The new Israeli governing coalition had a major stress test in the early morning hours of 6 July. It came through looking really strong! it failed utterly!

On the one hand, the bill in question went down to defeat, 59-59. The bill was to extend and modify an existing law that expires at midnight. So that’s pretty embarrassing, especially when a critical lost vote was a member of the prime minister’s party, Amichai Chikli of Yamina. Chikli had also voted against the government itself in the investiture vote a few weeks ago, when the government was approved, 60-59. In the vote on this bill, instead of one Ra’am MK abstaining, as in the investiture, two did. On the other hand, the compromise that got the 59 votes shows the parties within the coalition are able to strike deals on contentious issues that divide them on some core principles.

Before I go any further, an important disclaimer: I am NOT interested in debate on the substance of the law in question, other than as it pertains to the specific compromises the governing partners made, or might yet make.

The bill would extend (for six months) an existing law that mostly bars family residency status in the case of Israeli citizens who marry a Palestinian. (Administrative exceptions can be made, and have been.) In addition, the bill would have established a ministerial committee to look for a longer-term solution (in other words, a classic case of can-kicking). It also would have led to the immediate regularization of the status of some 1,600 current families (the precise number that would have been affected has been a matter of some dispute). The existing law was originally passed in 2003 and has been extended annually ever since. In other words, Likud and its Haredi allies have regularly approved of the extension, but suddenly finding themselves in the unfamiliar position of opposition, they decided not to offer any votes, despite their substantive support for the law that is about to expire. Thus the coalition was forced to do what coalitions do–seek compromise among its own members.

The Yamina dissenter, Chikli, made a statement following the vote, and it is worth quoting the Times of Israel extensively in reference to his statement:

After the vote, Chikli said his decision to block the extension was due to the compromise deal: “Tonight we received proof of the problematic nature of a government that doesn’t have a distinct Zionist majority — one that starts the night with a law extension for a year and ends it with an extension for half a year, that starts with 1,500 permits and ends with over 3,000.

Israel needs a functioning Zionist government, not a mishmash that depends on Ra’am and Meretz votes,” Chikli said.

He later added that had the original extension motion gone up for a vote — “without capitulating to Meretz and Ra’am” — he would have supported it.

On the one hand, his point is principled. He does not like the compromise, and he is consistent in having opposed the government’s very formation and now opposing its policy. On the other hand, he still is a member of a governing party, and he had said at the time that he would still support the government in the Knesset despite his vote against its formation. 

This morning there are reports of calls from within Yamina to formally punish Chikli for his dissent. If they declare him a deserter, they can prevent his running for reelection with any existing party. However, that is a real dilemma for the party and Prime Minister Bennet. Burning bridges with him (he’d be entitled to remain in the Knesset) would make the coalition even more dependent on Ra’am, as only with three votes from that party could the coalition muster 60 votes to outvote its 59 opponents. So this is quite a test not only of the coalition, but of Yamina as a party that can maintain discipline.

Why do I say this could be a success for the coalition? Because it showed it is capable of threading the needle and arriving at a compromise. Initially, Meretz had said it was completely opposed to an extension of the law. In response, Interior Minister Ayalet Shaked of Yamina had threatened to strike a deal with Likud on a Basic Law on immigration, which surely would result in a “permanent” policy that Meretz would dislike even more. (It is not clear if Likud was sincere in willing to do this.) So then the Arab member of the Meretz delegation, Isawwi Frej, proposed a compromise six-month extension and a committee to consider individual cases on humanitarian grounds. This served as the basis of the deal that went before the Knesset, and all Meretz members voted in favor.

As Ra’am was bargaining over a proposal that could offer relief to some of its own constituents, one of its MKs denounced the law as “racist and anti-democratic” and said he would never vote for it or abstain. This was Wahid Taha, who ended up not being one of the abstainers. He voted for it, saying that the government agreed “to reconsider all requests” for citizenship of Palestinians who are married to Israelis.

In the end, the whole process of striking a deal proved that the members of the government want their coalition to work. They made a difficult compromise. On the other hand, they showed they may not even be able to count on 60 votes, even when they strike such a delicate compromise.

Supposedly, the bill is going to come back before the Knesset again tonight. It is not clear (to me) if there is some further concession or other persuasion that would get one of the Ra’am abstainers to vote for, or if Chikli would succumb to the threat of discipline. 

On BBC talking about the new Israeli government

I have never done many media appearances, but I was delighted to be asked by the BBC to talk about the new Israeli government. It was also picked up by several NPR stations. At least for a while, it can be heard at this TVeyes link. There is also a transcript there, but it is automatically generated and hence not the most reliable. But the audio is really me!

The BBC found me via my F&V post about the government and Twitter!

Update: BBC sent me an MP3 file of the interview.

Israel government 2021

A new Israeli coalition government is set to be invested with authority by the Knesset this coming Sunday. Once it is sworn in, it will end the consecutive twelve years of tenure by outgoing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud Party. Netanyahu will remain in the Knesset as leader of the opposition.

The government is formed upon the agreement of eight parties, and will have as its parliamentary support the bare majority of 61 Knesset members. It is set up under the rotation provisions that were passed into the constitution (more technically, The Basic Law: Government) on the occasion of the formation of Netanyahu’s government arrangement with Benny Gantz of the Blue and White Party in 2020.

Under the agreements for this government, the first Prime Minister will be Naftali Bennett of the Yamina Party, while Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid serves as Alternate Prime Minister. The rotation will occur in August, 2023. From that point to the scheduled end of the Knesset term in November, 2025, Lapid will be Prime Minister (and Bennet Alternate). As allowed under the constitutional provisions rotation, Yamina and Yesh Atid will each head a “bloc” that is granted equal powers in the cabinet, and in which even when serving as PM, the leader of one bloc can not dismiss a minister who is from the other bloc.

A good overview of the various agreements is available in the Times of Israel. Many of the facts I refer to in this post are from that article; others are from various ToI live blog editions of recent weeks or other media sources. I will comment on some of the specific policy or personnel decisions below, but I first want to emphasize several interesting features about the balance of power among the parties in this set of agreements.

First of all, it probably should be classified as a minority government. One of the parties, Ra’am, will have no ministers although it will have a Deputy Ministerial position (within the Prime Minister’s Office).* If we do not count Ra’am as part of the government, then the parties actually in government have just 57 seats, and Ra’am is an outside support party. Normally I would say this makes it clearly a minority government, because a majority government implies the parties that comprise the parliamentary majority are all represented around the cabinet table. On the other hand, I think most of the time “outside support” parties do not have deputy ministers, either. Moreover, in Israel there have been parties in previous governments that had only deputy ministers and yet were typically counted as majority coalitions. I am referring to the Haredi party, UTJ, often refusing to take senior ministerial positions but having Deputy Ministers. I take those as special cases (due to the UTJ’s arms-length relationship with the state itself, other than when it is subsidizing their organizations and communities.) I think this is a “normal” minority government relationship, at least when compared to the previous UTJ deals. I am open to other interpretations, however, as this is an unusual and innovative arrangement. [* As of Sunday, it is no longer clear that Ra’am will have the deputy ministerial position. Apparently, under the law on rotation governments, this would have to be noted when the government is introduced before the Knesset, and the party holding such a post has to be classified into one of the blocs. It was not mentioned, per my understanding from Israeli Elections Live, a very useful Twitter account I follow, so Ra’am may have declined the deputy ministerial post.]

The equal power for the two blocs is especially striking. Each party is designated as belonging to the Yesh Atid bloc or the Yamina bloc. And right here we have more evidence for the accuracy of counting it as a minority government, because Ra’am is not designated as a member of either bloc. More strikingly, only two parties are in the Yamina bloc: obviously Yamina itself and New Hope. Together, they account for only 12 seats. That is 10% of the Knesset and only 21% of the government parties’ coalition basis (i.e. the 57 seats held by cabinet parties). Yet they get 50% of the coalition power, given various veto provisions granted to each bloc–the previously mentioned ability to prevent even future PM Lapid from firing Yamina or New Hope ministers, and some specific policy vetoes provided for in the coalition agreements.

In term of ministers, Yesh Atid starts with 7, Yamina 3 in addition to PM, New Hope and Blue and White 4 each, and 3 each for Yisrael Beytenu, Labor, and Meretz. That is 28 ministers, and thus Yesh Atid has 25% of the cabinet despite 29.8% of the coalition’s parliamentary basis (17 seats of the 57). So much for formateur’s bonus–it was Lapid who held the mandate to form the government (hence the formateur). Yamina’s share of parliamentary basis is only 10.5%, yet it gets 14.3% as well as, more importantly, veto power. Quite a good deal. [My numbers here are updated; the full list of ministers is in a ToI article from 12 June.]

Bennett was able to achieve such a good deal precisely because he had strong leverage. He had recommended himself as prime minister in the formal process by which each party head meets with the President after the election. He made himself pivotal by repeatedly stating he preferred a right-wing coalition with Likud. Such a government was not possible from the parliamentary arithmetic unless New Hope (made up of the most recent set of Likud defectors) also joined, or else if both the Islamist Ra’am and the ultranationalist Religious Zionist Party were also in the coalition. None of these ever looked likely given repeated statements by those leaders, so we could question whether Bennett was really pivotal in the technical sense. (Need actual options to pivot towards in order to be pivotal.) Bennett’s real alternative was to allow a second election later this year instead of a government. And Netanyahu had dangled promises of high list positions on a merged Likud-Yamina list and ministerial positions in attempt to pull Bennett away from the “change” bloc. It is evident that Lapid and the others took this threat seriously, and prioritized ousting Netanyahu now over going back to the polls (again). 

As already noted in detail in this space by Or Tuttnauer the small size of the prime minister’s party will be extremely unusual. It is a gamble by Bennett, given the usual electoral penalty to governing, and the feeling of betrayal by many of his supporters for joining a government with left-wing parties and backed by an Arab party. But it is a gamble that is probably sensible for him to take, in order to erase the notion that he is just Netanyahu’s subordinate and to exercise actual political power. The post by Tuttnauer also offers evidence that such a small and ideologically extreme party may be more likely to gain votes (perhaps because power makes voters perceive it as more moderate), defying the usual cost of both governing and extremism.

Another unusual feature of the coalition is that the (initial) Prime Minister’s party will have no signed agreements with any of the parties in his cabinet, except that of the Alternate Prime Minister. This must be quite unusual, comparatively! The reason for this is that it is formally Lapid who is presenting the government, even though he will not initially be PM. So his party has a series of bilateral agreements with the other six parties, but Yamina does not.

Several of the policy commitments are of special interest. This government will be one of the few not to include Haredi (ultra-orthodox) parties. As such, it promises to make several changes to religion-state issues, including passing a long-delayed law on drafting more Haredim into the military, reforming the process of selecting the state’s chief rabbis, placing Yamina and New Hope members in positions influencing the selection of judges of the Jewish religious courts, and expanding the opening of stores and running of public transportation on Shabbat (issues demanded by Yisrael Beytenu). The deal with Yisrael Beytenu also states that the government will develop the previously promised but then cancelled egalitarian prayer platform at the Western Wall. In other aspects of religion-state issues, the coalition guidelines call for maintaining the status quo and giving the Yamina party a veto.

The government will split the positions of state prosecutor and attorney general. It will seek to pass a Basic Law amendment imposing a two-term limit on the Prime Minister (as discussed in an earlier post). It will seek to enact a Basic Law for legislation (on which I have seen no more details).

Additional parties can be added to the government, but both the PM and his Alternate have to agree. The deal with Yisrael Beytenu states that this party also has a veto on additional parties joining. At issue here is the desire of at least Bennett to bring the Haredi parties on board, to sever their relationship with Likud and stabilize the coalition, reducing its dependence on Ra’am. Given that Yisrael Beytenu is the most secular party in terms of its policy positions on religion and state, it is obvious why it wants to be able to determine the terms on which ultra-orthodox parties might join later.

The deals with Labor and Meretz mention advancing rights of the LGBT community. This is particularly significant because the coalition’s support party is Islamist and very vocally opposes gay rights. But it apparently put this aside to advance its other priorities.

Those priorities for the Ra’am have been addressed in what could be a highly significant set of policies. There will be substantial spending aimed at curbing the very high crime rates in the Arab cities and towns, advancing public works projects for the Arab sector, recognizing three specific Bedouin villages in the Negev desert, temporarily freezing housing demolitions in unrecognized villages, and freezing an existing law that seeks to prevent illegal building. Being pivotal—Ra’am was publicly negotiating with Netanyahu over similar concessions before the formateur role passed to Lapid—again has payoffs. In this case, not mostly in personnel, but in policies the Arab sector needs addressed. Ra’am also gets some personnel benefits. I already mentioned the Deputy Minister in the PMO. It also gets to chair the Knesset Interior Committee and the Arab Affairs Committee.

On issues of relations with Palestinians, there are a few points of note. The agreement with Meretz—the most leftist of the Zionist parties—states that there will be no unilateral moves with respect to the Palestinians. (Notably, there is no related clause in the deal with Ra’am.) Otherwise, the government has some guidelines that would be consistent with the right’s preferences: Ensuring that in Area C (the part of the West Bank that the Oslo Accords assign to full Israeli civil and military control) there will be funds for the Defense Ministry to carry out enforcement against illegal Palestinian construction; and increasing budget allocation to Ariel University (in a city deep within Samaria/West Bank).

The question on everyone’s mind is whether the government will last. And, of course, I should make the obligatory note that it is not even a government yet, as it still must not face even one defector in the Knesset investiture vote on Sunday. (It has been reported that two MKs from the other Arab parties in the Joint List might abstain, which would give it a cushion, but not one Lapid or especially Bennett would want to rely on; most of the Joint List members will vote against, thus siding with Likud, Religious Zionism and the Haredi parties in opposition.)

Objectively, an 8-party, 61-seat coalition (counting the support party) in a 120-member parliament, spanning nearly the entire ideological range of Israeli party system should be considered inherently unstable. Nonetheless, I would not assume it will be hobbled from the start. The emerging government has already weathered the biggest stress one could imagine for a potential cooperation between right-wing parties and an Arab party in the form of the 11-day war with Hamas and the horrific inter-communal violence within Israel during that time. If such events had happened after the government was up and running, they might well have forced its breakup. That they happened while it was being negotiated allowed the coalition to pass a stress test at a time when it could still be called off easily.

The other major stress the coalition has seemingly already come through is the risk of defections. Netanyahu has been very openly trying to entice members of New Hope and Yamina to defect from the emerging government. One has done so; that is why I counted above Yamina as having six seats when it won seven in the election. Others engaged in some public agony over what they would do, even delaying the formal investiture of the government by not being willing to join a vote to replace the Knesset speaker before the date the incumbent speaker, of Likud, set it. At this late date, it is unlikely there will be surprise defectors on the day of the vote. There just is not much Likud can offer an individual member, given the overall parliamentary arithmetic. The bargaining process has been a test of Bennett’s ability as a party leader and of Yamina as a party in any meaningful sense–we typically assume parties in parliamentary democracies are unitary actors at least in the questions of entering or leaving governments (a strict and simplifying assumption that normally holds). Yamina and Bennett probably are passing that test, the one already announced defector notwithstanding. 

Most of all, the coalition is likely to be stabilized by the basic threat of a return of Netanyahu and the likelihood that many of its component parties—most of all Bennett’s—would suffer significant electoral punishment if they had to face the electorate before significant policy gains could be realized. Sometimes very narrow parliamentary majorities are actually more stable than oversized ones. Ultimately, unless a party has an expectation of gaining by an election or defecting to Likud’s side, the government can last. In the meantime, it will matter what Likud does in opposition. If it cleaves to Netanyahu, as currently seems likely, these parties will not want to go back to partnership with it. Were Likud to replace its leader, then calculations in New Hope and Yamina could change.

The other thing to watch in the coming week or so will be what further amendments to Basic Laws the coalition passes to help ensure its stability. There are several in the works, but details remain sketchy.

While the is a highly unusual government, it really just might work!