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!

Party Personnel Strategies is published

Just received: My copy of Party Personnel Strategies: Electoral Systems and Committee Assignments.

A preview of most of Chapter 1 is available for free at Google Books. More details, including the table of contents, can be viewed at the book’s Oxford University Press page.

The back cover has the short summary, as well as some very kind words from other scholars:

The country cases covered in the book, each with its own chapter, are Germany, Japan, Israel, Portugal, Britain, and New Zealand. The research design leverages the electoral-system changes in Japan and New Zealand.

The book develops two “models” of party personnel practices, tested on the patterns of assignment of a party’s legislators to committees, broken down into three categories: high policy, public goods, and distributive. Under the expertise model, parties are assumed to want to harness the perceived expertise of their individual members by assigning them to committees with matching policy functions. We assume all parties in parliamentary democracies would like to achieve such matches, but, depending on features of the electoral system, they may have to trade off fulfilling the expertise model in order to assign according to an electoral–constituency model. Within the expertise model, there are also a series of issue ownership premises, under which parties of the center-right are expected to match experts to high policy and parties of the center-left to public goods (even if they do not expertise-match in other categories). As expected under our theory, the more that an electoral system makes seat-maximization depend on the geographic location of votes (as with FPTP) or on candidate’s personal votes (or both, as with Japan’s former SNTV), the more the electoral–constituency model dominates over the expertise model.

Although not the book’s central theme, a key subtext is that we now probably can take the question mark off of “best of both worlds” regarding the impact of mixed-member electoral systems, at least for the proportional (MMP) variant used in Germany and post-reform New Zealand. These systems show the highest reliance on the expertise model while simultaneously also fulfilling key premises of the electoral–constituency model.

The project was a long time in development. The book arrives thirteen and a half years after the original “central team” (me, Krauss, and Pekkanen) obtained the news that our NSF grant proposal was going to be funded. It was a complex collaboration, involving scholars specializing on each of the cases, who led the data collection and answered many a question we had. The book could never have seen the light of day without their effort. Nor could have been written without the addition to the author team of Matthew Bergman (originally the project’s research assistant, and central data manager, as well as the originator of our issue-ownership premises) and Cory Struthers (who brought new ideas about distributive policy to the author team, and was my first UC Davis Ph.D. student, not counting one who originally started at UCSD before I moved). We also benefitted from numerous other research assistants and the work of several undergraduate students at Davis, who are named individually in the preface.

As foreshadowed previously at this blog, the book is dedicated to one of the most important scholars ever of comparative legislatures, Gerhard Loewenberg, of blessed memory.

Datasets used in the book will soon be made public. They are not quite ready yet (pending review of a planned journal article that will introduce them to the wider public), but I will post a notification when they are available.

Israel government update and the likelihood of a 2021b election

It has been some time since I did an update on the election and government-formation process in Israel, 2021 (or, as I called it, 2021a, giving away my expectation that a 2021b was likely). The election was on 23 March, and as all readers likely know, it was the fourth election since an early call of elections was legislated at the end of 2018.

Since the March election, the government-formation process has been playing out in its usual manner. President Reuven Rivlin received recommendations from party leaders about who should be tasked to form a government. As expected, no candidate had recommendations from parties totaling 61 or more seats, but incumbent PM Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud) had more than opposition leader Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid), so he got the first nod. As everyone pretty much understood would happen, Netanyahu failed to cobble together a government. Arguably he did not even try very hard, “negotiating” mainly through press statements trying to shame leaders of small right-wing parties to rejoin his bloc. So, again as expected, Lapid received the mandate to try. And he most certainly has been trying hard. But as I write this he has one week remaining before his time expires.* If Lapid’s mandate expires with no government to present to the Knesset, there is a period in which any PM candidate can obtain 61 signatures from members of the Knesset and thus become PM. However, with two blocs (using the term loosely) having both failed to win 61 seats, such a path to a government is highly unlikely to work.

The attempt to strike an agreement with Yamina, whose head Naftali Bennett would have gone first as PM, with Lapid taking over after a year (based on the same Basic Law amendments that the aborted Netanyahu–Gantz rotation was to follow), seemed close to fruition as the second week of May began. It would have been a strange government, given Bennett’s party won only 7 seats to Lapid’s 17, and because it would span nearly the entire Israeli political spectrum, including one Arab party (most likely as an outside supporter to a minority government, not as a full cabinet partner). Then once Hamas decided to escalate ongoing tensions in Jerusalem (including over things such as those I was writing about a decade ago) by firing their terrorist rockets directly at the capital city on Jerusalem Day, the ensuing war led Bennett to get cold feet and abandon a plan that apparently was all but final. On the other hand, he apparently also never quite ruled out returning to the plan. For instance, he never said in front of cameras that the deal was off, and there was a letter on 20 May from major activists in Yamina calling for the party to avoid another election and back an anti-Bibi government. Just today Bennett has supposedly told Likud he will return to talking with Lapid about forming a government if Netanyahu can’t form one (which he can’t).

So the “change” government remains a possibility even now (given the cessation of hostilities after 11 days) and may remain so right up until Lapid’s mandate expires. Frankly, it was always uphill to to form this proposed government, and would be a challenge for it to last if it did form. Yet it is the only current option, aside from another election later this year. Bennett has claimed numerous times that he will do everything he can to prevent another election. He has claimed a lot of things, so no one really can claim to know what he will do. (This is sometimes a good negotiating tactic, although it seems to have failed badly for Bennett, and in any case it is a terrible trait in a governing partner.) Although it is easy to mock Bennett for his flip-flops, we should acknowledge that he is in a genuinely difficult place. He has spent the last several years carving out a niche for his party to the right of Likud on security matters, so he can’t appear too eager to form a government with left-wing parties and reliant on Arab support. Thus even if he has intended all along to back such a government–and who knows–he and his no. 2, Ayalet Shaked, would need to make a good show of “leaving no stone unturned to form a nationalist government” before signing up to a deal with Lapid and Labor, Meretz, and Ra’am.

The bottom line is that the election produced a genuine stalemate. Even if Yamina sides with Netanyahu, that is not a majority without Ra’am, the Islamist party that broke off from the Joint List and has a pragmatic leader, Mansour Abbas, who seeks to be relevant in Israeli politics (unlike the Joint List itself). Such a government would also need the Religious Zionist list, which has said repeatedly it opposes any cooperation with Ra’am. The parties we are talking about here for a potential right-wing government are Likud (30 seats), the Haredi parties–Shas (9) and UTJ (7), Yamina (7)–plus Religious Zionist (6). These reach only 59 seats, hence the need for Ra’am (4) to back it; and, yes, Ra’am is certainly a right wing party within Arab Israeli politics, particularly on matters of social/religious policy. There is also New Hope (6), the party formed by Gideon Sa’ar and other Likud defectors. Obviously, if they joined, it would obviate the need to have the backing of Ra’am. However, Sa’ar has said over and over that he will not back Netanyahu. The entire reason his party formed was to offer an option for Likud without Bibi. While one should never rule anything out, and reports occasionally circulate that he is talking with Bibi, he looks like he just might mean it when he says no.

The “change” government would be Lapid (17), Blue and White (8), Labor (7), Yisrael Beiteinu (7), Meretz (6) New Hope (6), plus 6** from Yamina. Together, that “bloc” of left and right parties would have 58 seats, hence the inability to form a government without backing of Ra’am (who remains “brave” in evidently being willing to do a deal despite the violence of recent weeks). If Yamina is really out of this group, then that leaves it on only 51 seats, ten seats short. Yes, the two Arab lists just happen to combine for 10 seats, but it is highly unlikely that the Joint List is going to be part of such a government. And it is just as unlikely that the either or both Haredi parties are going to defect from the Bibi bloc to lend Lapid a hand.

I concluded my preview of the last election by saying, ” I don’t see a government being formed from this mess… the safe call is continuing deadlock and a 2021b election being necessary.” While that almost proved too pessimistic as of early May, and maybe yet will be shown to be the wrong call, it still could end up that way.

Finally, because this is Fruits and Votes, I want to highlight just how crazy the fragmentation was in the 2021(a) election. Throughout the three elections of 2019-20 the party system had reached a period of being almost exactly as fragmented as expected for its electoral system, as emphasized in my chapter in the Oxford Handbook of Israeli Politics and Society. In my post-election blog post, I even called the 2019a election “a totally normal election” based on the effective number of seat-winning parties being just over five and the largest party having 29% of the seats. These are almost precisely what we expect from the Seat Product Model (SPM) for such a high seat product (120-seat assembly elected in a single district). The indicators stayed in that general range for the next two elections. But check out the disruption of that trend in 2021! This graph is an updated version of the plots in the Handbook chapter (also a version of this was shown in the just-linked earlier post following 2019a).

The plots, for four party-system indicators, show lines for observed values over time with the expected values from the SPM marked by the horizontal solid line in each plot. The dashed line marks the mean for the entire period, through 2021a. Vertical lines mark changes in electoral-system features other than the district magnitude and assembly size–specifically formula changes or threshold increases.

Look at those spikes in the plots of the top row! The number of seat-winning lists (not parties, per se, given that many lists actually are alliances of two or more parties) jumped to 13, and the effective number to 8.52, almost as high as in 1999 (8.69). In 1999, a key reason for the spike was the directly elected PM, which freed voters to vote sincerely rather than for their preferred PM party in Knesset elections. In 2021, it is a product of the breakup of Blue and White (which happened as soon as the “unity” government was formed), the breakaway New Hope, the split of the Labor-Meretz list that contested the 2020 election, and Ra’am splitting from the (Dis)Joint List.

In the bottom row at left we see the corresponding collapse in the size of the largest party, although not quite to the depths reached a few times previously. In the lower right, we see a new record for lowest deviation from proportionality, thanks to no parties just missing the threshold (as happened in 2019a spectacularly and to a lesser degree in the subsequent election).

If there is a 2021b, will the fragmentation again be this high? The number of seat-winning lists could very well turn downward again as some parties re-enter pre-election pacts. On the other hand, as long as the Bibi-or-no cleavage continues to cross-cut all the others, it is entirely possible that fragmentation will remain “unnaturally” high. Barring Bennett and Lapid getting back together in the next week, we will find out later this year. And if that happens, then in the meantime, Bibi would continue benefitting from the stalemate.

______

* By coincidence, Rivlin’s successor as president will be elected by the Knesset the same day Lapid’s current mandate to form a government expires.

** Yamina won 7 seats but one of the party’s MKs has said he will not support the government that was being negotiated with Lapid. Today he said his position has not changed.

Small parties heading government: What are the costs and what can we learn ahead of possible Bennett-Lapid rotation in Israel?

The following is a post by Or Tuttnauer, based on a thread on Twitter. I asked Or if I could turn it into a F&V post, and he kindly agreed.

_________

In Israel, Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) and Naftali Bennett (Yamina) are trying now to form a cabinet, with Bennett the first prime minister in a rotation between the two. One problem (among others) – Bennett’s party commands only 6% of the parliament. Critics say he will lose even that at next election if he takes a turn as PM. Will he?  

I looked at  http://Parlgov.org  data of 474 PM-parties in 29 countries over 70 years (1945-2015) and how they fared in the next elections.

As the scatter plot shows, the vast majority of these parties lose votes in subsequent elections. Governing has its costs. But most PM parties are much larger than Bennett’s.

To figure out how change in vote share depends on vote share, I ran a regression with the former as DV, and the latter as well as its square value to allow for non-linearity. Turns out most parties lose votes, but not the small ones – below 30%. These are parties smaller than the average or median PM-party in the data (37% and 36%, respectively). For these smaller ruling party, the predicted gain or loss is indistinguishable from zero. Compared to the fortunes of the larger ruling parties, not losing, and not gaining votes is good news. Lucky for Bennett! 

But wait! what about ideology? Bennett’s party is also far from the centre, isn’t that a precarious position for a ruling party? Well, if we add an interaction with extremity, we see that at the very low end, extreme parties of up to 15% vote share seem to actually gain votes. This is intriguing. Perhaps (as suggested to me by Matthew Shugart), these extreme parties gain credibility after heading a government and are therefore perceived in the next elections as more moderate or mainstream than their ideology would otherwise suggest, leading to a wider electoral support. However, it may also be that there are too few cases in this range to make a meaningful inference.

So, should Bennett risk it and be PM? I say yes. First, if you follow Israeli politics, you know this is better than the alternative (if you don’t, trust me). Also, you don’t get many chances to become PM. And political narratives – like history – are written by the winner.

Appendix

Below is the list of past cases of small PM parties, their extremity, and their vote share change at the next election.

CountryPartyCabinet start dateCabinet nameExtremityvote share (t)Vote share change
BELPVVVLD12-Jul-99Verhofstadt I2.005314.31.06
NORKrF17-Oct-97Bondevik I0.851613.7-1.2
SVNNSI16-May-90Peterle2.9345131.51
ISLA28-Jun-59Jonsson II0.555612.52.7
NORKrF19-Oct-01Bondevik II0.851612.5-5.7
DNKV19-Dec-73Hartling2.29212.311
BELPVVVLD10-Jun-07Verhofstadt III2.005311.83-3.19
FRARPR20-Mar-86Chirac II2.499711.57.7
ITAPSI4-Aug-83Craxi I1.227811.42.9
BELCVP13-Jun-10Leterme III0.766710.850.76
NORSp12-Oct-65Borten I0.34359.8-0.8
NORSp7-Sep-69Borten II0.343592.03
POLPC23-Dec-91Olszewski0.55568.7-4.28
NLDARP7-Jun-71Biesheuvel I0.80678.590.25
FINRKP-SFP5-May-54Torngren1.39066.8-0.3

Israel 2021a preview

Israel’s general election is 23 March. To give away the punch line, I will note the subject line calls this the “2021a” election. That’s because the final polls point to continuing deadlock, and a high chance that there will be a 2021b later this year.

Of course, such a result is not inevitable. Maybe the polls will be off just enough to give one of the blocs a majority of seats. Or maybe there will be surprises after the election, with some party or parties willing to join a bloc that they seemed to have ruled out up to now. But we probably should take a second election this year as the most likely outcome, based on current information.

Jeremy’s Knesset Insider offers the summaries of all public polls. I took the average of all the polls released on either the 18th or 19th of March. The average of these seven polls shows Likud, headed by PM Benjamin Netanyahu, on 30.7 seats, ranging 29-32. (For perspective, it has 36 from the last election.) The second largest party in all polls is Yesh Atid, headed by Yair Lapid, averaging 18.3 and ranging 17-19.

New Hope, headed by ex-Likud senior MK and minister, Gideon Sa’ar, has stumbled late and is now on an average of 8.9, ranging 7-10. It has been narrowly passed by Yamina, headed by Naftali Bennett, averaging 9.3 and ranging 8-10. We can’t say for sure, but it looks like there has been a recent tendency of some intended Yamina and New Hope voters to go (back) the core party of the right, Likud.

All polls show thirteen lists clearing the 3.25% threshold, with one exception. The final Maagar Machot poll has Ra’am falling below. No final poll has the other “on the bubble” lists failing to clear–Meretz, Blue & White, and Religious Zionist all get 4 or 5 seats in every one of these polls. For perspective, there were 8 lists in the last Knesset (although several of these split as soon as the “unity” government was formed); the Seat Product Model expects 11, on average (and that is indeed about what the long-term average has been).

The most important consideration is, of course, the blocs: which group of reasonably like-minded parties can reach 61 seats, a majority in the Knesset? Actually, there really is only one bloc that acts as such in any coherent way, and that is the “Bibi bloc.” At this point, we can count only three lists as fully part of that bloc, and a fourth with an asterisk. For sure, Likud, United Torah Judaism (UTJ), and Shas will govern together if they can find sufficient allies to form a government. Most likely, the Religious Zionist (RZ) list can be counted in, but not necessarily all of it. RZ is an alliance that includes the Kahanist/racist Otzma Yehudit and the anti-gay (among other antis) and misnamed Noam (the name means pleasantness). When they formed this alliance, they called it a “technical bloc” meaning the parties were only allied for purposes of jointly clearing the threshold (and being part of a surplus vote-sharing agreement signed with Likud, which could help the latter earn an additional seat under the Israeli electoral formula).

Netanyahu says Itamar Ben-Gvir, leader of the Otzma Yehudit party, will not be in his government. So, if we take him at his word, we should deduct one seat from their total for purposes of summing up the bloc. It is worth noting, however, that saying Ben-Gvir won’t himself sit in the government is not the same as ruling out a government that needs his seat to get to 61, although we can assume Netanyahu would prefer not to have a government that would fall if he failed to appease Ben-Gvir (and he should feel the same way about Noam, but their candidate is 11th on the list and thus Noam will contribute only votes, not one of the seats). When it comes to retaining power, however, he may make “unpleasant” deals.

Having said all of that, the average total for the bloc in these final polls are just 45.9 for Likud plus the two Haredi parties (range 44-47), and 50.7 (49-53) for these parties plus the full RZ. If Yamina joins, you get 60.0 (60 in all polls but one that has the combo at 61) if you also include all of RZ, or 55.1 (ranging 54-56) if you exclude RZ.

All through this campaign, Yamina leader Bennett has been non-committal. He has sat in opposition since a government was finally formed after the March, 2020 election. He has called himself a candidate for Prime Minister. While he has said he will not serve in a government headed by Lapid, he has not said he would not serve in a government that includes Lapid’s party and others outside the Bibi bloc. Bennett pointedly refused to sign a pledge to be part of Netanyahu’s government. Most observers, myself included, assume Bennett would join Bibi if his doing so would get to 61 seats. But he also likely would join a government of non-Bibi parties if he got a better deal. The problem is that those parties may not be in a position to offer a better deal–or any deal at all.

The core opposition that might form a government, including only Zionist parties, reaches an average of only 48.4 seats without Yamina; the range in polls is 48-50. This counts Yesh Atid, New Hope, Yisrael Beiteinu (headed by Avigdor Liberman and formerly part of the Bibi bloc), Blue & White (Benny Gantz), and on the left, Labor, and Meretz. That is six parties, with plenty of policy and personality differences between them, and still well short. Even if Yamina joins, they have only 57.7 (ranging 56-60).

Hence my conclusion that there will be a second election later in 2021. If the polls are not considerably off at the bloc level, the only way a second election will be avoided is if some currently unexpected coalition or support deals emerge.

A deal for a Bibi-bloc government could potentially include Ra’am, which is a party that was previously part of the Joint List (of Arab parties). This is the religious-conservative (Islamist) party that never belonged on the “left” even though as part of the Joint List (which includes Israel’s former communist party) it was routinely classified as part of the left. The party and its leader, Mansour Abbas, has made various policy deals with Netanyahu and seems open to doing so in the next Knesset. Netanyahu has said, however, that he will not form a government dependent on the party for its survival. Would he break that? Would Bennett go along? Well, it may be a purely academic question, as no final poll has this combination at 61 (average 58.6, range 55-60).

Would the grand anti-Bibi alliance accept dependence on Ra’am and/or the Joint List to sustain a government? It seems unlikely–these parties, or at least the Joint List, do not even want to be responsible for forming and sustaining the government of Israel. It is even more unlikely if Yamina is needed, as it surely would be. Even if we take both Arab lists, but not Yamina, we do not get 61 except in one poll (Panels for Maariv), and the average is 60.

A possibility is that Blue & White would go with Bibi again. However, it is a close call whether this would work. If it does not include RZ, but does include Yamina, it averages only 59.7, but the range is 59-63; only one final poll has it over 60. If RZ is added (presumably minus both Otzma and Noam) you can add three or four seats and the bloc has over 61 in all recent polls. (I hesitate to entertain the prospect of New Hope being the one to put Likud over the top. I just don’t see it happening. But if it did, and Yamina was a part of it, it hits 64 on average, with range of 62 to 65.)

A sort of wild card idea is Shas breaks its commitment to Bibi when it is clear no such government can form. This averages 66 seats! It would hard for Shas to sit with Yesh Atid and even harder for it to be with Yisrael Beiteinu. Shas is generally more flexible than UTJ, but it is has been a while since the two went separate ways. If Yesh Atid and allies also brought in UTJ somehow, a government could be formed without needing the now ultra-secular Yisrael Beitneinu. It would result in an average of 65.4. However, it would be hard to imagine all these parties being able to serve with Meretz. The good news is that even without Meretz, these parties combine for 61.3 on average, with only one poll having them below 61 and two having them on 63. So there you have it, a seven-party non-Likud coalition it at least imaginable! It would not be easy or stable, however.

Earlier in the campaign there was much “new hope” that a grand opposition alliance of Zionist parties of left and right could displace the Bibi bloc. As recently as the Panels/103FM poll of 15 March, such a combo had a bare majority (61 seats). But with no final poll showing them at 61 and only one as high as 60, it looks unlikely. Maybe this group of parties will out-perform its final polls. But if not, I don’t see a government being formed from this mess. Israeli politics often surprises me, so maybe it will again, but the safe call is continuing deadlock and a 2021b election being necessary.

Candidacy for prime minister

In presidential systems, it is clear who is a candidate for the position of heading government–anyone who enters the election as a formal candidate for president. What about in a parliamentary system? This seems like a trick question. I assume it is straightforward: A person who is the leader of a party can be assumed to be a candidate for prime minister.

We might qualify that definition of candidacy for prime minister by saying it only applies to the leaders of parties expected to be among the largest in the election. Perhaps leaders of clearly minor or sectarian parties can be dismissed as candidates for the post as they are deemed as highly unlikely to claim the post. However, in presidential systems, we would not define someone on the ballot as “not a candidate” just because he or she was considered unlikely to win the job. Is the standard different in parliamentary systems?

As a starting point, I do not really think it should be. “Candidates” who finish second, third, or even lower in votes in parliamentary elections occasionally do end up as prime minister, whereas only in very rare cases can anyone lower than second in votes become president (and being second in a final or sole round of voting can be sufficient currently only in the USA.*)

Our default, then, should be that, absent a good reason to believe some party is uninterested in heading the government, or no parties would ever let it do so, or that someone other than whoever is the formal party leader is likely to be prime minister should the party be able to fill the post, any party leader is a candidate for prime minister. However, this default may be incorrect, at least in the political discourse of any given parliamentary system.

Take the case of Israel 2021(a?). Twice during the campaign, statements about candidacy for prime minister have entered the media and inter-party conversation. In early March, Yamina leader Naftali Bennett made a statement that he was indeed a candidate for prime minister. At the time, my reaction was basically, no kidding. While his party would likely be too small for its leader to be PM, it does sometimes happen that some party within a coalition other than the largest provides the PM, and Bennett is his party’s leader and top-ranked candidate. Therefore, he is a candidate. Yet he felt there was political advantage in asserting so. In other words, what I called the “default” evidently is not.

Then more recently, Benjamin Netanyahu (the incumbent PM, leader of Likud, and most definitely a candidate for the top post in this election) said he would not debate opposition leader Yair Lapid unless the latter declares he is a candidate for prime minister. I do not think anyone doubts that Lapid is a candidate for the post, but somehow he has to utter the words in order for the incumbent to debate him. The back-story here is that Lapid has been trying to avoid a head-to-head fight and simply position himself as part of a broad replace-Bibi block, and not appear too ambitious to get the job himself. He has implied that he would accept not being PM even if his party, Yesh Atid, were to be the biggest party in the anti-Likud bloc. All polls for many weeks have said the party will be the largest such party, but Lapid is not ruling out allowing someone else–presumably either New Hope leader Gideon Saar or even Bennett–to take the post if that is what is needed to replace Netanyahu. Regardless of declarations, isn’t Lapid clearly a PM candidate? Yes!

So I am genuinely puzzled by contention over which party leaders formally declare themselves to be candidate for prime minister and which ones do not. I wonder if questions of this sort come up often in other parliamentary campaigns.

(Note: I hope to get a pre-election preview post up as I have done for Israeli elections back to 2006 or so. The election is this coming Tuesday, so time is getting short. Anyway, for now, I guess this is the pre-election post. But watch for another possible one.)

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* Bolivia once had a president who had finished third in the sole round of popular voting. This was possible because the rule at the time was the congress selected from the top three if none had a majority. Later the rule was changed to two-round popular majority.

Term limits for a prime minister?

Lots of presidents have term limits–either one term or two, typically (and with variations in whether an interim out of office permits a later return). But terms limits on prime ministers are rare. The only cases that come to mind are Botswana and South Africa. Just to confuse things, those countries call their chief executive “president”; however, they (together with their cabinets) are responsible to the majority in the assembly, and thus these are prime ministers in the sense of heads of government whose political survival depends on parliamentary confidence.

Given the small number of cases, there may not be much of a literature in political science or law about term-limiting prime ministers. I am wondering if readers are aware of anything that one should read to understand the implications and possible motivations for term limits on assembly-responsible executives.

The question of term-limiting the prime minister comes up now and then in Israel, including in the current campaign, where New Hope Party leader Gideon Saar has said the first bill he would advance if he becomes Prime Minister would set a term limit of eight years. The idea has come up also in the past. Once upon a time, apparently even none other than Benjamin Netanyahu thought it was a good idea; this was, of course, before serving 2009–21 (and perhaps beyond) in the position. The issue comes up at times elsewhere as well (such as Grenada and St. Kitts and such a measure was passed, controversially, in Iraq). (Edit: in a comment, JD notes that Belize and Thailand have term limits in their prime ministers.)

I would generally suspect that the logic of term limits (prevent one person from monopolizing power) fits poorly with the logic of parliamentarism (the head of government serves at the pleasure of the assembly majority). But apparently any such poor fit does not prevent the idea surfacing here and there. It would be especially challenging to formulate a workable term-limit provision in a country that often has early elections–sometimes very early and frequent ones–like Israel.

In Memory of Gerhard Loewenberg

The following is the text of a memorial lecture I gave for Dr. Gerhard Loewenberg on the occasion of his first yarzheit. I delivered it remotely on behalf of Beth Israel Congregation in Ann Arbor; I explain how it came about in the lecture itself. The following text includes some paragraphs that I had to skip in the live session (viewable on YouTube) due to time constraints.

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Comparative Legislatures: Or What America and Israel can learn from Germany

The legislature is the single most important institution of a democratic political system. Yet legislatures are puzzling in terms of how they are able to function, and they tend to be disliked, even reviled, by democratic publics everywhere. Professor Gerhard Loewenberg dedicated his professional life to advancing the comparative analysis of legislatures, and in his last book, published in 2011 (other than his highly engaging memoir from 2012), he wrote about how puzzling the legislative institution is.

On the one hand, he wrote, a legislature consists of technically equal representatives. Each one, upon being seated after having won an election, has the same status as any other. Every one has just one vote on any matter that comes before the chamber for decision. A legislature is a collective body, comprised of equal individual legislators. Yet, as we know from some of the most important studies of social science, collective decision-making is difficult and prone to failure—unless some institution or leader within the legislature is endowed with authority to set the agenda, control members’ speaking time, and otherwise manage the proceedings. Of course, as soon as someone has been given power to do these tasks, by definition the legislators are no longer equal. Some of them have been awarded additional power over the others, some will not be able to speak as much as they wish, and various rules will limit the admissibility of amendments to bills that legislators may hope to advance. 

Moreover, given the complexity of decision making for a modern society, no one legislator can possibly be knowledgeable about all the issues that come before the body demanding a decision. So, legislative chambers establish committees and other means of having some legislators specialize in one set of policies while others specialize in different topics. Again, this changes them from formally equal to at least potentially having outsized influence over specific policies. For instance, members of the agriculture committee acquire more knowledge and procedural advantage than their colleagues over policy related to food supply and farm subsidies, while members of the health committee acquire more knowledge and procedural advantage over policies in that topic. And so on.

These organizational questions—agenda control and committee structure—are among the topics that have fascinated researchers in comparative legislative studies. They are also presumably the key to why voters tend to hold legislative institutions in such disdain. Crafting legislation is something of a dark art, out of the view of most voters. And when they tune in to C-Span or equivalent elsewhere, they may like what they seen even less than they’d imagined. They will often see a mostly empty chamber, or an endless series of procedural measures that make no sense to outsiders. It is all quite “mystifying” as Jerry said in his book, On Legislatures: The Puzzle of Representation

Yet without an elected legislature, you have no democracy. Actual democracies vary in whether they have two legislative chambers or one, whether they have an elected presidency or a ceremonial one (or none at all or even a monarch), and in whether courts can overturn legislation on various grounds. But no country would be called a democracy without having at least one chamber of a legislature elected by the citizens. The legislature is the one political institution that has the greatest claim on being able to represent a microcosm of citizen preferences and interests, and advancing majority rule, the central democratic principle. How much an actual legislature fulfills this central mission is quite variable, as I shall get into in more detail later. But no one can deny the absolute centrality of a legislature, and its representative function, to democracy. 

Given the importance of legislatures to democracy, then understanding these institutions is central to understanding how democracy works, and how representation and democratic policy-making can be improved. It was for the purpose of advancing such understanding that Jerry Loewenberg not only devoted his own career, but also established an entire sub-field and an important journal, Legislative Studies Quarterly, in political science devoted to the study of legislatures around the world. 

**

In my remarks this evening, I want to use the cases mentioned in my title—the USA, Israel, and Germany—as examples of what we can learn when we compare legislatures in different countries to one another. Because it is Chanukah, which celebrates an earlier recovery of Jewish national and cultural autonomy in our ancient homeland, this season is an especially appropriate time to reflect on the institutions that maintain the Jewish people’s newly recovered sovereignty in recent times. Moreover, Chanukah is all about bringing light into the darkest of times, as well as a season when Messianic yearnings have long been heightened in our tradition. It may seem strange to say so, especially to my political-scientist friends tuning in, but I see the study of democratic institutions, and especially the promotion of reforms to improve their performance on behalf of a nation, in quasi-Messianic terms. That is, democracy as a set of institutions for governance may be flawed, because they are human-devised. It may even be “the worst of all forms of government, except for all the others” than have been tried from time to time, as Churchill famously remarked. A major theme of Jewish tradition is establishing the Kingdom of Heaven—or more specifically, of offering a challenge to governments that fail to serve the broad interests of the community, including its cultural minorities, over which they claim the right to rule. Until the Kingdom of Heaven is established some day—and whether or not it is anyway meaningful to you that it might be some day—improving democracy is an essential task for our time. Democracy in Israel and the United States has been enduring some dark times of late. It is my hope that comparative legislative studies can shed some light on how democracy works, and how it can be improved. A tikkun, a repair, is in order for democracy. How can learning about different democracies help us think about making government work better? This is my rather lofty ambition for today’s remarks.

**

I will focus mainly on the comparison of the US and Israel, as the two counties’ legislative structures are about as different as any two can be. I will then ask if there might be a middle ground between the extremes represented by the American and Israeli cases. And the answer may be surprising—it is the German case. Or perhaps not so surprising, given that we are here to reflect on the contributions of Gerhard Loewenberg, who emigrated from Germany with his family before the Nazi takeover, and who returned to do research on the Bundestag in the decade-and-a-half following the establishment of the postwar Federal Republic of Germany.

But before I go into the substantive topic, I want to say a little about myself and specifically how I came to be honored with the invitation to give this memorial address.

My own field is indeed comparative legislatures, although until completing a book that will be out in the spring of 2021, most of my research has not been on the internal organization of legislatures, but rather on two aspects of how legislatures are related to the wider political system: (1) the electoral system, defined as the set of rules determining how candidates become legislators; and (2) how legislatures relate to the executive, i.e., either a prime minister or an elected president (or sometimes, as in France and Poland or the pre-war Weimar Republic of Germany, both) and the cabinet. 

My forthcoming book, entitled Party Personnel, is about committees of legislatures—the German and Israeli cases (but not the US) are among the cases included; the book also analyzes the committee systems of Portugal, Japan, Britain, and New Zealand. I am the lead author, and my coauthors and I ask how the electoral system shapes the ways in which individual legislators are assigned to one committee or another. The process of assigning legislators to specific committees is, in all these cases, managed by political party organizations within the legislature.

For instance, political parties might assign their legislators according to expertise developed in their pre-legislative careers (their occupational background). Or the assignments might be made according to their ability to draw votes from a district the party needs to win (assuming the electoral system consists of large number of districts where specific local candidates run, which is not always the case, as we’ll see). These two possible motivations for parties are often in tension! Those legislators who are best at winning additional votes beyond what some “generic” party nominee might win in a local district contest may be only loosely correlated—if at all—with those who have the policy expertise from their prior occupation (lawyer, healthcare worker, teacher, farmer, etc.). And the electoral system is one of the key things shaping which criteria loom largest in a party’s decision about committee assignments. Or so we say in Party Personnel.

Only recently did I purchase a used copy of Dr. Loewenberg’s first book, Parliament in the German System, published in 1967. I was amazed when I began reading it to see how much it foreshadows the kind of questions that motivate my forthcoming book. For instance, in Table 20 of the book we find a summary of the percentage of legislators who come from various occupational backgrounds—lawyers, teachers, business owners, etc.–and it is comparative. It shows not only the figures for the German Bundestag that had been elected in 1957, but also comparable summaries for the UK, France, and Italy. It tracks, for the Bundestag and by political party, the percentage who serve on occupationally related committees (i.e., where their parties are taking advantage of members’ policy expertise) and their tendency to speak in the Bundestag on matters in their speciality vs. as generalists. All this sort of thing is in our Party Personnel book, for more recent German election years and various elections in seven other countries—but we have it a lot easier, thanks to rather bigger computer data processing power than existed over fifty years ago! It is really amazing to me how far ahead of his time Jerry was in thinking about these issues of how different legislatures and political parties make use of expertise in the legislative process. Moreover, the table is itself such a work of art; I just love these fold-out pages. I normally see them in atlases or books with panoramic photos, but the presentation of statistics in this manner is such a sight to behold!

**

Table 20 of Gerhard Loewenberg, Parliament in the German Political System (Cornell University Press, 1967)

When my coauthors and I were finishing up the draft of our book to submit to a publisher for review, we got the news of Jerry’s passing. Because it is a book on comparative legislatures, and because the path the book seeks to advance is grounded firmly in Jerry’s contributions to the field, my coauthors and I immediately made the decision to dedicate our book to his memory.

**

But that still does not explain why I am here, speaking at a memorial hosted by Beth Israel Congregation in Ann Arbor, when I myself am in California. For that, I have Rabbi Nadav Caine to thank. And, strangely enough, the pandemic, or more precisely how the pandemic has changed Jewish community. Rabbi Caine was our rabbi back in San Diego; we have known each other for about a dozen years. One Friday night a few months ago, my wife and I played the YouTube recording of the Beth Israel Shabbat evening service, to reconnect with Rabbi Caine and his family, leading the Shabbat service from their home. And at the section where the Rabbi reads the names of those being remembered, I heard… Gerhard Loewenberg. Could it be? It must be. And so I emailed Rabbi Caine after Shabbat. And he told me about Jerry’s daughter, Deborah, being part of the Ann Arbor community. And so, here we are together, thanks to Zoom!

***

I now want to turn to the substantive application of some of the lessons of comparative legislative studies—the case-study section, so to speak. I want to start by sketching some of the key differences between the US and Israeli cases. Then I will bring in the German case a little later. I will mention a few other countries along the way. Hey, it is all about comparative legislatures, after all, so we need to compare, and try to learn from, the experiences of different countries! 

As I said at the start, there are few pairs of long-term democracies that illustrate the extreme poles of legislative and broader institutional design than do the US and Israel.

First of all, the US is, of course, a presidential system, whereas Israel is parliamentary. As the work of comparative legislative scholarship has long recognized, this basic difference in how the executive functions creates fundamental differences in the role of the legislature. Put simply, the most important role of a legislature in a parliamentary system is to produce—and maintain in office or dismiss—the executive. By definition, the prime minister and executive cabinet in a parliamentary system must have the support of a majority of legislators—or at least not the active opposition of a majority. If the majority wants a different prime minister and cabinet, it can act to replace them, or in most cases, an early election can be called.

(The Israeli case has recently taken this to yet greater extreme, having had three elections between April 2019, and March, 2020. As we speak, it seems likely there will be an election in March, 2021, or perhaps June. The term of a Knesset is nominally four years, but it’s looking like four elections in a period of about two years! While this is obviously not an ideal situation, I hope to convince you that it is not so bad. Instead of imposing a government supported by less than a majority of the voters—as the 2016 US presidential election did—it requires the politicians to have the backing of representatives of a majority of the voters and, when political conditions prevent smooth governance, to go back to the public to renew or revise their consent to govern.)

In contrast to the parliamentary model used in Israel and most of Europe, in a presidential system, by definition the head of the government is elected separately. Legislators in presidential systems have no role in choosing the head of government, and also are unable to depose the head before the end of the constitutional term, absent a process that requires more than a simple majority (as the Trump impeachment process served to demonstrate). 

So this—the executive type—is the first major difference between the American and Israeli legislatures.

A second fundamental difference is that the US Congress is, of course, bicameral. House and Senate. Not only are there these two chambers, but they are equally powerful and elected in very different manners. Israel is unicameral. Because it is unicameral and parliamentary, the only national voting choice Israeli voters make is when they are called to the polls to elect a new Knesset.

The third fundamental difference is in how the legislatures are elected—the electoral system. Here I will take the US House and the Israeli Knesset as the first point of comparison, and then bring in the US Senate afterwards. The electoral systems for the House and the Knesset are diametrically opposed in their institutional design: In the US House, every member is elected as the sole representative of his or her district. There are thus as many districts as there are members—435. (Which, by the way, is awfully small to represent a country this large, but I’ll leave that aside.)

However, in Israel there are no districts. Or more accurately, there is one district. All 120 members are elected nationwide. Whereas a US House member is the candidate who wins the most votes in a local district, the Knesset is elected according to proportional representation. Israeli voters do not vote for candidates at all. They vote for a party list. Each list is composed of candidates nominated by the party, and given a priority ranking—what political scientists call a “closed list.” (Other types of list–“open” or “flexible” allow voters to favor one or more candidates within a party’s list.)

So given the closed lists used in Israeli elections, suppose a given list has earned 10% of the votes, Then it will win approximately 12 of the 120 seats, and the winners will be the first 12 candidates on its list. There is a threshold, currently 3.25% of the votes. A list that gets less than that will have no seats. But any list that clears 3.25% will be represented. This is a system designed so as to make room for a lot of parties, and lo and behold, it does! 

In fact, based on predictive models developed in one of my earlier books, we should expect Israel’s Knesset to have about 11 lists with representation, and the largest one to have about 30% of the seats, which would be 36 seats. Thirty six happens to be just one more than the number the two most popular lists tied for in April, 2019. But in elections since then, and in many over the last two decades, the leading list has had even fewer seats—sometimes not even 30 seats (which is 25%). That’s a pretty small leading party—not even half the total number of seats needed to comprise a governing majority!

Note that I have been using “list” and “party” more or less interchangeably. Nonetheless, when talking about Israeli elections and Knesset politics, these terms are distinct. Often there are lists that are presented by alliances of two or more parties. For instance, the Joint List consists of four distinct parties representing Arab citizens of Israel, the Yamina is a list of various ultra-nationalist and Religious Zionist parties, and Blue and White contested the last several elections as an alliance of three distinct centrist parties.

The key is that the electoral system works by allocating seats proportionally to lists, and is designed so as to allow many such lists to win. The most recent election, for example, resulted in just 8 lists getting seats, somewhat lower than the typical 10-12. However, the number of parties is greater, and sometimes partners in elections break up and operate separately in the Knesset. In fact, this is what happened when Benny Gantz signed his coalition deal with Benjamin Netanyahu. Gantz’s list from the election, Blue and White, split, and his election partner, Yair Lapid, became the leader of an opposition party while Gantz became part of the government. 

**

One of the most important things to understand of all this is that, (1) under the Israeli electoral system, a vote cast anywhere in the country has the same weight as a vote cast anywhere else, and (2), whatever percentage of votes a list gets, that is its (approximate) percentage of seats in the next Knesset. 

In the US, by stark contrast, most districts are “safe” for one party or the other. Thus only those voters who happen to live in districts that are closely contested really participate in determining whether control of the House will shift from one party to the other. In the US Senate, of course, there is even more variation across the country in the de-facto value of a vote. California gets the same number of Senators as Wyoming, despite about a 70:1 difference in the states’ populations. And only a few states might determine whether control of this chamber of the national legislature might shift in an election—such as the flips of the seats in Arizona and Colorado this past November, and we’ll all be watching what voters in Georgia do in early January. 

So let’s pull it all together. In the US, voters elect a president and two chambers of congress separately. It is thus often the case that one of these three is held by a different party than at least one of the others, as has been the case since the 2018 election and was also the case for all but the first two years of Obama’s presidency. In the US, votes are aggregated only in local House districts or for the Senate in states of greatly varying population, rather than nationally. There are only two parties of any consequence, so one will have a majority in one or both chambers, and one will have the presidency, but again, no necessary partisan alignment across these institutions. And elections occur at fixed intervals, so if they can’t work together, we get gridlock instead of the Israeli recourse to an early election.

In Israel, there is only one national elected institution—the legislature. There are many parties, and the contest for votes and seats is fully nationwide. The prime minister and cabinet are products of bargaining among parties after an election to determine who can form a coalition capable of holding majority support in the Knesset. The cabinet might fall early, before the next scheduled election, if one or more parties decide not to continue working with their partners. And there can be an early election.

In the Israeli system, there is no local representation, except that a party might choose to place a former mayor or someone else with a local connection somewhere on their list (something they do rather rarely). Unlike in the US, Members of the Knesset have no local base in the sense of a place where voters have chosen them as an individual representative. 

***

For all the reasons just sketched, these two systems are as extreme as they can be in terms of what legislators represent and how they relate to the executive. The question thus might arise of whether it is possible to split the difference between these extremes. I will focus on just one dimension here—how the legislators are elected.

As I pointed out earlier, in the US, every legislator is elected in a unique district. That means, his or her election depends only on voters in one geographic subset of the country—435 different ones in the case of the House. (And each state in the case of the Senate.) By contrast, in Israel, they are elected in one national district, and on closed party or alliance lists.

Each of these has some basic advantages and some disadvantages. On the one hand, the US system makes life difficult for minor parties. Now, here I need to take a little excursus and interject something that even many of my political science colleagues get wrong! We have something called “Duverger’s law”, although calling it a “law” is a sure way to trigger me!!! 

I will try to spare you my long screed against it, but here is the short version. The famous French sociologist, Maurice Duverger, pointed out in the early 1950s that it is hard for parties other than two major ones to win seats when each member is elected by plurality (winner take all) in single-seat districts. This he called the “mechanical effect” because it concerns how the electoral system works to assign seats. And if it is hard for them to win seats, they don’t get many votes—voters don’t want to “waste” their votes on parties that can’t win. This is the so called psychological effect, also known as strategic voting or “lesser of two evils” voting.

The logic is sensible, but it is overstated. It certainly is not a law in the scientific sense (Duverger himself never claimed it was—he just said it was close to being a “true sociological law”). And it certainly is not a law in the sense of a binding constraint on voters or political elites. Nor should we expect it to be. In work that I have done with Rein Taagepera, we show that when there are a lot of districts—even ones electing just a single member, as in the US—there is a theoretical reason to expect parties beyond the top two to win some of those seats and to get significant vote percentages, even to the point of receiving votes in districts where they finish in a distant third place and thus are unable to win locally. And, empirically, this is true in other countries using the single-seat winner-take-all rules—Canada is multiparty, for instance. In the last Canadian election, the Liberal Party won only 33% of the votes and it was overrepresented, due to the non-proportional electoral system. But because it has 46% of the seats, short of a majority, it must take account of the views of other parties in order to govern.

The UK also has multiparty politics, albeit a lesser degree than in Canada. In 2010, a two-party coalition government formed, and after 2017, Theresa May’s government was in a minority in the House of Commons, because of the success of some smaller parties in winning seats.

So the US is a real outlier in having a rigid two-party system even given its electoral system, and even given Duverger’s so-called law. We should have more space in our congressional elections for Greens and Libertarians, and others, even without changing how members are elected. Nonetheless, it is true that it is much harder to get multiparty politics and minority representation using our electoral system than it would be if we used proportional representation.

Additionally, local representation really matters in US elections. It probably matters less than it used to, because voters are much more likely to vote straight party tickets nowadays than they were back in the 1970s and 1980s. (In those days, many districts had Democratic House members but the voters therein had favored Nixon or Reagan for president). Even with stronger party-line voting, we still see House members advertising what they have done on behalf of local communities and Senators emphasizing issues of concern to their states. They are local representatives even as they are also partisan actors. And this is a good thing! Local concerns that cross ideological and party lines need attention from policymakers as much as national policy challenges do.

So the US system makes it hard for minor parties to prosper, which is in many respects disadvantageous, particularly as the parties have become more distinct ideologically (“polarization”) in recent decades. But the US system offers local representation, which is in many respects advantageous.

In the Israeli case, there is certainly no problem with small parties getting seats! In fact, almost anyone—even a strong advocate for proportional representation and coalition governance like myself—would say in Israel the fragmentation of the choices into many small parties goes too far. It makes the formation of governments with a clear agenda for national policy challenges exceedingly difficult, and recently has resulted in three elections within eleven months because of the difficult interparty bargaining.

Yet a very big advantage of the Israeli system is that votes cast anywhere in the country contribute to the seat totals for their preferred parties (as long as they get at least 3.25% of the overall vote). So voters are equal, and the weight of my vote does not depend on the preferences of people who happen to live near me, as is the case in so much of the US where we might live in a safe state or district for one party and thus be essentially ignored at election time (even in presidential elections, given the electoral college). 

And a very big disadvantage of the Israeli system is the absence of local representation. Now, of course, Israel is a much smaller country than the US. But there are still are significant differences across the territory in terms of local infrastructural or other needs, and these do not get represented well in the legislative process for a very basic reason: no legislator in Israel is in any way accountable to local voters. The closed-list system means that they win solely based on their rank on the list, and how well their party performs in the nationwide vote.

So, I asked earlier whether it might be possible to combine the advantages of these two systems without taking in the disadvantages. Yes! Enter the German system.

In Germany, the members of the Bundestag are elected in what electoral-system terminology refers to as “two tiers”. There is one tier that consists of single-seat districts, thus resembling the American system (or those of Canada and Britain) in which a legislator is elected upon winning a plurality of votes in a geographically defined district. This election method comprises about half the seats in the Bundestag. 

The rest are elected in another tier from party lists, thus resembling the Israeli system. Each voters has two votes—one for a local representative (winner take all in their district) and one for a party list. The party list vote is more important for the overall composition of the legislature, but the separate district vote ensures candidates pay attention to a local area, have an incentive to become visible to voters and—crucially–that even a party that loses the local contest will tend to nurture support at the district level.

The way the two tiers are inter-related in the electoral law ensures that the overall balance of parties in the Bundestag is almost perfectly proportional to their nationwide vote shares—just as in Israel. There is a 5% threshold (thus somewhat higher than Israel’s). Under this arrangement, a party’s total number of seats is a mix of however many seats it won in the district tier, plus a number from its list needed to reach its proportional share of the total. Small parties often have only list seats, as they may not have any local wins. (I am glossing over some details here, but this is the general picture.)

The German system, often called mixed-member proportional (MMP), thus ensures that a vote cast anywhere in the territory is just as valuable as one cast anywhere else, in terms of contributing to the overall balance of partisan forces in the national legislature. In this sense, it is like Israel’s system and very unlike the US system. 

At the same time, it also ensures local representation, like the US system but very unlike Israel’s. 

(As an aside, I want to add that about 25 years ago New Zealand changed from single-seat plurality elections to MMP, modeled on Germany’s system. It has been a smashing success for their democracy. So electoral system reform is both possible, and beneficial. An example we could follow.)

Taking the two features together, Germany has coalition governments (as does New Zealand now), but not involving as many small and otherwise incompatible parties as we see in Israel’s coalitions. Germany also has local accountability that really matters. My own research and that of others confirms that members spend time in their districts, and often come from local roots including prior electoral offices or other ties to their communities. And, as we show in the Party Personnel book, committee assignments in the Bundestag are allocated according to a logic by which parties take advantage of expertise (occupational background), but crucially also to take advantage of local variations in party support and policy demands. (We also see this balance of representation criteria having emerged in NZ since they changed to a German-inspired MMP system.)

It has obviously worked quite well, in that Germany in the postwar period developed one of the most robust democracies and probably the strongest legislature in Europe. In fact, the development of that legislature was one of the recurring themes in Jerry’s career, from his very first book (in 1967, as I mentioned earlier) right up to his last publication, which was a remarkable essay published in a German journal (but in English) in 2018, reflecting on the choices made by both the Allied powers and the new German political class that laid the groundwork for the Bundestag’s development.

(Before I close out the section on Germany, I want to note that Germany is a federation of states, like the US, and it has a bicameral parliament. The other chamber, the Bundesrat, is a great model that Americans could learn from! Its members are chosen by state governments, and it has a veto on on legislation that directly affects the states, instead of on all national policy like the US Senate. It therefore deftly balances the state-interest and national-interest tensions inherent in federalism.)

****

Legislatures, as Gerhard Loewenberg showed us, are puzzling institutions. In democracies, they consist of formally equal individual representatives who somehow must organize themselves to make collective decisions on behalf of the citizens they represent. They are essential to democratic governance, yet the very procedures that they devise in order to function make them mysterious to the average voter, who is quite likely to associate the body with the worst features of politics.

We can learn a lot from comparing legislatures in different countries, as Gerhard Loewenberg’s long and distinguished career taught us. Both the US and Israel, as well as other countries, can learn from the German experience of how to balance seemingly contradictory goals of legislative and electoral institutional design. While there will never be a perfectly functioning democratic legislature for the simple reason that societies and the people who comprise them are complex, a process of scholarly and public enquiry into how different systems work can bring us towards a better understanding of how to make democracy work better, both in our own country and elsewhere.

Chag sameach; Chodesh tov. Happy Hanukkah, and a good new month. And may Dr. Gerhard Loewenberg’s memory be a blessing and an inspiration. 

“Instability” in Israeli politics?

I was asked to offer some remarks on current “instability” in Israeli politics.* Instead, I am going to argue that Israeli politics suffers from too much stability—at least at the level of party and electoral politics. The fact that Israel underwent three elections between April, 2019, and March, 2020, might seem to imply political instability. So might the government recently formed, with its unwieldy power-sharing provisions and the parties’ need to reform constitutional provisions (Basic Laws) in order, at last, to prevent what could have been a fourth election within two years.

However, if we go a little deeper, there are two aspects of fundamental stability that have led the country’s politics to this current situation. First is the fact that a right-wing nationalist bloc of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and the two Haredi (ultra-orthodox) parties, usually also joined by an ultra-nationalist and religious-Zionist party (currently Yamina), has been unwilling to break up in order to facilitate government-formation. Likud and the Haredi factions function almost like one party nowadays, even though they run as three separate ones in elections.

The second factor is the persistence of anti-Zionist ideology among the Arab parties, who in their alliance known as the Joint List, have emerged as a (potentially) powerful force able to command about 12% of the Knesset seats. One can hardly ask parties representing the Arab sector to be Zionist, but if they would cease being opposed to the very nature of the political system (or be replaced by more pragmatic parties), they could participate in governments and bring benefits back to their voters who polls show care much more about better public services and integration into Israeli society than about ideological goals or the wider Israeli–Palestinian conflict.

Because of these two aspects of excessive political stability (or we might say stasis), it proved impossible after the two elections of 2019 and almost impossible after the 2020 election for a government spanning the political center to form. Yet consider that in three elections within eleven months, the right-Haredi bloc headed by Netanyahu failed to win a majority of seats. It did especially badly, relative to the 2015 election, in the second election of 2019, held in September. It recovered only slightly this past March. Yet at the same time, the Blue & White electoral alliance headed by Benny Gantz and its potential coalition partners also failed to win a majority for an alternative government. Blue & White could have formed a government only with the cooperation of the Joint List—or else it needed the Likud.

In most parliamentary democracies with complex multiparty systems, what happens when no bloc of ideologically similar parties wins a majority of seats is that a coalition of the center forms, leaving the extremist parties of both left and right out. But owing in part to Netanyahu’s preoccupation with his own legal problems, he was unwilling to break up his loyal bloc. Meanwhile, many of Gantz’s secular and left-leaning allies were unwilling to enter a government with the Haredi parties due to sharp differences over issues of religion and state.

Only with the unwillingness of the key parties to go to fourth elections, particularly in the context of the covid-19 crisis, did such a center-right coalition (which excludes the far right Yamina, as well as the most secular components that had been included within Blue & White) finally form. They could have arrived at a similar destination much sooner if the right-Haredi bloc had been more flexible, and alternative governance options would be more feasible if the Arab bloc could be part of a government or of its Knesset support base.

In other words, Israeli politics would benefit from just a little bit more instability.

Before concluding, I want to add two final points—one on the institutional context and one looking ahead:

(1) It is not the case, as some commentators claim, that Israeli politics would be more stable if it would change its highly proportional electoral system. The country has about the number and relative size of parties we expect from the electoral system it has (based on mathematical models I have contributed to developing and testing). But it does not follow that the country would be better served by changing the system to reduce the number of parties. The system suits the country’s social divisions well. A more disproportional system would create more, not less instability, by making it less transparent how popular support would be turned into baragaining power in the Knesset and government.

(2) Will the current government last? The constitutional reforms that were passed as a condition of its formation make it likely that it will, at least for a while, by instituting a rotation in the Prime Minister position and making it harder than usual for the leader of one bloc to depose the other and break up the government. However, by August, it must pass a budget. If Netanyahu wants to prevent a budget deal, he probably can, and this would force an early election. Polls consistently show that the right-Haredi-ultranationalist bloc would win a majority if an election were held now. However, it is not clear that he would want such an outcome even if he could engineer it. All of Netanyahu’s coalition governments but one have had at least one party of the center-left in them in order to balance out the ultranationalist parties (and the farther right of his own Likud). The exception was the one formed after the 2015 election, which was a narrow right-wing government. And it was precisely his small right-wing partners who maneuvered to bring that government down, precipitating the first of these three recent elections when no election actually would have been due until November, 2019. Netanyahu may be quite happy with the deal he has now while his legal process slowly plays out. In other words, Israeli politics may be a good deal more stable than it appears to many observers.


* At an on-line meeting of Davis Faculty, scheduled for 5 July. In addition to drawing on several earlier posts on Israel at this blog (some of which are linked in this post), I also draw on my teaching of Israeli Politics at UC Davis, as recently as this past spring quarter.

The 35th Israeli government and Basic-Law revisions

Last week, Israel finally got a new government, after three elections in under a year, the most recent of which was March of this year.

And what a government it is! Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud will remain prime minister, with a planned rotation of the premiership to Benny Gantz in 18 months.

It is being referred to as a “unity government” but that is a strange term for a government, the formation of which led to the break-up of three of the multi-party alliances that contested the most recent election, most especially Gantz’s Blue and White list. Maybe just like with “grand coalition” in Germany and Austria, it is time to dispense with the term, “unity government,” for Israel.

The most recent Israeli governments to which the term applied were following the Knesset elections of 1984 and 1988. In these elections the two main parties (Likud and Labor) each had won around 40 or more seats and formed governments in which the two parties governed together. Unlike the European examples, the parties in the earlier Israeli examples also agreed to rotate the premiership (two years one party, two years the other), although this plan broke down during the second term of planned “unity”.

This new government has the rotation plan again, but in other respects, it is quite novel. For one thing, as alluded to already, one of the two main components of the agreement, Blue and White, split. The part headed by Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi has joined the government with Likud, but the part consisting of Yesh Atid (led by Yair Lapid) and Telem (led by Moshe Ya’alon) will go to opposition. Likud won 36 seats in the most recent elections and Blue and White 33. However, with the split, the governing portion of the latter brings only 18 seats to support the cabinet. Thus, unlike the previous “unity” governments, in this one the two main lists that are forming the cabinet and rotating the premiership do not have a majority of Knesset seats between them (they have 54, where a majority is 61.)

(Yesh Atid and Telem, who will be in opposition, have 16 seats; there were also two from B&W who split off and joined the government as a separate party and two from the Labor-Gesher-Meretz alliance who joined the new rump B&W, while another effectively joined the Likud’s bloc… it gets complicated!)

Despite the imbalance now of the two main components, Likud and (rump) B&W, each has rough parity in the government. This is a sense in which it is still sort of a “unity” government. B&W currently has 13 ministers, while Likud has 14, even though the Likud caucus is twice the size of B&W’s. In addition, the B&W splinter joining the government, the 2-seat Derech Eretz, gets one minister. So does Gesher, which is just Orly Levi-Abekasis, who split from Labor-Gesher-Meretz to join the government. And Labor has two. In addition, there is Rafael Peretz, who split from the nationalist Yemina (the rest of which is going into opposition), plus one from United Torah Judaism (UTJ) and one from Shas. (The latter two, both haredi–or ultra-orthodox–parties, combine for 16 Knesset seats.)

Thus, strictly in portfolios, the remnant of Blue and White made off really well, getting 37% of the cabinet despite contributing only around 22% of the cabinet’s parliamentary basis. Likud gets 40% of the cabinet, with about 44% of the parliamentary basis.

Plus, of course, there is the rotation. Gantz gets a turn at the premiership after 18 months, if the agreement lasts. So, while critics on the leftish side of the political spectrum are calling Gantz a sell out for going into government with Netanyahu, he actually got a pretty good deal, in terms of the portfolios:legislators ratio. (I will not go into policy in this post, but my sense is he did decently well there, given the bargaining situation.)

In the end, both blocs failed to win three straight elections–even the first of which was called several months earlier than required. And so compromise was the only option. Well, no, actually it was not. A fourth election in just over a year’s time could have been called. In fact, under Israeli law, it would have happened automatically had a deal not been struck to form a government. Polling strongly suggested a new election would finally give the Nethanyahu-led bloc (Likud, Yemina, UTJ, and Shas) more than 61 seats.

The bargaining over government formation, when there is a looming return to elections, always takes place against the backdrop of what each side expects in the event of a new election. This only enhances the significance of the portfolio balance and rotation Gantz was able to extract. Likud and its allies certainly had no reason to fear the outcome of an election, and could have just run out the clock and let it happen, while blaming Gantz (and Lapid) for dragging voters to the polls yet again.

So Netanyahu and his allies struck a deal either because the ongoing coronavirus crisis made going back to the polls seem unappealing, or because Nethanyahu really preferred a coalition containing at least one party to his left over one formed around a narrow right-wing (nationalist-haredi) bloc. The reason need not be one or the other. Both factors probably matter.

But bear in mind that Nethanyahu has always had coalitions in which he had partners from the center-left as well as to his right, with the partial exception of the one formed after the 2015 election–the one that was ended early to kick off what would turn out to be a sequence of three elections. In that coalition, Kulanu (10 seats) was to Likud’s left, although firmly part of the “nationalist camp” in its self-definition (and merged with Likud after the first of the three 2019-20 elections). Thus it is entirely plausible that Nethanyahu preferred some sort of deal with Gantz, and could not get Gantz to back down from demands that his bloc get a large share of the cabinet even if he failed to bring his whole list with him. With the ulranationalist Yemina (6 seats) going into opposition, and the two haredi parties not really fitting on the left-right dimension (which, in Israel, is mostly about doves vs. hawks), Likud for the first time in the Netanyahu era will anchor the farthest right position in the cabinet. Had they gone back to elections that resulted in a majority for the right-haredi bloc, Likud would have anchored the farthest left position in the likely government.

(As an aside, I wonder how Lapid could possibly have been willing to go to another election, given polling suggesting only around 10% or so for his list. Or maybe he just really decided that being opposition leader was the least unattractive of all his options.)

On the question of whether the agreement can last, the coalition deal includes some creative constitution re-drafting. Before it was voted in as the government, the proto-coalition amended Basic Laws in order to attempt to secure its position, and thus not be vulnerable to a potential Nethanyahu decision to break it up early and precipitate elections. Here are the main points (thanks to JD Mussel for these):

  • There is now a new legal category of government called an “Alternation Government”. The following apply to such a government:
  • PM can’t fire ministers from other bloc without alternate PM’s consent.
  • If an election is called by the Knesset, with at least 12 members of the right bloc voting for it, Gantz automatically becomes PM (and vice versa after PM alternation).
  • The PM’s existing power to call an election (which is not exactly that, since a new government can be formed within 21 days) now requires the consent of the alternate PM.
  • Neither a sitting PM nor alternate PM can serve in a government installed as result of a constructive no-confidence vote (whereby 61 members of Knesset must elect a new government in order to oust the incumbent).
  • The Basic Law change contains an entrenchment clause: “This Basic Law [probably meaning specifically these amended clauses] may only be changed with the votes of 75 MKs,”

A strange beast Netanyahu and Gantz have created! But a political (and public-health) crisis required some creative bargaining and constitutional innovation.

A couple of final small thoughts:

  • Is this the first time in the annals of parliamentary government that a formateur (the one designated to attempt to form a government) had himself installed as Speaker to preserve his leverage while bargaining to install someone else as (initial) Prime Minister?
  • Is this the first case known to constitutional history of a 62.5% majority to amend?

Israel 2020a: Polling day

It is election day in Israel. Again. I probably have not followed an Israeli election so loosely since some time before the 1990s. If I am feeling this indifferent, I can only imagine how the average Israeli voter feels.

Polling throughout the period since the last election–only last September–shows little sign of any fundamental change in the political deadlock that has been a feature since the elections of last April. That is why I put “2020a” in the tile above. It is not inevitable that there will be a “2020b” election, but it is unclear how it will be avoided.

The potential governing scenarios are about the same now as they were when I last wrote, in November. Maybe one of these will happen this time, or maybe today’s results will surprise and the bargaining situation will be markedly different.

The lineup of parties is pretty much the same as last time. The main difference is yet another shift in the options on the Zionist left. The Democratic Union is defunct already, and the Labor-Gesher alliance has formed an alliance list with a third partner, Meretz. Cleverly, they are calling it Labor-Gesher-Meretz. The wider alliance was formed out of necessity, with the grave danger that one or both of the components could have fallen below the 3.25% threshold if running separately. The Greens are no longer in this partnership (or running at all), and Stav Shaffir failed to find a home, thereby depriving the left of one its star MKs (in my assessment).

There is also one candidate on the Labor-Gesher-Meretz list–in a realistic slot (#7)–from an old splinter party called Democratic Choice: former Deputy Chief of the General Staff Yair Golan, who had been elected with Democratic Union in September. Issawi Frej, an Arab politician who was elected in the 4th rank on Meretz’s list last April, has been dropped all the way to a likely unrealistic 11th on this election’s list. (He was 7th on Democratic Union’s list, which included Meretz and Greens, in September; the list won 5 seats.)

The realignment on the right was minor, with Yamina back as the more nationalist and Religious Zionist flank to the right of Likud. Naftali Bennet of New Right is back to being #1 on this list, with Ayelet Shaked (who led the list in September) dropped to #3; in between them is Rafi Peretz of the Jewish Home (Bayit Yehudi) group within the Yamina alliance. Otzma is again running separately, and no poll that I have seen has put it anywhere near the  threshold.

Yisrael Beiteinu is still claiming not to be willing to go back into the right-wing/Haredi bloc, and without their seats, there probably is still no majority for the right. YB leader Avigdor Liberman is also again saying that his backing a minority government with support from the Joint List (of predominantly Arab parties) is also out of the question.

Then there is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ongoing legal problems–this time an actual trial set to begin on 17 March. The Attorney General and Supreme Court may have to rule on a question that they have so far dodged–can a leader on trial form a new government? I can’t claim to know, but the Basic Law on Government certainly does not say clearly that he could not. (Logically one might think he could not!)

If he were to be ruled ineligible, then a unity government (Likud and Blue and White) probably would form. But it would be very messy, to say the least, if it was the legal system that ultimately forced Netanyahu out.

The lists of Likud and Blue & White are not much different from September, but one potentially significant change is Gadi Yevarkan, a representative of the Ethiopian community. He was at #33 on the list of Blue & White in September, making him the list’s last winner. For this list he jumped to Likud, and with the 20th slot on the list, he is a sure winner.

As far as the polls are concerned, most of them showed Blue and White ahead until recent weeks, when Likud has pulled ahead. Quite a few polls have shown them tied, lately around 33 or 34 seats. More importantly, none that I know of has shown the current governing bloc at 61 seats, the number needed for a majority government. (This refers to the bloc without YB, which has shown no willingness to rejoin since walking out of the government in late 2018.)

The last polls to show Blue and White with a lead seem to have been published around 21 February. I will use one example to compare to the late-campaign averages. The Panels poll conducted on 19 February showed B&W on 36 seats and Likud on 32. This was one of the worst results for the right/Haredi bloc, showing it with 54 seats (it won 55 in September). It had YB on 8 seats (same as in September). The average of the last seven polls shows Likud at 34 and B&W at 33, with YB at 6. More importantly, this average has the right/Haredi bloc on 58. The Labor-Gesher-Meretz list has increased from 8 seats in that Panels poll of 21 Feb. to 9 in the late average. Overall, this suggests there has been some movement from B&W + Labor-led (44 then, 42 now) to the right. Of course, all such differences are within the polls’ margin of error. In any case, the main conclusion is that, if the polls are roughly accurate, there is still no majority for Netanyahu’s coalition. There is, of course, also no alternative majority that is viable without Likud or some part of that bloc, because B&W is not going to govern with the Joint List, and that (with Labor+) would still not be a majority without YB. So we are stuck, again.

Finally, on the Joint List, it is currently at 14 in the late-polls average, which would represent a one-seat gain on the last election. If it gets 14, it will elect three women; if it were to get 15, it would elect four (two are in safe seats). The parties in this alliance are trying to reach Bedouin voters and others who have not supported it in the previous elections. As always, it has to overcome calls by some in its community to boycott. If there is widespread abstention by Arab citizens, it will help the Likud and allies, though it still seems that the latter getting to 61 would be a stretch, unless the result diverges considerably from the consensus of the polls.

Oh, and really finally, it is my wish that the media stop calling this a “third round” of elections. Both the April and September elections of 2019 were fully complete, legitimate elections that produced a Knesset. The parties elected at those times simply failed to agree a government. This isn’t another round of one process, but a third discrete attempt to elect a Knesset that actually can sustain a government.

Attorneys General–institutions matter

Now that indictments have been announced against the (outgoing–dare I say?) Prime Minister of Israel, it is worth reviewing the institutional basis of the office of Attorney General in Israel.

I am seeing some casual takes on Twitter about why the US doesn’t have an Attorney General who takes a tougher line against law-breaking at the top of government. But the offices could hardly be more different. The US Attorney General is a cabinet appointee. The President picks who holds that position, subject only to Senate majority confirmation. Of course, Trump has had a highly compliant Senate majority throughout his presidency.

Trump could not have had occupants of the office that have been as awful for the rule of law as they have been, if the office were structured like Israel’s. So it is worth sketching how the process of appointing the Israeli Attorney General works. My source for this is Aviad Bakshi, Legal Advisers and the Government: Analysis and Recommendations, Kohelet Policy Forum, Policy Paper No. 10, February 2016.

a. There shall be formed a permanent selection committee that shall screen suitable candidates, one of which shall be appointed to the position by the government. The term of each committee shall be four years. 

b. The chairman shall be a retired justice of the Supreme Court who shall be appointed by the President (Chief Justice) of the Supreme Court upon the approval of the Minister of Justice, and the other members shall be: a retired Minister of Justice or retired Attorney General appointed by the government; a Knesset Member elected by the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee of the Knesset; a scholar elected by a forum comprising deans of law schools; an attorney elected by the Israel Bar Association. 

c. The AGI term duration shall be six years, with no extension, irrespective of the term of the government. 

d. The government may remove the AGI from his position due to specific reasons.… These reasons include, in addition to personal circumstances of the AGI, disagreements between the AGI and the government that prevent efficient cooperation. In such an event the selection committee shall convene to discuss the subject and shall submit its opinion to the government, in writing. However, the opinion of the committee is not binding, and the government may decide to remove the AGI contrary to the recommendation of the committee. The AGI shall have the right to a hearing before the government and before the committee. 

All of this makes for a reasonably independent office. Even if appointment and dismissal are still in the hands of the government, the screening and term provisions make it an arms-length relationship. The occupant of the post is obviously not a cabinet minister, as in the US, and is not a direct appointee of the head of government or the cabinet.

Worlds apart, institutionally.

And this is even before we get into the parliamentary vs. presidential distinction. A president is–for better or worse–meant to be hard to indict, let alone remove. That’s why the main tool against a potentially criminal executive in the US and many other presidential systems is lodged in the congress, through impeachment, and not in a state attorney. A prime minister in a parliamentary system, on the other hand, by definition has no presumption of a fixed term.

The normal way to get rid of a PM is, of course, a vote of no-confidence or the PM’s own party or coalition partners withdrawing support. But that’s the point–they are constitutionally not protected when the political winds, let alone the legals ones, turn against them.

In the broader institutional context of a parliamentary system, it is presumably much easier to take the step of also designing an independent Attorney General’s office that has the ability to indict a sitting head of government.

On the other hand, there is still no obvious way to remove Netanyahu from office any time soon, unless his own party rebels against him. Even though Trump’s own party will probably block the super-majority in the Senate needed to remove him from office*, the resolution of the case against Trump might happen considerably sooner than any resolution of Netanyahu’s case. Barring a rebellion by his current allies, Netanyahu may remain PM fore another 4-5 months, through a now-likely third election (since last April) and the post-election coalition bargaining process.

* Assuming the House majority impeaches him, which now looks all but inevitable.

What kind of government for Israel, or third election?

(Some questions at the end about comparative context. Help, please!)

This Wednesday night, Benny Gantz’s period as designated formateur expires. His odds of successfully forming a government look bleak. Nothing has changed to make it any easier than when I last wrote on the topic of government-formation options. And at least one thing has changed to make it harder. It is important to understand that a third election (April 2019, Sept. 2019, and potentially March 2020) is the default if no agreement is reached. There is actually a 21-day period after Gantz’s mandate expires before the election becomes automatic, but there’s scant reason to believe the next 21 days would result in an agreement. (During this 21-day period, it requires 61 Knesset members’ signatures to nominate a PM. Fat chance.)

The change that makes forming a government harder than it was in April or even immediately after the September election is that the bloc that incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud) prefers has held tenaciously together. This is the combine of Likud, the two ultra-orthodox lists, and the nationalists that formed the government up until the April election. This bloc lost seats in April, relative to the 2015 election, and lost quite a few more in September. It was a majority when Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu was with it, but he pulled out in December, 2018, and has so far adamantly refused to rejoin it from April till now.

However, all the other party leaders in the bloc have steadfastly said that Netanyahu negotiates for all of them. This has foreclosed, so far, any of the rumored defections whereby some party in the bloc would join Gantz and Liberman to help establish a majority coalition without Likud. In fact, one of the member parties of the bloc actually folded itself into Likud, with Naftali Bennet getting the post of Defense Minister in the deal. This move does not change the fact that the bloc has only 55 seats, six short of the minimum needed for a majority government. But it closed off one potential, if unlikely, path that might have led to a breaking of the deadlock.

It seems that the idea of a minority government of Blue and White (the list Gantz heads), which would have to have the support of both Yisrael Beiteinu and the Joint [Arab] List, is actually being taken semi-seriously. It still seems unlikely, but Gantz just might go for it if late talks with Netanyahu do not produce an agreement. The best evidence that it is being taken seriously is that Netanyahu has gone verbally ballistic–even by his standards–over the possibility. And while the idea has not been endorsed by Gantz, he has not denied it, either. A government needs only a plurality of Knesset votes to be installed. In other words, abstentions do not count against it.

Still, even though the Joint List would not have cabinet positions in such a case (and thus would not be “in government”), the prospect is fraught with difficulty. Not, I would stress, because the parties are Arab, per se. But because they potentially can be classified as anti-system parties, or as a semi-loyal opposition. Parties that do not accept the fundamental character of the state rarely get any kind of formalized role in backing a minority government in any democracy. (I invite examples, but I can’t think of any.) And it would probably need to be formalized–in a “confidence and supply” agreement–because of one of the ways a government can collapse and early elections be mandated: If a government can’t get supply (i.e., pass a budget). If such an arrangement could be agreed, then a minority government can be stable. It takes 61 votes–a majority–in a constructive no-confidence vote electing a replacement government in order to remove an incumbent cabinet. But the problem is getting it installed and with a supply lifeline in place.

As has been the case since April, the most logical outcome is a “unity” government. But Gantz ran on replacing Netanyahu (policy differences are scant) and he and, even more forcefully, his co-leaders have claimed they will not serve under Netanyahu. Meanwhile, the incumbent is claiming a right to go first as PM in a rotation deal. It would be a little odd to give the priority to the one who came second in votes, though his bloc is indeed the larger one. That bloc again… Netanyahu also wants all the partners to be included, which implies Blue and White would be just an appendage to a right-wing government. B&W got lots of votes from leftist voters, despite what we would normally call a center-right party positioning. So Gantz’s lack of enthusiasm is understandable.

Of course, Netanyahu wants to go first because he still may be indicted at some point in the near future. His time horizon is a bit short! B&W might need to insist on a legal change that would ensure Netanyahu would step down if indicted, but one can imagine this is going to be a hard pledge to extract.

Another possibility not to be ruled out is Liberman going back to the right-wing bloc. He has dug in hard enough that I actually don’t think this is likely. But if he gets compromises he can sell to his voters, he might do it. He does not exactly have a record of being the most consistent politician.

A third election might not change much. The five polls so far since the last election have not shown much movement of voter support. What movement they have shown has been somewhat downward for the Bibi Bloc in the three most recent polls. It may be relevant here that only the first of these polls showed Liberman’s party losing ground, and the two most recent ones show him gaining one. (The second and fifth polls in the sequence are by the same pollster.)

Will there be a deal? Who knows!

Finally, this all leads me to some questions:

  1. In other parliamentary democracies, how common is it for parties that ran separately in an election to negotiate as a bloc (delegating the largest party thereof as negotiator for them all) after the election?
  2. How common is it for parties that could be classified as “anti-system” or “semi-loyal” to be the outside support parties to a minority cabinet?
  3. Are there any other cases of something that may yet happen here, in which the one designated as formateur agrees to be in a cabinet but not its (first) head?