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.

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* 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.

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.

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?

Seats by bloc: Israel 2015 vs. 2013

An important lesson from this week’s Israeli election: in complex multi-bloc political systems, the government that forms really is at least as much about the inter-party bargaining between elections as it is about the elections themselves.

Yesterday I noted the (small) changes in votes for the right, Here I will look at all the blocs. Note: blocs, plural–point being, there is no single left or center-left bloc to oppose the right or replace it as government. Caution: the 2015 results are not yet official.

Labor won 15 seats in 2013, and Tzipi Livni’s HaTnuah won 6. The blended list of these two forces (branded Zionist Union) is at 24 in the preliminary results of this election. [some correction of sloppy writing since original posting]

By contrast, the main parties of the right, Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu, and Bayit Yehudi, appear to have won 44 seats in this election. They won 43 in 2013 (when the first two of these had a blended list).

Yes, that is a net gain of 3 for the center-left and a net gain of 1 for the right. Such a landslide for Bibi!

We should add Meretz to the left bloc; this party won 6 seats in 2013 and looks to have 5 in 2015. So that would bring the net gain to this larger definition of the left down to 2.

The ultra-orthodox (Haredi) parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, combine for 13 seats. That is a fairly substantial drop from 18 in 2013.

The Joint List of Arab parties and the Jewish-Arab party, Hadash, is currently on 13 seats, whereas the three separate lists presented by this bloc (if we can even call it that, other than for threshold-clearing purposes this time) won 11 in 2013.

And then there is the assemblage of centrist parties (not counting Linvi’s, which we already accounted for): Yesh Atid, Kadima, and Kulanu. These parties combined for 21 seats (19 of them for Yesh Atid) in 2013. They also have 21 in this election, with Kadmia no longer in existence and Kulanu new to the scene.

Toting things up by bloc, from winners to losers:

    Arab +2
    Left +2
    Right +1
    Center +/- 0
    Haredi -5

Not much change, but the smallest gainer and biggest loser have enough to form a government, when combined with the centrist (or soft right) Kulanu.

The real difference in government outcomes will be less the voting patterns having shifted than shifts since 2013 in inter-party relations. In 2013, the election outcome would have allowed a right-Haredi coalition with the absolute bare majority of seats, 61. For various reasons, Likud leader and PM Benjamin Netanyahu preferred to bring into the coalition the election’s biggest seat gainer, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (who had 19 seats). Lapid and Naftali Bennet, leader of Bayit Yehudi, however, jointly thwarted the inclusion of the Haredi parties, having both campaigned (for their own reasons) in favor of “equalizing the burden” (ending military exemptions for the ultra-orthodox). Netanyahu never wanted this coalition, and seized upon various (largely manufactured) policy disagreements in late 2014 to un-do the government and force an early election. And now he can form a coalition with his natural partners, and with a likely more pliant centrist force in Kulanu. This latter party is headed by a former Likud minister and includes a former ambassador to the US (who served under Netanyahu).

Bottom line: There is no big shift to the right whatsoever in this election. But, with Shas and UTJ replacing Lapid and Livni, there will be a shift in both a right and religiously Orthodox direction to the governing coalition.

Political party controllers: The case of Likud

How many political parties are organized to have an internal controller with authority to sanction the party leader? I do not think I have heard of such a case before. The controller* for the Likud Party has disqualified incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from the party’s leadership primary in advance of the snap election (set for March, 2015). The disqualification is due to allegations of misuse of party funds and other resources.

There is dispute about whether, in fact, the Likud controller can do this. The case itself is interesting, and could even add to the woes that suggest that Netanyahu could be “finished“. But the general question is of even more interest: do other parties have such powerful internal checks? (Powerful, that is, if this disqualification is not overturned on procedural grounds.)

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* Yes, the article refers to the “comptroller”, but as far as I know the correct pronunciation is always “controller” and so it should be spelled.

The ways a cabinet can be terminated

There is a literature in political science on government (cabinet) termination in parliamentary democracies. This is not a review of that literature. Rather, it is an accounting of three recent cases that illustrate different ways that a government in a parliamentary democracy can end.

We can have a party based on an electoral majority that seeks a fresh mandate. That is, a party–or bloc of parties running together in the election– that has won a majority of seats, but, for strategic reasons, decides to hold an early election. Exhibit: Japan. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (Liberal Democratic Party) announced a snap election on 18 November, despite about two years remaining on the term and a comfortable majority won in the 2012 election. The election will be 14 December.

We can have a coalition government, formed by bargaining among multiple parties after an election, which holds a majority of seats. The parties might have a falling out over one or more policy issues, and the parties break up the government rather than resolve their differences within it. Exhibit: Israel. On 2 December, Prme Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired two ministers, each of whom heads a party that was in his coalition: Finance Minister Yair Lapid (of the Yesh Atid party) and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (of HaTnua). The firing, which meant the breakup of the coalition, followed weeks of rancor over the budget and a bill backed particularly by another coalition partner, the Jewish Home party, that critics (including the ceremonial president) said would elevate the state’s Jewish character over its democratic character. New elections will be 17 March.

We can have a minority cabinet, in which the party or parties holding ministerial positions do not hold a majority of parliamentary seats, with no available backing from among the non-governmental parties in parliament, and which fails to get the support needed to pass its budget. Exhibit: Sweden. On 3 December, the minority center-left government of Prime Minister Stefan Lofven lost a budget vote, 153-182, and announced there would be a snap election. The wild card here was the Sweden Democrats, a far-right or “populist” party that neither Lofven nor the center-right opposition wanted to be seen to deal with following elections that were held less than three months ago. When the center-right would not back the budget, the government effectively lost its right to continue governing. A new election is expected to be set for 22 March.

One could say that these were listed not only in chronological order, but in reverse order of “necessity”. There was no reason why Japan needed an early election–its government has a solid majority. The Israeli election call is also not exactly necessary–the parties whose leaders Netanyahu fired were not in anything like open rebellion even if they were in policy disagreement (which is, after all, natural in coalitions). It was, however, a coalition that the PM himself clearly never wanted, and was forced upon him by the election results in early 2013 and the bargaining stances of other parties (specifically, Yesh Atid and Jewish Home). Polls show the potential of a much stronger right-wing bloc in a new election. So, it is an opportunistic call, but arguably less unnecessary than Japan’s. The Swedish situation, on the other hand, is one of real deadlock.

Of all these countries, the one that has the lowest tendency towards early elections is Sweden, even though minority governments are quite common there. Usually, however, they have had a fairly reliable “outside” party to back them on budgets or other confidence matters. Israel has frequent early elections–although this one will be earlier than any in years–and usually has oversized governments (meaning containing more parties than actually needed to have a parliamentary majority–such as the just-collapsed one). Japan usually has electoral-majority governments, but has had many early elections, including the famous one of 2005, also called by a government that had a secure election-based majority, but wanted (and got) a bigger one to push through reforms blocked by intra-party resistance.

All these great examples of early elections in parliamentary systems, and it wasn’t even my teaching quarter for any of my comparative democracy courses.