Proposals for Israeli political reform–again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Notes

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

Israel’s stable coalition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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