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?