With just days before the last deadline on before the Knesset disperses and Israelis head to a third national election within the past twelve months the political Gordian Knot that has tied up the country for almost a year has only gotten more complicated. Complicating matters further is Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit's decision to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on one count of bribery and three charges of fraud and breach of trust. A perfect storm of electoral deadlock coupled with a prime minister enmeshed in complex legal problems has left Israelis feeling that the system is lacking the tools needed to extract us from this situation. On the other hand, the country continues to operate. Unlike the reality in the US during government shutdowns, schools are open, government workers are showing up and taxes are being collected.
But neither that seemingly unique political happenstance, nor the relative normalcy resulting from an effective bureaucracy, should lead people to think the health of Israel's political system is good. It is not. The current situation is not just the result of a fickle electorate and a prime minister under indictment who refuses to step down. It is also the result of systematic failures in the Israeli electoral system that must be righted if we are to hope to stabilize the system in the long run. This is especially true with mixed signal emitting about the state of Israel's economy and a Middle East that is more tumultuous, and dangerous, than it has been in decades.
A PM Under Indictment – The New Israeli Reality
Before wading into the various political scenarios and possible short and long-term solution, we must first recognize the spectacularly unique moment in time where Israel stands. Never before has an Israeli prime minister been indicted when in office, and never before has the head of government refused to step aside once faced with such serious legal questions.
There is a concern that every decision that Prime Minister Benjamin now makes could be interpreted as being decided upon due to inappropriate motives. There is also the danger that this situation will lead to the Prime Minister, while serving in office, continuously castigating the country's institutions of law and order.
While there may be different interpretations of the law in regards to if and when the Prime Minister will need to step aside, there is no doubt that the head of government serving in office under the shadow of indictment harms the public's trust in the country's institutions and Israel's character as a Jewish and democratic state. Criticizing the Attorney General's decision is of course legitimate, but it is vital that all Israelis recall that our country is blessed with a legal system that enforces the law in a fair and equal manner on all of its citizens – the strong and weak alike. Public norms should demand that the Prime Minister resign from office and focus on proving his innocence.
Even before the Attorney Geneal's decision, the results of September's election left no one party holding the key to a homogeneous coalition. President Reuven Rivlin first granted the mandate to form a government to Benjamin Netanyahu who then subsequently failed to cobble together a coalition. Benny Gantz was then handed the mandate by the President and he too failed to form a government during the twenty-eight days allotted to him by law. The political deadlock has led to a situation in which there is a very slim possibility that a government can still be formed in this last block of time in which the law allows any member of Knesset to gather sixty-one signatures from his colleagues and receive a new mandate from the President. The more likely scenario, however, is that Israel is hurtling towards a third national election in just twelve short months.
The most natural constellation that could be formed to avoid a third election would seem to be what is referred to in Israel as a 'unity government.' This would be a government with Benny Gantz's Blue and White party and Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud and at its center and a number of smaller factions on the right and left perhaps joining in addition. In addition to this being the most likely scenario to actually lead to a government, it is also the most popular option for a coalition among Israelis, with 53% saying they support this outcome. In fact, 62% of Israelis have expressed a preference for the parties they voted for to sit in a government under Benny Gantz.
Two main roadblocks exist, however, keeping this popular option far from fruition.
The most difficult – and seemingly insurmountable – barrier is the question of who would serve first as prime minister in a unity government. On one hand, Netanyahu is insisting that he serves first in the Prime Minister's Office. The public reasoning given is that despite the indictment, a dry reading of the law allows him to remain in office and continuity in government is needed at this tumultuous point in time. The more likely reasoning is the fact that Netanyahu believes it is of utmost importance to his legal and public standing for him to arrive at his future trial as a sitting prime minister and not as merely a member of Knesset.
Conversely, Gantz and his allies are arguing that their party has received the most votes and therefor the Israeli people have voted for change. In addition, they believe that it would be inappropriate for a prime minister to undergo a public trial while serving in office. According to this logic, Gantz would need to serve first as premiere (for the first two years of the term) or, at the very least until Netanyahu stands trial and perhaps clears his name.
The second barrier standing in the way of a unity government is Blue and White's campaign promise to form a 'liberal' unity government with the Likud. This is widely interpreted to be a coalition that leaves out the ultra-Orthodox parties, or at the very least, allows them to join from a much weaker position than they are used to in past governments. The thinking behind the demand is that such a government would be well-equipped to solve the unresolved questions of religion and state and provide solutions that are popular among wide-swaths of the population but are an anathema to the ultra-Orthodox parties. This would include introducing the possibility of some easing the ultra-Orthodox monopoly on marriage, opening more business on Saturdays and implementing limited public transportation on Shabbat in communities that choose to do so. These are all policies that enjoy over 60% support among Jewish Israelis.
In response to this campaign promise from Blue and White, the Likud has deepened its decades-long partnership with the ultra-Orthodox and National Religious parties. Following September's election Netanyahu and the leaders of the smaller parties on right announced that they had formed a 'bloc of 55' that would make all decisions about joining a future government as one unit. With the ultra-Orthodox parties serving as an integral part of this bloc, it effectively thwarts the possibility of a government being formed to tackle issues of religion and state.
The final possible scenario is also very unpopular among the Israeli electorate, yet at the moment seems most likely to take place – a third round of elections in March 2020. If neither of the two large parties budge on the core issues of disagreement, then the clock will run out on December 11th on the current twenty-one days we are now in the midst of in which 61 members of Knesset can write a letter to the President announcing that they have chosen a candidate to form the government. This MK would then have 14 days to form his government. If no candidate receives enough signatures, or one does but is unable to then form a government, the country will head back to elections within 90 days.
Two wildcards again exist that can change all the calculations above. Firstly, if Liberman would renege on his campaign promises and statements he made again in recent days and instead rejoin the right-wing bloc that has been his political home for decades, Netanyahu would once again have a 63-member ruling coalition. Such a move seems unlikely at the moment, especially now that Liberman has indicated that he does not support immunity for Netanyahu. If, however, he would be promised serious concessions on questions of religion and state that he ran on he could theoretically – and unlikely – declare victory and rejoin Netanyahu. This deal would likely be sweetened by some sort of power-sharing arrangement that Liberman has long-craved.
Finally, it is still unclear what the political repercussions of Netanyahu's indictment will be. On the political front, there on some signs of unrest in Netanyahu's Likud with already one candidate – Gideon Sa'ar – demanding primaries to unseat the long-standing leader of the party. On the other hand, the Likud has a long history of not removing a sitting chair and, especially due to Netanyahu's popularity within in the party.
Long-Term Electoral Reforms
However this political Rubik's cube is eventually solved, it would be shortsighted to neglect the systematic illness permeating in the Israeli system. While 2019's political reality with a fickle electorate and a prime minister neck-deep in legal woes refusing to resign is unique, the problems with our electoral system have been known for to political science experts for a while. The silver lining in this whole situation may be that the Israeli public might finally be waking up and internalizing just how dangerous this instability can be for the country. Over the past twelve months it has watched its ineffective political leaders flay about while the Middle East becomes more dangerous than ever and the country's economic and social problems go ignored.
This is why leaders across the political spectrum including Benny Gantz and Avigdor Liberman have publicly voiced their support for common-sense reforms. Benjamin Netanyahu has long endorsed these changes as well saying in 2015 that "we are splitting into little parties, none of which can lead the state, and this problem is getting worse… This has cost us billions, not just in election costs but as a result of the economic uncertainty and the lack of governability.”
At IDI, we have formulated a relatively simple plan that could resolve many of these issues we have witnessed. First, instead of vying the for the president's favor the head of the party that wins the largest number of seats in the election should automatically be granted the mandate to form the government. This MK would then have 42 days to present a governing coalition of at least 61 members. This change would limit the ability of sectorial parties to politically blackmail the appointed prime minister, as the only real threat they could pose to the new government would be a so-called constructive vote of no confidence, where they persuade an absolute majority of the Knesset (61 members) to support an alternative candidate for prime minister.
An added benefit of this reform is that it would likely push Israel toward a parliament made up of two main political parties along with a much smaller number of satellite parties as voters would understand that they can directly affect who will be premiere by the party they vote for. Our polling has showed that there is a real desire for such a 2-bloc system in Israel.
Second, we can remove the parliamentary investiture (confidence) vote where, after the prime minister presents a coalition to the president, a majority of members must vote in the Knesset to begin the government’s new term. Instead, after the head of the largest party formed a coalition, the government would get right to work. At least nine European countries with parliamentary systems do not have votes of investiture; in their parliaments.
Finally, a situation like we saw in May when the Knesset voted to disperse itself just a month after the election is unacceptable. A democracy that seeks stability cannot allow repeat elections in such a short amount of time. This is why a third crucial element of reform is to raise the bar needed to disperse the Knesset to somewhere between 70 and 80 votes from the members of the Knesset. This would incentivize the sitting MKs to play the cards dealt to them and seek political resolutions within the confines of the results voted upon by the voters and not rush to spend millions of shekels on unnecessary additional elections.
Even for the country's unpredictable political history, the current situation is in a dire one for Israel. While politicians across the board seem to be seeking only to solidify their own personal political bases, now is the time for real leadership to step forward and resolve both the short-term political crisis and the long-term failures of the electoral system. It is possible to succeed, but it will take goodwill on all sides and a farsighted understanding of what is truly best for the country. The question remains – is our leadership up to the task?Share