IDI Researcher Dr. Ofer Kenig outlines the Israeli government elected in 2009, and explains why this particular five-party coalition may not succeed. He focuses on the following problems: parties with disparate ideologies, a situation where the ruling party is the minority position, and the risk of partners deserting the coalition. The article concludes with a discussion of the composition of this particular government. For an overview of the 33rd government of Israel, elected in 2013, click here.
The Make Up of the Coalition and its Internal Balance of Power
Israel's 32nd government, also known as "the Second Netanyahu Government", a name that distinguishes it from the "First Netanyahu Government", in office between 1996–1999, was sworn into office on March 31st. Forty-nine days elapsed between Election Day and the swearing-in ceremony—a relatively long period of time compared with other Israeli governments in the past decade. However this scenario is not terribly unusual.
The new government is based on a coalition of five parties, who together hold 69 seats in the 18th Knesset: Likud (27), Yisrael Beiteinu (15), Labor (13), Shas (11) and Habayit Hayehudi (3). If an agreement with United Torah Judaism is reached, the coalition may soon grow to include five additional Knesset members.
Israel's electoral system and its diverse and divided society have led to a multi-party political structure. Each of the 18 Knessets since the country's founding has comprised at least ten parties, and no single party has ever achieved a parliamentary majority alone. Consequently, all the Israeli governments have been coalition governments.
In this respect, the new government is no different from its predecessors. As previously stated, it relies on a coalition of five parties, which hold 69 Knesset seats. This is apparently a stable majority—some Israeli governments have been based on significantly smaller majorities. However, a closer look reveals several points, which do not bode well for the new government's stability and capacity to survive in the long run.
- First, the government is based to a large extent on a forced and unnatural partnership between its members. In other words, it includes parties with very disparate ideologies. There is a wide gap between Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas and Habayit Hayehudi concerning the issue of "religion and State", and there are major disagreements with regard to geopolitical policies between Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu—two hawkish parties—and the Labor party, which has a more dovish tradition.
- Second, the Likud—which will serve as the ruling party—is a minority in the coalition. This fact has far-reaching ramifications that could limit the Prime Minister's ability to maneuver and to implement policy. When the party of the Prime Minister is a minority in the government, the constraints of the coalition are substantially greater because the other parties in the coalition enjoy considerable bargaining power. History has shown that it is very difficult to maintain a coalition under these circumstances, and those governments with weak ruling parties are more vulnerable and less stable. A situation in which the ruling party is in a minority position in the coalition and in the cabinet is a relatively new phenomenon in Israel's political history.
Figure 1 indicates that until the last decade, the governing parties generally enjoyed a solid majority in their coalitions. The unity governments that were formed following the elections of 1969, 1984, and 1988 were exceptional in this respect. However, since the onset of the striking phenomenon of the collapse of the large parties in the second half of the 1990s, the ruling parties have held a minority position in the coalitions that they have lead. Only one (the second Sharon government) of the six governments to rule since 1996 was led by a party with a majority in the coalition.
Figure 1: Strength of Ruling Parties in Israel's 12 Government
|One Israel (26)
- A weak ruling party and a multiplicity of coalition partners can potentially undermine the coalition's stability due to the risk of the departure of one or more partners. It would be enough for either Yisrael Beiteinu, Labor or Shas to quit the current government for it to lose its parliamentary majority. Thus, each of these parties maintains a strong bargaining position vis à vis Netanyahu and the Likud. That is why Netanyahu is investing a great deal of resources to also bring United Torah Judaism into the coalition. The addition of five seats would create a situation in which the quitting of the Labor Party would not bring down the government.
Size of the Government (Number of Ministers)
A weak ruling party has another consequence, which is reflected in the size of the government. There is a clear link between the strength of the ruling party and the number of government ministers. When the governing party has a large number of seats in the Knesset and a solid majority in the coalition, the government tends to be smaller. Israel's first governments comprised approximately 15 ministers. The second Rabin government (1992–1995) appointed 17 ministers. However, when the ruling party holds only a few Knesset seats and is a minority in the coalition, the government tends to expand. When Ehud Barak was elected Prime Minister in 1999, his party, One Israel, received only 26 seats in the Knesset, and he was compelled to form a government that included seven parties and 24 ministers. Two years later, when Ariel Sharon was elected Prime Minister, the Likud had only 19 seats—only about one-quarter of the coalition. In order to obtain a parliamentary majority, Sharon was obliged to include many parties in the coalition and to appoint 30 government ministers. In the 2003 elections, when the Likud received 38 seats in the Knesset and held a majority in the coalition, Sharon could afford to form a smaller government of only 23 ministers. The 32nd government has 30 ministers, and together with the first Sharon government, it holds the title of the largest government in Israeli history.
Such a large number of ministers are unusual in Western Democracies. In the United States, for example, 20 officials were appointed to the presidential cabinet. The Irish constitution limits the number to 15. Today, Netherlands has 16 ministers and Spain has 18. Canada, however, has 38 ministers. The fact that the Knesset numbers only 120 members and almost all the ministers and assistant ministers are members of the Knesset is also significant since larger governments mean that less Knesset members are available to perform the important task of legislation. The result is that the Knesset members simultaneously sit on several parliamentary committees, which leads to work overloads and, very often, to a low attendance of the committee members.
The new government consists mainly of well-known and experienced politicians, including two ex-Prime Ministers. This is the first term in office for one-third of the ministers. For a complete list of the government ministers, see the Website, "Elections and Parties" (Hebrew).
Following the recent election, a record number of women joined the Knesset ranks. There are 21 female members in the 18th Knesset. But despite impressive progress in parliamentary representation, the number of women in the government remains small. Only 12 of the 216 ministers in the history of Israeli governments were women—less than 6%. The new government is no exception. There are only two female ministers: Limor Livnat (Likud), and Sofa Landver (Yisrael Beiteinu). The former government, in comparison, included three women; two held the key positions of Foreign Minister and Minister of Education. Landver and Livnat hold junior positions in the new government.
Between the founding of the State and 2006, the average age of Israeli ministers was 53.6. The new government is older; the average age is 55.5. The oldest ministers are Ben Eliezer (73), Neeman (70) and Peled (68). The youngest are Stas Misezhnikov (40), Ariel Atias (38) and Gilad Erdan (38).
The previous government (the Olmert government) was ethnically balanced, with an equal number of Ashkenazi and Sephardic ministers. It was also the first government to include a Muslim-Arab minister. The new government is more homogenous: 22 of the 30 ministers are Ashkenazi and all the ministers are Jewish.
Political Background and Experience
Traditionally, and as is the norm in a parliamentary democracy, most of the ministers come from the political arena—the Knesset. Most have a political background, and most had acquired political experience before being appointed government ministers. Of the 30 ministers, only Yaakov Neeman was not a Knesset member at the time of his appointment although he had also served in Netanyahu's first government. One could say that the new government represents a balanced assembly of inexperienced and experienced members: 11 of the ministers will be serving in the government for the first time. The ministers have an average of over 9 years of parliamentary experience, and the most experienced are Ben Eliezer (25 years), Eitan (25 years) and Landau (22 years).
Figure 2: Minister Profile in the 32nd Government
(Years in Knesset)
|Number of Ministers
|Number of Women
|Number of Sephardim
The new government is maintaining many of the trends set by previous governments. It includes ministers from a large number of parties, and as in most governments in the past decade, the ruling party is in a minority position, which does not bode well for its stability in the future. It is the largest government in Israeli history (a title it shares with the first Sharon government), and the composition of the cabinet is similar than that of previous governments—almost all the ministers were Knesset members at the time of their appointment and very few are women.
Dr. Ofer Kenig is an IDI researcher who heads the Political Parties Research Team of IDI's Forum for Political Reform in Israel.