The Illusion of Political Stability

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Prime Minister Netanyahu | Flash 90

The countdown has begun and the elections will be held on April 9, 2019. Once again political events have aroused a sense of the instability of the among the Israeli public. The razor thin majority of one vote, by the shrinking of the coalition to 61 Knesset members, together with the constant conflicts within the government, are clear indications that this is a challenging time. While stability in a democracy is not a value or goal in itself, a reasonable degree of stability is still necessary for government to function properly. Does Israel’s political system really suffer from chronic instability? The answer to this question is complex. It depends not only on how we interpret the word “stability,” but also on the indices that we use to assess it, the countries to which Israel is compared, as well as the relevant time frame.

For example, one might claim that Israel’s government is fairly stable compared to what other democracies have been experiencing over the past decade. The current Knesset was about to complete a four-year term. However, if we look at the past twenty years, we see that the frequency of elections in Israel is very high on the average, second only to Greece.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be completing a consecutive ten-year term at the end of March 2019. Among leaders of parliamentary democracies, Netanyahu has held his post for the longest consecutive period, with the exception of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Indeed, Netanyahu’s long term as prime minister has had an impact on Israel’s ranking on the scale of prime ministers’ average terms of office, pulling it up to a middle position in comparison with other democracies.

That said, we should not allow Netanyahu’s long consecutive term mislead us. When we look closely at the terms of service of cabinet ministers, things look far less stable. Since the current government took office (May 2015) there have been three Ministers of Defense and four Ministers of the Economy. Moreover, in half of the government offices the minister have been replaced at least once during that time — and that is without taking into account the coming reshuffle, expected shortly. The current Minister of Education is among those who haven’t been replaced, but a longer-term perspective of the past twenty years, reveals that education ministers’ terms have been fairly brief — just above two years on average. The high turnover in the government ministries creates a situation in which ministers do not have enough time to gain experience and professionalism in the area for which they are responsible, nor can they formulate long-term policy.

In conclusion, even though the current government has ruled slightly less than the mandatory four years and the prime minister is about to complete a ten-year term, the image of stability is somewhat misleading. Even if governments have an impressive capacity to survive, from an internal perspective they suffer from a lack of “industrial peace” — vital to the functioning of an effective government. This is reflected in The Economist’s Functioning of Government Index for 2017, in which Israel placed among the lower-ranking democracies, with a middling score of 7.5.

The data is based on the assumption that the next Knesset elections will take place in April 2019 and takes into account the special prime ministerial elections that were held in 2001. If we remove these elections from the equation, Israel’s average increases to 3.3 years. 

The article was published in the Times of Israel.