The Case for a Minority Government to End the Deadlock in Israel?

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Assaf Shapira argues that if the choice is between a minority government and another round of elections, the former is the better option.

Gantz, Netanyahu

Benny Gantz, Benjamin Netanyahu | Flash 90

Israel is in a political quagmire. After two general elections the two largest factions in the Knesset, Likud and Blue-White, are finding it difficult to assemble (separately or in partnership) a government that enjoys the support of a Knesset majority – that is, at least 61 of its 120 members. This situation has placed a different option at the centre of the political conversation in Israel: forming a minority government, meaning one based on a coalition that does not hold a majority of the seats in the Knesset.

But is this even possible? The answer is yes, under certain conditions. Most minority governments in democracies around the world rely on the ‘outside support’ of one or more parties. A party that is not part of the governing coalition nevertheless provides regular support to the government, on the basis of an agreement with the ruling party, to guarantee it a parliamentary majority on crucial votes in return for various benefits (often called a ‘confidence-and-supply’ agreement).

One example of such an arrangement is the minority government set up in the United Kingdom after the last elections: the Conservative Party and the Democratic Unionist Party signed an official and public accord whereby the latter agrees to support the government. A ‘pure’ minority government in which there is no such agreement among the parties is much rarer but can still exist. That was the case, for instance, in Canada with the ruling Conservative government during 2006–2008.

The odds on a pure minority government being established in Israel would normally be slim. This is due to a provision in the Basic Law: The Government that requires the Knesset to express its confidence in a new government in what is known as an ‘investiture vote.’ Such a vote requires only a simple majority of those actually voting – i.e. more Knesset members vote in favour of the new government than vote against it. As a result a minority government has to receive the support of outside parties in order to take power.

On the other hand, at least in theory there are scenarios in which a minority Israeli government reliant on outside support could win an investiture vote. The possibility that comes up most often is a centrist government headed by Blue-White and including Labour-Gesher and Yisrael Beitenu—47 Members of Knesset (MKs) all told – supported by the left-wing Democratic Union (led by Meretz) and the Joint (Arab) List with their 18 combined MKs.

Democratic Union and the Joint List are unlikely to formally join such a coalition because of their profound differences with some of its component parties, especially the right-wing Yisrael Beitenu. But they would support the government in votes of confidence in order to ensure Blue-White’s Benny Gantz is Prime Minister instead of Benjamin Netanyahu. In such a scenario the government would be sworn in (i.e. win the investiture vote) with the support of 65 MKs.

To be clear, there is no precedent in Israeli history and politics for such a development. No minority government has ever been seated immediately after a Knesset election. The only minority governments to have ruled in the past were the result of factions seceding from the ruling coalition in mid-term. Yitzhak Rabin’s second government in the 1990s remained in power as a minority government for more than two years. Established in 1992 with the participation of Labour, Meretz, and Shas—62 MKs—it became a minority government resting on only 56 MKs after Shas seceded in September 1993 after the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords. Nevertheless, the government was able to hang on until Rabin was assassinated in November 1995 precisely thanks to the outside support of the Arab parties. The next government, too, headed by Shimon Peres, was a minority government supported by the Arab parties.

Another obstacle, moreover, is that many Israelis feel that a minority government is somehow not ‘legitimate’. This reflects the Israeli political tradition of ‘inclusion’, which predates the State and strives for the formation of the broadest possible (Jewish) coalition as a way to integrate different sectors of society. More perniciously, it also reflects a concept of democracy that only majority decisions are legitimate. Specifically, many Israeli Jews (to my great distress) do not consider the Arab-Israeli citizenry to be legitimate partners in government. Consequently, a minority government relying on the outside support of the Arab factions would have to defend itself from the start against harsh charges of illegitimacy.

It is not clear, however, that the Israeli aversion to minority governments is at all justified.

Even though most governments in the democratic world are majority governments, the minority route is much more common than people imagine. Staffan Andersson, Torbjörn Bergman, and Svante Ersson studied the governments of 29 European democracies from 1945 to 2010 and found that about a third were minority governments. In some countries, in fact, most of the governments during this period had only a minority in parliament: Denmark (89 per cent), Spain (73 per cent), Sweden (72 per cent), Romania (65 per cent) and Norway (63 per cent).

Going further, minority governments have now become common in countries where they were formerly quite rare, due in part to the growing number and strength of radical factions – like far-right parties – that are more likely to support a government from the outside rather than join the coalition (since the moderate/ruling parties often see them as ‘pariahs’). A prime example is the minority government that ruled Denmark from 2016 to this year, which depended on the outside support of the far-right Danish People’s Party.

Some may argue that minority governments are inherently less stable arrangements, and are more easily toppled, given that they do not enjoy a solid parliamentary majority. Yet there are significant differences in the staying power of various majority and minority governments, and it cannot be stated unequivocally that a minority government in Israel, if formed for the first time after an election, would be less stable than its predecessors. After all, Israeli governments over the years have not been known for their outstanding stability, and the dominant model of majority government in Israel—in which a coalition enjoys the support of more factions than are needed for a Knesset majority—is generally considered to be subject to political ‘blackmail’ and extortion regardless. It is also important to note that toppling a sitting government in Israel requires a “constructive” no confidence vote, meaning not only a majority is needed but also an agreed upon alternative government and prime minister.

Most scholars believe that minority governments do not necessarily function less effectively than majority governments, especially if they rely on the ongoing and stable support of parties whose ideology is similar to that of the ruling party. Some even argue that a minority government can outperform a majority government. On the one hand, such a government generally has a guaranteed parliamentary majority, almost on par with majority governments (with the added flexibility, in theory, of building ad hoc coalitions for individual votes). And on the other hand, the government itself has fewer ministers and ministries, saving state funds and streamlining its work.

In addition, minority governments have the potential to enhance the representation of previously excluded groups and ‘pariah’ parties. Because the government has to win outside support, it would need to gain the backing of these factions, on a regular or ad hoc basis, in return of course for various material benefits (such as budget allocations) and the potential improvement of the ‘pariah’s’ overall public image. In fact, many historians and commentators consider the Rabin government of the 1990s, which for most of its tenure was a minority government that depended on the outside support of the Arab factions, to have been the best ever for the Arab-Israeli sector.

Should we conclude, then, that a minority government is the ideal option currently facing Israeli politics? Not necessarily. Even though such a government could function just as well as a majority government, it is not certain that it would enjoy great public legitimacy, which is an important component in any democratic system. More to the point, the likely minority government option being floated today, especially one supported by both Yisrael Beitenu and the Joint List, would be too broad and heterogeneous to function well over time. Yet if the choice is between such a minority government and another round of elections, the former may well be the better option.

The article was published in Fathom