A Minority Government in Israel?

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Avigdor Liberman’s remarks over the weekend revived the discussions about the option of a minority government. More specifically, the talk is of a minority government led by Blue White, with the participation of Yisrael Beitenu and Labor-Gesher, and perhaps the Democratic Union, and with the support from the outside of the Joint List. But we can imagine other minority government recipes.

It would be a first in Israeli history. No minority government has every been established immediately after Knesset elections. There have been several minority governments over the years, but they all resulted from the desertion of coalition factions mid-term. Yitzhak Rabin’s second government is the prime example. After Shas jumped ship in September 1993, it continued in office as a minority government resting on only the 56 MKs of Labor and Meretz and survived thanks to the outside support of the Arab parties.

Another point is that many Israelis feel that a minority government is somehow incompatible with democracy. This reflects the Israeli political tradition, which calls for the formation of the broadest possible coalition (exclusively of Jewish parties, of course), as well as a conception of democracy in which only majority decisions are legitimate. Specifically, many Israeli Jews do not consider the Arabs to be legitimate partners in government and consequently reject the formation of a minority government that relies on the support of the Arab factions.

It is not clear, however, that the Israeli aversion to minority governments is justified. Since the Second World War, about a third of the governments of European democracies have lacked a parliamentary majority. In some countries—Denmark, Spain, Sweden, Romania, and Norway—most of the governments were of this type. They were based on the “outside support” of one or more parties that were not part of the coalition, but reached an agreement with the ruling party to guarantee it a majority in parliament in return for various benefits. An example is the minority government set up in Great Britain after the last elections there: the Conservative Party and the Democratic Unionist Party signed an official and public accord whereby the latter agreed to support the government. A “pure” minority government, in which there is no such agreement among parties, is much rarer, but can exist. That is the common model in Canada, for instance.

What about the performance of minority governments? Contrary to popular belief, they do not necessarily function worse than majority governments, especially if they enjoy the regular support of parties with an ideology close to that of the ruling party. On the one hand, they generally have a guaranteed parliamentary majority, almost on a par with majority governments, and are accordingly able to implement their policies—just as Rabin’s minority government won approval for and implemented the Oslo Accords. On the other hand, the government itself has fewer ministers and fewer ministries, which offers major savings and can streamline its work. In addition, minority governments have the potential to enhance the representation of excluded groups. Because the government has to win outside support, it may try to gain the support of the factions that represent those sectors, on a regular or ad hoc basis—in return, of course, for various material benefits. In fact, many 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 among the best ever for the Arab sector.

So should we conclude that a minority government is the best option available to us today? Not necessarily. Even though such a government could function just as well as a majority government, it is not certain that it would enjoy strong public legitimacy. In addition, most of the minority government options being floated today, especially for one supported both by Yisrael Beitenu and the Joint List, would be too broad and heterogeneous to function well over time. On the other hand, if the choice is between a minority government and another round of elections, it is certainly possible that the former is preferable.