A Unity Government to Deal with the Emergency?

| Written By:

Will the coronavirus crisis result in an unity government, which can, at least temporarily, resolve Israel's political deadlock?

Flash 90

The current reality goes way beyond our wildest imagination. The coronavirus pandemic has created a new and previously unknown world, but the political arena has not gone into isolation mode. Options that seemed inconceivable before the crisis have become perfectly reasonable in light of the situation. One of these is the formation of a unity government, a step that Prime Minister Netanyahu is enthusiastically pushing for, and which is usually put in place as a means for dealing with severe crises or political deadlock

To date, the COVID– 19 pandemic has not triggered the formation of a unity government in any country (although, as we will see, several countries have unity governments due to political circumstances). In Israel, however, after the third consecutive Knesset election in March 2020, the health emergency coincided with the political deadlock. The situation in Israel is significantly different from that of other countries. Immediately after the third straight election that failed to yield a clear– cut outcome, when the clock to form a new government started ticking, and now that the President has tapped Gantz to form a new government, the period stipulated by law to do so could put the political arena under serious pressure, mainly for the benefit of Netanyahu, given that if a government is not formed it will be impossible to hold new elections, as long as the coronavirus is raging.

Is a unity government a possible or desirable emergency solution today? The survey that follows sheds light on the precise meaning of a unity government; presents examples of such governments from Israel and the world, and analyzes s possible scenarios for forming such a government in Israel, in light of the political and health crises.

What is a Unity Government?

A unity government (many democracies use the term– “grand coalition”) is a special form of a coalition government, resting on a very broad parliamentary base. It includes at least the two main parties almost always the largest two), those that are perceived as the two alternatives for governing the country. 

Cooperation between the two main political forces, which in normal times are “sworn rivals”, is indeed unusual. But the history of established democracies has seen a number of prominent cases of unity governments. Two main factors trigger its establishment: a national emergency and a political deadlock.

A unity government as a response to a national emergency is based on consensus, formed in light of very severe military or economic crises. The crisis is an essential – but not sufficient stimulus for the establishment of such a government, since in and of itself; an unusual political situation is an important catalyst for parties’ willingness to sit in it. A unity government forges a basis of solidarity and gives the political system a breather, during which time it can make fateful decisions that fall within the national consensus. 

In other cases, unity governments are formed as a way out of an intractable political deadlock, following elections with indecisive results, or because the two main parties are unwilling to cooperate and grant legitimacy to radical factions. In this situation, the two parties see collaboration as the lesser of two evils.

The existence of a grand coalition in a parliamentary regime can have various implications for the political system. In such a situation, the government wields greater power, because it enjoys broad support in the parliament, where the opposition is shrunken and impotent. Such a situation neutralizes parliamentary responsibility. The executive branch, which can ignore the parliamentary debates and actions, sees the legislature as a rubber stamp. On the other hand, because the very existence of a wall– to– wall coalition reduces the need for strict coalition discipline, thus allowing its members to cooperate with members of the opposition in a way that would be impossible if the two sides were more evenly balanced. Another feature of a grand coalition is that while the parliamentary consensus provides a firm basis for extreme measures in response to a crisis, it is also liable to nearly paralyze the government, because disagreements between its partners on other matters of substance undermine the political system’s ability to take decisive action. 

Furthermore, the very existence of a grand coalition is incompatible with fundamental components of a democracy, such as competition, the freedom to choose between ideological and policy alternatives, the system of checks and balances between the executive and legislative branches, and the parties’ independent identities. 

Grand Coalitions around the World

During the Second World War, a number of European countries formed national coalitions in order to deal with the military crisis. The best known is Churchill’s war cabinet, which united almost all the leading political figures and enjoyed the support of the entire population. It was unique in that it was established in a country that had little experience of coalition governments. 

From 1945 to 1966, Austria was governed by a grand coalition composed of the two main parties, the center– right People’s Party (ÖVP) and the center– left Social Democrats (SPÖ) party. The driving force behind the coalition was s to rehabilitate the country after the devastation wrought by the Second World War. In 1987, a new grand coalition was formed in order to gain public legitimacy to unpopular economic and social measures, defined as essential. This coalition was renewed several times (most recently in 2007–2017), mainly in order to leave the extreme– right Freedom Party outside the government. 

In Germany, the first grand coalition, which ruled from 1966 to 1969, was created in order to restore public confidence in the country’s prosperity in the wake of the economic crisis that had dealt it a blow. It consisted of the two main parties, the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and the Social Democrats (SPD). Unity governments have been the common pattern in Germany since 2005—three of the four governments which served during that period were unity governments. The emerging power of extremist parties (the Left Party [Die Linke] and Alternative for Germany [AfD] on the right), which are not considered to be legitimate partners in a government, has forced the bitter rivals to collaborate, despite their serious disagreements on major issues.

In Ireland, coalition negotiations are currently under way. The February 2020 elections yielded major gains to Sinn Féin, which the moderate parties view as a radical group with which no political partnership is possible. The two mainstream parties, which have been at odds with each other since the Civil War of the 1920s, began negotiations to set up – for the first time ever– a coalition government, so that they could keep Sinn Féin out of office, as well as to exercise their “national responsibility” to deal with the coronavirus emergency.

In other democracies, the political culture and tradition rule out cooperation by rival parties in a unity government. Minority governments are the dominant pattern in those countries (Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Canada, Australia, and Spain).

National Unity Governments in Israel

Since gaining independence, Israel has had three classic national unity governments. In principle, they displayed a strong ability to lead in times of national crisis on the one hand, but were unable to do much about issues outside the national consensus. During the 1980s, it was the near dead– heat in the Knesset, rather than a national emergency, that gave birth to two unity governments. They were born not out of consensus, but rather because of the lack thereof. In the 1990s and today, the changes in the party constellation and the weakening of the large parties, have emptied the classic unity government as a coalition of two political alternatives, of any meaning. 

1. The National Unity Government of 1967

On the eve of the Six Day War, a National Unity Government was established to deal with what was perceived as an existential threat to Israel. It was more or less an ad hoc expansion of Levi Eshkol’s government, formed after the elections in 1965, with the addition of the Gahal and Rafi.parties. The unity format was continued after the elections in 1969, as a coalition government in every respect, until Gahal quit in the summer of 1970 in protest against Israel’s acceptance of the Rogers Plan. 

2. The National Unity Government of 1984 (the rotation government)

Another unity government was formed against the backdrop of the impasse in the Knesset after the 1984 elections. To make such a government viable, a number of ad hoc arrangements were adopted, such as a parity government in which both parties had veto power, and rotation in the premiership. This government’s outstanding achievement was putting an end to the runaway inflation and withdrawing the IDF from extensive areas in Lebanon, to a narrow security zone along the border.

3. The Unity Government after the 1988 Elections

This time, the unity government was seen as the “lesser of two evils”. Political radicalization, and especially the growing strength of the ultra– Orthodox parties, as reflected in the election results, triggered a wave of public support for another national unity government. Unlike its predecessor, it was not based on rotation in the premiership. It survived for only two years, falling as a result of the “Stinking Maneuver,” and was replaced by a narrow Likud– led government. 

4. The “Unity” Governments of the Current Century

The format of the direct election of the prime minister, along with demographic changes in the Israeli electorate, weakened the two main parties and altered the nature of the party system, to the point at which there were no longer two main rivals for power. This development stripped the “unity government” concept of any meaning. 

For this reason, not all agree to classify the Government established by Ariel Sharon in 2001 as a unity government. It did include what at the time were the two main parties, but they were shrunken and weak (the Likud held 19 Knesset seats, while One Israel had several more). In January 2005, the party composition of Sharon’s government changed, but it still rested on the two large parties at that time—the Likud and Labor. The main mission undertaken by this government (which also included United Torah Judaism), was to implement the Gaza Disengagement Plan.

The 31st government (headed by Ehud Olmert) and the 33rd government (the third Netanyahu government) were based on the two largest factions in the Knesset, but were not perceived as unity governments. In both cases, there was a great disparity in the number of Knesset seats held by the two parties (in the first case, 29 for Kadima and 19 for Labor; in the second case, 31 for the Likud– Beitenu and 19 for Yesh Atid). Furthermore, in both cases, wide ideological gaps were not bridged. The collaboration between Kadima and Labor was essentially between a centrist party and a center– left party, while that between the Likud– Beitenu and Yesh Atid was between a right– wing party and a centrist faction.

In the four most recent elections, we saw a return to the two– party system, in which the alternatives are clear. In 2015 these were the Likud and the Zionist Union; in 2019 and 2020, the Likud and Blue White. Under these circumstances the idea of a “unity government” resurfaced in the public debate, first as a solution for the political dead– end, and today– in response to the coronavirus emergency.

What are the Chances of a Unity Government Today?

As noted, since 2015, but especially in the wake of the last three parliamentary stalemates, the Israeli political map has returned to the two– party format, reviving the idea of a unity government. After the first of the current series of elections (April 2019), the rival parties chose not to form a unity government, leading to the repeat election of September 2019—which again failed to produce a majority for either bloc. After both party leaders were unable to cobble together a coalition, Israel went to the polls for the third time within a year, in March 2020. But once again neither bloc emerged with a majority that could produce a government enjoying the confidence of the Knesset. 

Following the spread of the coronavirus throughout the world and the recognition that this crisis will not end in the near future, negotiations on the formation of a unity government, termed – a “national emergency government,” began. Here several possible scenarios can be sketched out:

• A national emergency government with rotation in the premiership: In this scenario, it is possible that Netanyahu, now that the start of his trial has been postponed because of the suspension of the courts, would serve as prime minister first, and then make way for Benny Gantz in two years’ time. Such a government could be limited to the two large parties or based on a broader coalition.

• A national emergency government under Netanyahu with a predetermined end date: Another possibility that has been floated, is an emergency government based on every faction in the Knesset. This scenario is unprecedented. It would serve for only a limited period (about six months), with only a narrow and limited mandate to deal with the coronavirus emergency.

• A national emergency government of technocrats: In this model, the two large parties agree to support a government of “experts”. In other words, the designated prime minister would assemble a cabinet of professionals that enjoyed the Knesset’s confidence, thereby avoiding the need for coalition negotiations. The advantage of this idea is that these technocrats could bypass some political obstacles, allowing the ministries to function during the emergency and take important decisions. Such governments have served in a number of democracies, including Greece and Italy (except that in those cases the prime minister, too, was an apolitical technocrat with no party affiliation). [For more on this topic, see .]

• A fourth possibility is to extend the term of the current caretaker government. This would freeze the present situation until the coronavirus emergency has passed. Doing this would require amending the Basic Law: The Government as an ad hoc measure, so as to suspend the statutory timetable for forming a new government after Knesset elections. In this way, the present government would be able to deal with the crisis as a caretaker government without being under the threat of yet another round of elections. It would also spare Blue White from having to deal with the dilemma of whether to break its election pledge, and join a unity government headed by Netanyahu.

Despite the public’s longing for a unity government, with its reassuring message in these troubled times, there is no guarantee that it would be better equipped to deal with the crisis, given the internal dissension liable to break out within its ranks. The benefits of a unity government are questionable, giving the distrust that prevails between its potential partners. Blue White’s fear that Netanyahu would take cynical advantage of the situation to continue in office is not a solid foundation for fruitful cooperation on behalf of the Israeli public.

Another consideration is that a unity government means a large coalition and a weak opposition. It is precisely during a national emergency, when the executive branch assumes many powers, makes decisions of fateful import for the public, and expands the oversight and monitoring of citizens, that there is a need for an opposition with the ability to criticize and keep an eye on the government and its actions. 

A unity government is a soothing thought right now, and could convey the message that political and personal disagreements have been shunted aside in order to defend the public against this major threat. At the same time, such a step could have far– reaching implications that will impact the political situation for years to come—a political situation that remains unresolved after the last three elections.