What’s Wrong with Israel’s Political System?

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Four elections in two years failed to produce decisive results - what's wrong with Israel's political system and is there is any way out of its current political stalemate?

Flash 90

The March 23, 2021 elections in Israel – the fourth election cycle in two years – failed once again to produce decisive results and the country is left to wonder if there is any way out of its current political stalemate. Although Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu’s Likud party emerged again as the largest faction in the Israeli parliament (Knesset) with thirty seats– the party actually lost six seats, and the right-wing bloc of parties aligned with the Likud came just short of a 61-member majority. It is not clear at this point in time whether a government will soon emerge, or if the country will shortly be headed towards a fifth (!) round of elections. Even if a government will be formed, it will probably to feature the most unlikely of compositions. Either as another Likud government supported through some cooperation between the Islamic Party (Ra’am) and the extreme right-wing party (Religious Zionism), or an even broader ‘coalition of change’ stretching from a conservative right wing party (Yemina) to the liberal left (Meretz) with Arab MKs supporting the new alternative government as either full members or through some sort of other parliamentary cooperation.

Part of this electoral madness has to do no doubt with the extremely polarizing leadership of Netanyahu, whose dominance in the Israeli political landscape has produced pro anti-Netanyahu camps – of an almost equal size - whose fervent support or opposition to the current prime minister has become their dominant, if not defining political attribute. The dual allegiance of several small right wing parties both to the anti-Netanyahu cause and to traditional right wing agendas has made it impossible for them to join neither Netanyahu nor his left wing opponents. This, together with the failed experiment in building a grand coalition after the third elections in 2020, has resulted in political deadlock and in the inability to form stable governments.

On a deeper level, however, one may see the Israeli political crisis as one focused not so much on the leadership of personal fate of Bibi, but rather on the future of Israeli democracy: Will the country be first and foremost Jewish or democratic? This foundational tension, which manifests itself in a host of unresolved political issues, including the relationships between state and religion, the commitment to civic equality and rights of members of minority groups, and the scope of judicial review over political decisions, has been increasingly moving to the forefront of Israeli politics due to a combination of political developments.

First, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which for many years was the defining political issue confronting the country, has receded in recent years in its importance in the eyes of most Israelis, due to the sharp reduction in the level of violence the conflict generates and the sense that the two parties to the conflict are too far removed from one another to break the political stalemate and conclude a peace agreement in the foreseeable future. This gave way to the rise in significance of other political tensions in Israel - between Jews and Arabs inside Israel, and increasingly between liberals and conservatives within the Jewish electorate - and to the readjustment of the political map according to these new tensions. For example, Israel Beytenu, a party which traditionally represented hard line voters that immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union, found itself embracing increasingly anti-religious positions and gravitating towards the liberal left and the anti-Netanyahu camp. At the same time, the Arab Islamic party has joined the ultra-Orthodox parties in voting against a bill advancing LGBT rights and is now even considering to support a Likud-led right-wing coalition.

Second, the corruption trial pending against Prime Minister Netanyahu has generated extensive discourse in Israel around fundamental questions concerning the ethical and legal limits binding Israeli politicians. The pro-Netanyahu camp has seized on the trial to advance a populist agenda against the liberal elites that dominate the courts, the State Attorney office and the media and who allegedly seek to curtail Netanyahu's power in the ballot box by ‘fabricating’ or reverberating the criminal charges against him.

At the same time, Netanyahu's opponents see the trial as a reaffirmation of basic democratic principle, such as the rule of law and equality before the law. Here too, the old distinctions between left and right sound increasingly hollow. Hence, a veteran right wing politician, such as Benny Begin (the son of Likud’s founder – Menachem Begin - who has recently left Likud to join the newly-established ‘New Hope’ party) that opposes the new populism, find himself in the anti-Netanyahu camp alongside extreme left-wing Arab and Jewish politicians. In the same vein, ultra-Orthodox politicians who traditionally embraced moderate positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict now openly advocate for illiberal legislation to curb the judicial review powers of the Supreme Court.

The four rounds of election can therefore be seen not just an epic battle between Netanyahu and his opponents aimed at seizing political control over the country, but also as a process of realignment of the Israeli political map with the severance of old alliances and gradual formulation of new ones. What’s at stake is not just the political and legal fate of Netanyahu, but also the general direction the politics of the country will pursue from the current point of inflection: Whether it will be led by a political constellation committed to the values of a liberal democracy and to strong and independent democratic institutions, or continue to be led by political forces supporting traditional or conservative values and the reigning-in of ‘elitist’ democratic ‘gatekeepers’.

The article was published in the Jerusalem Post