The war that began with a brutal attack from Gaza on civilians and soldiers is one of the worst crises that Israel has experienced since it was founded. Despite recent internal conflicts, this appalling state of affairs has resulted in former Defense Minister Benny Gantz joining the Netanyahu government which is now being called an ‘emergency government,’ or a ‘unity government.’ What do these terms really mean from a political and constitutional standpoint?
Israel has a parliamentary system of government in which multiple political parties—often at least ten—represent the public in Knesset in proportion to their share of the vote. To hold a majority, multiple parties typically come together to form a coalition under the leadership of the prime minister, and most other parties make up the opposition. Unity governments (more commonly known in other parliamentary systems as “grand coalitions”) are a special form of coalitionary governments with an extremely broad basis. They include at least the two main parties in the political system which are considered the primary alternatives for government (these are almost always the two largest parties). A unity government may be based on rotation of the prime minister (and usually of additional ministerial positions) in the middle of the term of government, but in practice most unity governments—in Israel and elsewhere—do not include rotation.
While cooperation between the two main political forces (which would usually be bitter rivals) is unusual, there have been several prominent examples of unity governments in the political history of established democracies. Germany is a case in point, where three of the last five governments (not the current one, though) were unity governments. In recent years, unity governments have also been formed in countries where they were previously unfamiliar, such as Ireland and Denmark, in part due to the rise of extremist parties that are not considered legitimate coalition partners.
There are two main factors that can drive the establishment of a unity government: a time of national emergency, or an extended period of political deadlock. Unity governments formed in response to emergencies are consensus governments, created to address particularly severe security or economic crises. In these cases, the unity government provides a basis for solidarity and offers a “timeout” from the usual political struggles, enabling crucial decisions to be made in line with a broad national consensus. The second case is that of a unity government created in response to ongoing political deadlock stemming from elections that have failed to yield decisive results, or from a reluctance of the two main parties to cooperate with and legitimize extremist parties. Unity governments are more widespread in democracies that have a political culture that is based on consensualism and collaboration (as opposed to majoritarian political cultures, based on the perception that only the majority decides).
Of course, unity governments can be successes or failures. Generally, the main advantage of unity governments is their ability to take extreme measures during crises, with the backing of a large majority in parliament and with broad public legitimacy. On the other hand, they can result in a degree of paralysis in the functioning of government, when disagreements between the coalition partners on other substantial issues hobble the decision-making capacity of the political system. Moreover, the very existence of a “grand coalition” runs counter to some of the substantive components of a democracy, such as competition, freedom of choice between ideological and policy alternatives, the system of checks and balances between the executive and legislative branches, and the independent identities of political parties.
Unity Governments in Israel
Since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, there have been several prominent examples of unity governments, some of them based on rotation of the prime minister. As in other countries, unity governments in Israel were formed in response to severe national crises or to situations of political deadlock, and they have been characterized by a high level of functioning during national crises, on the one hand, and on the other, a lack of effective functioning on issues outside the national consensus. There has been considerable variation in the length of office of such governments in Israel, making it difficult to reach unequivocal conclusions about their shelf life. For example, the 1984 unity government served out a full term of office, while the power-sharing government of 2020 broke up after only seven months.
- The 1967 national unity government: In the run-up to the Six Day War, a national unity government was formed to deal with a situation that was seen as an existential threat to the State of Israel. This was a kind of ad hoc expansion of the existing government, which was headed by Levi Eshkol and formed after the 1965 elections. The parties that joined the coalition were Gahal, which developed into the Likud party in the 1970s, and Rafi, which was founded by David Ben-Gurion. Following the 1969 elections, the unity government continued to function with a similar composition for around a year, until Gahal left it in the summer of 1970 in response to the Rogers Plan (a peace plan put forward by the United States).
- The 1984 national unity government (rotation government): This unity government between Likud and Labor was established against the backdrop of a parliamentary stalemate between the two main political blocs after the elections. To facilitate a unity government, special ad hoc arrangements were put in place, such as an internal-parity cabinet in which both parties held a veto power, and the rotation of the prime minister. However, in contrast to the power-sharing government of 2020 (see below), these arrangements were not anchored in constitutional amendments. This government did successfully cope with two major challenges—bringing down inflation, and withdrawing the IDF from deep in Lebanese territory to a narrow security zone along the border.
- The unity government following the 1988 elections: This government was formed as a result of a coalitionary search for the “lesser of all evils.” Growing political extremism, and particularly the growing strength of the Haredi parties, as reflected in the election results, drove a wave of public support for the formation of a national unity government. Unlike its predecessor, this was not a rotation government. It served for only two years, suffered from multiple internal conflicts, and broke up in 1990 in the wake of the “dirty trick” affair. Consequently, a narrow government was formed headed by Likud. This is perhaps a good example of how difficult it is for a unity government survive outside of a period of crisis.
- The 2000s: The introduction of direct elections for prime minister, along with demographic changes in Israeli society, led to a decline in the power of the main parties and changed the character of the party system, making it difficult to identify two major parties offering clear alternatives for government over a period of time. This change denuded the concept of “unity government” of any real meaning.
Thus, there is disagreement as to whether the government formed by Ariel Sharon in 2001 constituted a unity government. While it included what were then considered the two main candidates for government, these parties were reduced in size and influence. During the following Knesset, the composition of the second Sharon government was altered (in January 2005) to include once again the two main parties of the time—Likud and Labor. These two governments were also formed against the backdrop of severe security challenges: The Second Intifada in 2001, and the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005.
The 31st government, formed in 2006 (headed by Ehud Olmert), and the 33rd government, formed in 2013 (the third Netanyahu government), contained the two largest factions in the Knesset, but they were not considered proper unity governments. In both cases, there was a large difference in the number of seats between the first and second parties, with 29 for Kadima and 19 for Labor in 2006, and 31 for Likud and 19 for Yesh Atid in 2013. Moreover, neither government had to bridge large ideological differences: The partnership between Kadima and Labor was essentially between Center and Center-Left parties, while that between Likud and Yesh Atid was essentially between parties on the Right and in the Center.
- 2012: Following the 2009 elections, the Likud party formed a government that did not include the largest party in parliament, Kadima. However, Kadima joined the government for two months (May–June 2012), making it a unity government. Only one Kadima member of Knesset was appointed minister. The background to Kadima joining the government was, on the one hand, the real danger of the Knesset being dissolved and the elections brought forward (the party joined after the law to dissolve the Knesset had passed its first reading); and on the other hand, the Likud’s promise to pass a new law on mandatory military service and to reform the system of government. The unity government survived for just two months before Kadima left and new elections were called.
- The 2020 power-sharing government (Netanyahu-Gantz government): In three elections held in 2019 and 2020, Israel returned to a two-bloc party system with relatively large and clear governing alternatives—Likud and Blue and White. (To some extent, the same thing happened in 2015 as well, with Likud and the Zionist Union.) In 2020, these two factions formed a unity government together, though a sizable number of Knesset members from the Blue and White electoral list did not join (the members of Yesh Atid and Telem).
This government was formed against the background both of the political stalemate that had prevented the formation of a new government since 2019, and of the challenges posed by the COVID pandemic. As with the 1984 government, it was based on prime ministerial rotation, this time between Netanyahu and Gantz. But unlike in that previous case, comprehensive constitutional amendments were passed so as to create a new model of government, the “government of alternates.” In this model, the government is effectively divided into two governments or two blocs, one headed by the sitting prime minister and the other headed by the alternate prime minister. Each of these has sole control over their bloc (for example, regarding the dismissal of ministers) and has the right of veto in various decision-making scenarios, and each bloc has equal voting power in the government. The timing for the rotation of prime ministers was detailed in the law, and various sections were included to make it difficult for the sitting prime minister to prevent the transfer of power to the alternate prime minister (ultimately, with no success).
From the outset, however, the 2020 government was embroiled in conflict between the two blocs, and eventually the elections were brought forward (due to failure to approve a state budget in time) without the prime ministerial rotation being carried out.
Technocratic governments, also known as governments of experts, are not uncommon in parliamentary democracies. Certainly, they are not the norm, but there are plenty of cases in which such governments have been appointed. Technocratic governments have three basic features: they are headed by someone who is not a politician and is not identified with any political party; all or some of its members are “professional” ministers, who are not politicians and are not identified with any party; and it has a relatively short “shelf life,” in that its political horizon is limited.
There are three main types of these governments, distinguished by their internal composition and the nature of their mandate:
- Purely technocratic governments: These governments are headed by a prime minister who is not a politician and is not identified with any party, and the other ministers are all professional appointees as well. They enjoy a broad mandate—to approve budgets, carry out reforms, and so on.
- Technocratic transition governments: These governments are headed by a prime minister who is not a politician and is not identified with any party, and all or some of the other ministers are also not party members, but they function as temporary transition governments in the interim until new elections are held. As such, they do not have a broad mandate to carry out changes, and are charged solely with overseeing the ongoing affairs of the state.
- Unity governments led by a technocrat prime minister who is not politically affiliated: The leader of these governments is not a politician and is not identified with any party, though the other members are party representatives, usually of the two largest parties in parliament. Such governments have a broad mandate for action.
From a democratic perspective, technocratic governments are problematic in that they involve (to at least some degree) suspending democracy and turning a blind eye to the “will of the electorate.” At the same time, as long as they are a temporary mechanism, then their problematic character is outweighed by this temporary nature. A 2016 study concluded that the main democratic indicators (responsiveness, representativeness, legitimacy) for technocratic governments are no worse than those for “normal” governments, because in the latter case, these indicators are eroded over time. The study author argues that technocratic governments are symptomatic of a broader disease: the decline of the party-system in Western democracies, and the loosening of ties between parties and voters.
Israel has never had a technocratic government, though there were calls to establish one during the political crisis that followed the 2019 elections, and particularly following the outbreak of the COVID pandemic in 2020. One of the reasons for this is that the country’s system of government contains a key barrier to the installation of a technocracy: According to section 5(b) of the Basic Law: The Government, prime ministers (and alternate prime ministers) must be members of Knesset. It is therefore not possible to establish a government in which the prime minister is not a politician—a basic condition for the formation of a true technocratic government.
There is no such restriction on other ministers (though it does apply to deputy ministers), and thus there have been a number of “professional” ministers appointed over the years who were not Knesset members and were not strongly identified with a particular party. These include, for example, the justice ministers Daniel Friedmann (Kadima government, 2007–2009) and Yaakov Neeman (second Netanyahu government, 2009–2013), and the minister for environmental protection Avi Gabbay (fourth Netanyahu government, 2015–2016), who consequently entered politics. Without making an unequivocal statement, it is difficult to characterize the terms of these ministers as having resulted in outstanding achievements.
Indeed, it is not certain that having professional ministers is suited to the system of government in Israel. This system is based on a clear distinction between professional civil servants in ministries (though there have been recent attempts to undermine this milieu, including by politicizing some key professional positions) and the political class, which is supposed to set priorities and make policy decisions. Ministers are not supposed to be, and do not claim to be, the most knowledgeable experts in the particular field they oversee. Rather, they are expected to formulate policy based on the public interest, the available resources as distributed by the political system, and the professional knowledge of ministry staff. In Israel’s coalitionary parliamentary system, a minister with no political experience who acts in a supposedly “professional” and objective manner will struggle to garner political support and legitimacy for the policy that he or she seeks to advance.
- Unity government—Adding additional parties to the current government: This option requires an agreement to be signed between Likud and the parties joining the government, and new ministers to be added to the government, which in turn requires the approval of the Knesset, in accordance with section 15 of the Basic Law: The Government. A unity government of this kind may or may not be defined in coalition agreements as an “emergency government” that is formed for a pre-agreed upon period of time, such as until the end of the current war in Gaza, or a period of several months.
- Advantages and disadvantages: There are two main advantages of this option. First, as with all unity governments, it would increase public legitimacy and parliamentary support while dealing with a severe crisis that is the war with Gaza. Bolstering public legitimacy seems particularly important given the extreme political polarization in Israel. Second, it would maintain stability and continuity in ministerial positions at a time of war. The main challenge in forming such a government would be political—reaching agreements that would be acceptable to both new and old coalitionary partners, regarding the war as well as other issues (such as the judicial reforms); and including representatives of the new coalitionary partners in the government. It is also possible that the new government members would demand various amendments to the government’s working regulations to ensure that their voice carries weight in decision-making and policymaking processes, such as giving them a veto over various decisions or awarding them special status in the cabinet (a small forum of senior ministers).
- Unity government—Replacing some of the members of the coalition: According to section 22(b) of the Basic Law: The Government, the prime minister is empowered to dismiss any minister (or deputy minister, according to section 26(c)). Thus, Netanyahu could, for example, dismiss ministers and deputy ministers from certain factions in the current coalition (they are also entitled to resign on their own initiative, of course), sign coalition agreements with other factions (currently in the opposition), and appoint ministers to the government from those factions (with Knesset approval) to replace those who have been dismissed.
- Advantages and disadvantages: A government of this kind is likely to enjoy the same advantages of a unity government relating to public legitimacy and parliamentary support, though to a lesser degree than the first option, because some of the current coalition factions will not be partners in the unity government. However, replacing key ministers in the middle of a war may harm the functioning of those ministries and send a general message of instability.
Unity government—forming a new government: Theoretically, an entirely new government could be formed, based on entirely new coalitionary agreements and guidelines. Such a government could include (as in the first option presented above) all of the current government factions as well as new factions, or (as in the second option), only some of the current government factions alongside new factions. This could be achieved in one of two ways:
- Vote of no confidence: Section 28 of Israel’s Basic Law: The Government contains provisions for a full constructivist vote of no confidence, in which a no-confidence vote also contains a proposal for the formation of an entirely new government, which takes power as soon as such a vote is passed by the Knesset. Thus, from a constitutional standpoint, if Netanyahu secures the support of 61 Knesset members for an alternative government, he can do so rapidly via a vote of no confidence.
- Resignation: According to section 19 of the Basic Law: The Government, the prime minister is entitled to resign, in which case the entire government is considered to have resigned, and procedures are triggered to form a new government (consultation with the president, giving one Knesset member the mandate to form a government, and so on).
- Advantages and disadvantages: Neither of these options has a clear advantage over changing the composition of the current government rather than forming a new government. There is also a clear disadvantage to resigning and forming a new government: The procedure for forming a new government can last several weeks, during which time the country is ruled by a transition government (“the outgoing government,” according to the law) which has various restrictions placed on it regarding senior appointments, financial expenditure, and possibly even actions relating to security and foreign affairs. Moreover, if the process for forming a new government fails—for example, due to a failure to sign agreements between the factions of the planned coalition—then new Knesset elections are automatically triggered.
One advantage is that this would be a completely new government, with entirely new guidelines and coalitionary agreements that do not include problematic issues from the perspective of the new coalition partners, such as the judicial reforms or various proposals relating to religion and state. However, because coalitionary guidelines and agreements are not enforceable documents, and as such are liable to be ignored in practice, then this is not a significant advantage.
It appears that only in one scenario would it be truly necessary to form a new government: if a power-sharing government (with pre-agreed rotation of prime ministers) is formed. This kind a government must be established as such a priori (as per section 13(a) of the Basic Law: The Government). Thus, if factions currently in the opposition agree to enter the government only within the framework of a power-sharing government—for example, in order to ensure they have a power of veto and equal voting power in the government—then it will be necessary to establish a new government.
- Technocratic government: As noted, it is not possible to establish a full technocratic government in Israel, because the prime minister must be a member of Knesset. However, in each of the options described above, as well as if the current government remains as it is, it is possible to create a government with technocratic characteristics. This would mean a government in which the prime minister, and possibly one or two other ministers (for example, the leader of the second largest party, in the case of a unity government), are politicians, while the rest of the ministers are professionals. A more modest option would be for the majority of ministerial positions to remain in the hands of politicians, while several professional experts are added to the government.
- Advantages and disadvantages: It can be argued that appointing professionals to key positions will help with the management of the war in Gaza and strengthen public trust in the government. However, as noted, in the Israeli system there is no clear advantage to professional ministers over politicians. Furthermore, regarding the option of appointing professional ministers in addition to the current ministers, it should be remembered that the current government already has a very large number of ministers, which hampers its functioning and attracts public criticism.
 Giulia Pastorella (2016), “Technocratic Governments in Europe: Getting the Critique Right”, Political Studies 64(4), 948–965.