The Netanyahu Government: In Praise of Stability?

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On April 30, 2012, the Knesset opened its summer session, during which it is expected that early elections will be called. Even if the next elections are moved up, it is clear that Benjamin Netanyahu's second government, which recently marked three years in office, is Israel's most stable government in 25 years. But is stability a good thing? IDI Researcher Dr. Ofer Kenig of IDI's Political Reform project shares his thoughts.

On March 31, 2012, Benjamin Netanyahu's government marked three years in office. Even now—whether the next elections are held early or take place a year and a half from now, as scheduled—it is safe to say that this is the most stable government that Israel has had in the last 25 years. Its stability is reflected not only in the amount of time that the government has survived, but in the absence of significant changes in the parties and ministers that make up the government.

It is true that there have been other governments that passed the three-year mark. The second Sharon government (2003-2006) and the Rabin government (1992-1995) are two examples of this. Those governments, however, were characterized by intense internal turmoil and frequent change, and crossed the three-year line when they were in a convulsive, terminal state. It is difficult to relate to the second Sharon government as a single government. It began as a government made up of the Likud, Shinui, and the religious parties, but in the period before the disengagement from Gaza, it became a government of the Likud, Labor, and the ultra-Orthodox parties. The Rabin government had one of the highest turnover rates of ministers in executive offices of all governments. It is therefore hard to describe these two governments as stable.

The current government, however, is a completely different story. In this case, we are not just talking about reaching the three-year mark with a functioning government; rather, we are talking about a government that has barely known any internal turmoil. The only change that took place over the course of three years occurred as a result of the internal split of the Labor Party, which was part of the coalition. As a result of this split, three ministers resigned [Binyamin (Fouad) Ben-Eliezer, Isaac (Buji) Herzog, and Avishay Braverman] and two ministers took their place (Matan Vilnai and Orit Noked). The rest of the posts have been characterized by impressive stability. This type of stability, of course, has its advantages. It allows decision-makers to formulate long-term policy, allows ministers to specialize in the subject matter of the area of their appointment, and it gives the political system a sense of certainty.

And yet, it is very difficult to praise Israel's current, stable government. Stability (like government efficiency) is a trait that is all too often overrated. It is a value that we, as citizens, should regard suspiciously, especially if it is achieved while violating the rules of the game. And unfortunately, it's hard to shake off the feeling that the current government does not excel at playing by the rules of the game.

There is no doubt, for example, that passing a two-year budget bill contributed to the government's stability. But at what cost was it passed? The socio-economic protest of last summer indicates that this change was of dubious worth. There is also no question that a government that is made up of nearly 40 ministers and deputy ministers gives the prime minister industrial peace. Since the ministers and deputies are members of the government, they have no incentive to rock the boat. But what is the cost of their complacency? If approximately a third of the members of the Knesset have positions in the executive, how many are left to oversee the government?  Who is left to staff the Knesset's committees, where the serious parliamentary work takes place?

The above is without mentioning the recent wave of hostile legislation directed at Israel's Arab minority (such as the "Nakba Law" and the "Loyalty Law") or targeting new players entering politics (such as the "cooling off" law and two laws directed at newcomer Yair Lapid). It is also without mentioning personal laws aimed at specific people (such as the "Grunis Law," the "Mofaz Law," etc.)

A good friend of mine from outside of Israel once told me that the only thing that is stable in Israel is the lack of stability. I can now turn to that friend and say: The current government of Israel finally proves that Israelis can also have stability. But stability in and of itself should not be a goal. It may be able to enhance a healthy political system, but it can also be a reflection of a political system that is sick, withdrawn, lacks tolerance for the voice of the minority, and has contempt for the rules of the game. The second Netanyahu government fits the latter description more than it fits the former. 

Dr. Ofer Kenig is an IDI researcher who heads the Political Parties Research Team of IDI's Forum for Political Reform in Israel.

A Hebrew version of this article was originally published in the Maariv daily newspaper on March 26, 2012.