Living through history
If you’ve been following the news coming out of Israel, you may be aware that our State may be at the cusp of a new governing coalition; and -for the first time since 2009- Benjamin Netanyahu may no longer be prime minister.
The politics are incredibly complex, and I simply cannot due justice to all of the nuances of history and current events that have brought us to this point. Still, I want to write about this because I deeply care about my country. Of necessity, I will summarize a lot of complicated points and omit some others; but, perhaps, I will write again on this matter to provide further insights.
The basics of forming an Israeli government
- During elections, Israelis cast their ballots for political party lists, rather than for individual politicians.
- Some parties have democratic processes for forming their party lists; others do not.
- A politician becomes prime minister (head of state) by forming a governing coalition, which must be supported by a majority of the parliament.
- The Israeli parliament is called the ‘Knesset’; it has 120 members; 61 is a Knesset majority.
- Usually, but not always, the politician who is given the first crack at forming a governing coalition is the head of the largest party in the Knesset.
- If that politician fails to cobble together a Knesset majority to support his/her government, a second politician is usually given an opportunity to attempt this.
Netanyahu’s slipping hold on power
Broadly speaking, Netanyahu has historically relied upon Israel’s right-wing and religious parties to establish governing coalitions. That said, he has shown himself to be a very flexible politician and is willing to form governments with representatives of any and all political parties in order to remain in power.
It’s important to note the phrase “right-wing and religious parties” in the above paragraph because not all religious parties are necessarily right-wing, nor do they necessarily care about the well-being of the State of Israel. To wit, there are two ultra-Orthodox political parties, which regard the very organs of Israel’s civil, democratically elected government with utter contempt. These two parties have long been Netanyahu’s most reliable coalition partners.
Two years ago (following the Apr. 2019 elections), a right-wing secularist party (Yisrael Beiteinu), which primarily, but not exclusively, represents immigrants from the Former Soviet Union (FSU), decided to take a stand against these ultra-Orthodox parties. After having served by their side in several governments under Netanyahu’s rule, Yisrael Beiteinu took a calculated political risk and declared that it would not give in to their religiously coercive agenda by supporting Netanyahu’s coalition, which meant that the Prime Minister found himself unable to form a government.
New elections were held (Sept. 2019), and it turned out that Yisrael Beiteinu’s risk had paid off, for the right-wing secularist party received more votes and more Knesset seats than it had in the previous elections. Once again, Netanyahu was unable to form a government; once again, new elections were called.
A third round of elections was held (Mar. 2020), and Netanyahu finally succeeded at forming a government by signing a power-sharing agreement with Benny Gantz, the head of a centrist political party (Blue & White), according to which Gantz would become prime minister in Nov. 2021. This largely came about because COVID-19 broke out and the pandemic turned Israel’s political landscape on its head. However, before long, it became clear that Netanyahu had no intention of honoring his signed agreement – he prevented the passage of the state budget to force Israel into a fourth round of elections.
Leading up to the most recent round of election (Mar. 2021), Netanyahu pulled out all of the stops to maximize his right-wing and religious coalition. This, in and of itself, is a topic for another entire blog post, but the important thing to know is that Netanyahu failed – once again.
This time, another new party had arisen (New Hope), which was comprised of right-wing politicians from Netanyahu’s own party (the Likud), led by Gideon Sa’ar. New Hope succeeded at peeling away an additional six Knesset seats from Likud, rendering Netanyahu’s coalition math impossible, particularly in light of the right-wing religious party’s refusal to partner with any Arab parties in forming a government (Netanyahu, despite his previous declarations to the contrary, was more than willing to form his potential coalition with support from Arab politicians in order to remain in power).
This brings us to the present day.
Israel’s potential new government
After Netanyahu failed to form a government coalition following the fourth round of elections, another politician was tasked with this responsibility: Yair Lapid.
Lapid, head of the second largest party in the Knesset (Yesh Atid), has been working to establish coalition agreements with political parties all across the political spectrum. These include the leftist Meretz and the rightest Yamina, and even relies upon the support of an Islamist Arab political party (Ra’am). The composition of this potential government also deserves an entire blog post, but, for now, suffice it to say that all of the pieces may actually be coming together… despite the coalition’s incredible fragility.
… with eight factions — the most ever for an Israeli governing coalition — it will only have the slimmest possible parliamentary majority. Can a 61-seat coalition in a 120-seat Knesset that straddles such enormous political divides survive a no-confidence vote, pass a budget, develop a coherent foreign policy or conduct a war?-Haviv Rettig Gur, Times of Israel
If this government is to be established, Lapid must announce the new coalition by Wednesday, which is his deadline. The official Knesset vote to instate the new government would take place a week or so later… and it won’t be a done deal until then… so those of us who support the potential formation of such governing coalition are left to hold our breath…
The Netanyahu obsession
This next bit is subjective:
I have been amazed at the vehemence of Netanyahu’s supporters who are convinced that nobody but Bibi (Netanyahu’s nickname) could possibly serve as Prime Minister of Israel. It is irrational, to say the least, and the aggressiveness of many Netanyahu supporters has led to actual threats of violence against the right-wing elements of Israel’s potential “change coalition”. Simply disgusting.
I have also been amazed Netanyahu himself is convinced that nobody but he could possibly serve as Prime Minister of Israel. It’s ridiculous. What makes him so special? Previous to becoming prime minister, Netanyahu was the finance minister – he had no special qualifications to serve as head of state. In most cases, heads of state learn on the job – that’s normal. By the way, Netanyahu has deliberately not nurtured any potential future leaders within his own party for precisely this reason – his priority has always been to keep himself at the top.
In this blog post, I have not touched upon Netanyahu’s three separate indictments for corruption and his ongoing court trial (fodder for yet another blog post). There are those who say that the charges against the Prime Minister are entirely trumped up; there are others who say that they are minor or even irrelevant matters. I think otherwise. The chief of police who investigated Netanyahu was appointed by Netanyahu’s Likud, as was the attorney general who brought the corruption charges against him. Regardless, it is entirely inappropriate for a sitting prime minister to be on trial for corruption while leading the country.
The last time an Israeli prime minister was investigated for corruption, the opposition leader insisted that he should resign, warning that a head of state “neck deep in investigations has no moral mandate to make crucial decisions”. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert did, indeed, step down; and he was subsequently convicted. That opposition leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, became the next head of state, following the 2009 Knesset elections.
Thankfully, it seems that Netanyahu’s political support is gradually slipping; even if a fifth round of elections is held (assuming that Lapid does not succeed at forming a government), Netanyahu remains very unlikely to be able to form a coalition. At some point, his Likud party must muster up its courage and elect itself a new chairperson, else its members will be dooming themselves to become permanent fixtures in the opposition.
By the way, one of the top priorities for the potential incoming Israeli government should be to pass legislation setting term limits for the position of Prime Minister.