By: Prof. Dr. Mohsen Mohammad Saleh.
As the Israeli parties failed to form a government with a half-plus-one majority in the Knesset (61 seats), the political system in Israel entered a major political crisis. It is the second failure in a few months, which will likely lead, for the first time in Israel’s history, to a third general elections in less than a year. This is accompanied by formal indictment of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust; It is the first time in the history of Israel that an Israeli prime minister get indicted during his term, and this complicates the Israeli domestic scene.
The Problem of the Political System:
One of the reasons for this crisis is the Israeli political system, which organizes legislative (parliamentary) elections based on full proportionality, while considering Israel one electoral constituency. This system reflects a more accurate representation of the various party components and forces, however, it also undermines the ability of any party to obtain an absolute majority. This system makes big parties susceptible to the blackmail of small parties, which often impose certain conditions so that any major party can achieve the required quorum, consequently, weakening the political stability of any country.
Historically speaking, more than 71 years ago, since the establishment of Israel, no Israeli party was able to obtain an absolute majority. However, these parties whether leftist, rightist or religious are all members of the Zionist movement; and their partisan orientations are merely tools or means within the Zionist project (The great party that includes all). Therefore, their Zionism is usually a “synthetic Zionism” that embraces all, and does not make it difficult to establish alliances and coalitions, despite the fact that they may seem contradictory like the other countries, such as when governments of leftist and religious parties are formed, for example. That’s why crises of this kind in the Israeli political system, which are occurring now, have rarely happened in the past.
The last Israeli elections of the 22nd Knesset, held on 17/9/2019, did not lead to conclusive results. It did not differ much from the results of the previous Knesset elections held on 9/4/2019. The Likud won 32 seats compared to its previous 35 seats, and the Blue and White party won 33 seats compared to its previous 35 seats. Therefore, the latter, the “Generals” party, led by Benny Gantz, had the official right to form a government; however, the bloc that could be added to its (center-left) alliance was no more than 44 seats (the Blue and White party 33, Labor-Gesher 6, and the Democratic Union 5). There were also 10 MKs from the Joint Arab List, who were ready to support this coalition, without the need to be in the government, thus adding up to be 54 seats. As for the Netanyahu-led Likud, supported by the right bloc, garnered 55 seats (Likud 32, Shas 9, United Torah Judaism 7, Yamina 7), thus having the first opportunity to form a government.
As for the Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) party, headed by Avigdor Lieberman, its position was strengthened when its seats increased from 5 (previous elections) to 8, thus playing the role of the kingmaker. However, despite its far right-wing nature, it thwarted Netanyahu’s formation of a right-wing government, and that’s because its liberal nationalist right contradicted the right of religious parties. For Lieberman has insisted on the compulsory recruitment of the ultra-orthodox, which the religious parties reject, in addition to his other demands with which it is difficult to comply, although they are negotiable, such as tightening the siege on Gaza Strip (GS), and trying to end Hamas’s grip on GS by force.
Why Has the Formation of the Government Failed:
When Netanyahu failed in the given one month period to form a government, the Israeli president handed Gantz the mandate, who conceded failure and returned the mandate to the president on 20/11/2019. Why did the formation fail?
First: Netanyahu insisted on the premiership, and that if a “national unity” government is formed in partnership with the Blue and White party, he must serve as prime minister for the first two years; on the pretext that he has a larger bloc, and because he wanted to provide himself with a safety net from being indicted with corruption and breach of trust.
Second: Gantz (Blue and White party), being the winning party in the elections, insisted on the notion of forming a “national unity” government, in addition to the fact that the fundamental justification for establishing this party was to remove Netanyahu from power. Moreover, Gantz’s two main partners Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya‘alon had a strong desire not to work under Netanyahu.
Third: Netanyahu did not succeed in including Lieberman in his right-wing bloc, due to the wide gap in reaching an understanding about the relationship of religion with the state, in particular the conscription of ultra-Orthodox Jews (Haredim). This issue was a prerequisite, on the basis of which Lieberman ran for elections.
Fourth: Although there has been great progress in the negotiations between them, Gantz failed to include Lieberman in his bloc. For the former needed the Joint List of Arab Parties to corral 61 votes, which was difficult for the right-winged Lieberman to accept, as he considered the Arab List a “fifth column” or “elements hostile to Israel.” This would also have placed him under the “fierce attack” of other right-wing forces if he had accepted such a partnership. Moreover, the “Generals” party does not prefer to rely on the Arab attribution in forming its bloc; it either considers it a temporary option, or it uses the announcement of the List’s acceptance as a tool to pressure Netanyahu to accept its conditions.
Fifth: The idea of forming a minority government, that would govern while having the support of less than 61 Knesset members, but it would be difficult for the opposing bloc to topple it, has failed. Nevertheless, in the past, Israeli governments were run by minority governments, such as Yitzhak Rabin’s government, which served two years as a minority government; Sharon’s government that served during the disengagement from GS; and Peres’ government after Rabin’s death (November 1995).
When Gantz began discussing the option of forming a minority government, he was brutally attacked by a variety of Zionist parties, led by Netanyahu, who said that if such a minority government was formed, “they will celebrate in Tehran, in Ramallah, and in Gaza, as they do after every terror attack.” He added that going for another election is “a disaster, but setting up a government that depends on the Arab parties is an even bigger disaster.” Netanyahu convened an emergency meeting with his party telling them that the Blue and White party “will have a government that depends on terror supporters,” adding that a minority government would not be able to tackle current “national security issues.” and it would be a very unstable government that would likely lead to another election soon.
Sixth: President Rivlin’s proposal to form a “two-headed” government did not succeed, where the premiership would rotate. Netanyahu would serve first until the end of his trial; and after hundred days, if he is not exonerated, Gantz has the right to become the de facto head of government. However, strong protests inside the White and Blue party prevented this.
On 21/11/2019, after about three years of investigations, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust (Cases 1000, 2000 and 4000). Thus, Netanyahu turned from being a suspect to an accused; he had hundred days to prove his innocence, otherwise he would face trial. He was furious at these accusations, considering them an attempted coup, saying that “the indictment stemmed from ‘false accusations.’” He demanded that “an independent external committee should be set up to investigate the method and put an end to it. It’s time to investigate the researchers.” At the same time, Netanyahu decided to continue serving as prime minister, for there is nothing that obliges him to resign unless a final, non-appealable judgment is issued against him, and this may take a long time and may be years.
Despite many manifestations of solidarity with Netanyahu within the Likud and right-wing parties, his image was tarnished. A poll found that 56% of Israelis believe Netanyahu cannot continue to govern after being indicted. This issue also gave Netanyahu’s Likud rivals a chance to replace him in the leadership, where Gideon Sa‘ar attacked him, calling on him to resign. On 24/11/2019, Netanyahu was forced to agree to hold internal elections in the Likud within six weeks, however, Sa‘ar is not a strong competitor, and Netanyahu’s chances to continue to lead the Likud remain stronger.
Under the Israeli Basic Law, and after Netanyahu and Gantz failed to form a government, the Israeli president re-delegated to the Knesset the government’s formation, where during a 21-day grace period any member of the Knesset would have the opportunity to become prime minister and form a government, pending the approval of 61 MKs or more, which is very unlikely. This means that Israel is heading to a third election, to be held on 3/3/2020.
According to an opinion poll, the Benny Gantz-led list would top a new election with 37 Knesset seats, while the Likud would only win 30 seats. This could lead the center left bloc to gain about 58 seats, which is also not enough to form a government with a majority of seats. The third elections would open the way for the political crisis to continue, and may eventually lead the political parties to surrender and enter into agreements that would form a government.
A second possibility is when if a consensus is not reached, a fourth election would be held.
A third possibility looms, if Netanyahu does not clear himself within the specified 100 days, the mood and attitude of the Israeli voter would change, and Netanyahu would be displaced and Likud’s chances would further decline. Consequently, the chances of the Blue and White party to form a government would increase.
A fourth possibility is not excluded, where Netanyahu would succeed in either clearing himself, or making some “achievement” on the Israeli scene, which would push for his re-election. Here the possibility arises that he will seek to achieve some “acts of heroism” by launching a massive aggression against GS or the northern front, or by carrying out targeted assassinations of resistance leaders.
As for the fifth possibility, the parties would admit the failure of their political system, and would call to change the conditions of the electoral process, so as to overcome the disruption dilemmas arising from it; this may be through a direct election of the Prime Minister, or by giving special advantages to the winning party, etc.
Finally, one should not exaggerate the crisis in the Israeli political system, for the internal institutional structure is still relatively strong, and the Israeli parties are still able to manage their differences, as they did for the past seventy years. The crisis caused by Netanyahu’s trial had also a positive effect on the Israeli state, since it proved that the regulatory and judicial system and the fight against corruption are still strong and effective, even in the face of the strongest men of government. Nevertheless, if the disputing parties did not deal with the crisis according to the so-called “supreme interests” of Israel, the internal Israeli rift could widen.
This article was originally published in Arabic on TRT Arabic “trt.net.tr/arabic” on 29/11/2019.
Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations, 11/12/2019