As Israelis head to the polls for the fourth time in two years, Yohanan Plesner, President of the Israeli Democracy Institute (IDI) and a former member of the Knesset, says the rules of politics in the country must now radically change.
As Israel quickly approaches a once unthinkable fourth national election in less than two years, we must grapple with the question of whether this political chaos is the result of a broken system, or the fact that for the first time ever, an indicted prime minister is insisting on staying in office while on trial for corruption charges. As is so often the case, the truth is a combination of the two. The Israeli electoral system has been long overdue for common-sense reform, but the reality of Benjamin Netanyahu’s legal troubles has left our legal and political systems paralysed, putting the entire country’s continued advancement at stake. With the global pandemic thrown into the mix, it is clearer than ever that it is time for Israel’s political leaders to take remedial action.
Even if Prime Minister Netanyahu had never been charged and put on trial, Israel’s political system would be in serious need of reform. Since 1996, Israel has held national elections every 2.3 years. While early elections are not rare in parliamentary democracies, this number puts Israel at the top of the list, compared to countries with similar systems such as Spain, where they headed to the polls every 3 years, the UK every 3.8 years, and Italy every 4.4 years during the same period.
A key underlying factor in this political instability is the multi-party coalitions needed to form governments in Israel. Once the two traditional ruling parties – Labour and the Likud – began to shrink in size in the mid-1990s, the number of parties in the Knesset, and thus the number needed to form governments, rose as well. And while the return to a single-ballot vote in 2003 after a failed experiment with direct elections of the premier did somewhat reduce the number of parties representing Israelis in their parliament, until 2019 there have never been less than 10 factions in the 120-seat Knesset.
On a practical level, this instability has left the political system broken, making every prime minister vulnerable to political blackmail by his coalition partners, forcing capitulation to the smallest parties representing only a small slice of the Israeli public, all for the sake of maintaining the sacred 61-seat majority needed to remain in office and govern. Ministers are appointed not on the basis of their professional qualifications – or even as representatives of large segments of the population – but as pay-offs to keep those who can threaten the coalition, and the prime minister’s term in office, in line. Even then, these ministers are often shuffled around or relieved of their duties at increasingly short notice, to address the latest political needs of the prime minister or his partners. Worst of all, the most fringe and often extremist elements of Israeli society are guaranteed a seat at the cabinet table – or at the least, the chair of key Knesset committees – where their ideologies become the policy that Israelis must live by.
The policy implications of this reality have been even grimmer. Anything remotely controversial is kicked down the road, out of fear of upsetting the delicate balance of coalition politics. Long-term planning on economic and social issues rarely comes to fruition, and issues that demand interdisciplinary cooperation between ministries and agencies are routinely cast aside. The biggest issues, such as finally providing Israelis with a constitution or finding an accepted middle ground on matters of religion and state, are left orphaned of any attempt to take them on. A recent example came to the fore this month, when the Supreme Court ruled on the validity of non-Orthodox conversions in Israel after the justices had beseeched the Knesset for 15 years to pass legislation taking a stand on this issue. Netanyahu, who has served as prime minister for the past 12 years, appointed numerous committees that proposed broadly accepted compromises, but due to his alliance with the ultra-Orthodox parties, this issue too was cast aside.
As if all of this was not enough, along came the prime minister’s legal troubles. Many warned that even if Israeli law allows its leader to continue serving in office while under indictment, the ramifications of such a situation would make competent governance impossible. The past two years have born this warning out. Every decision Netanyahu now makes leaves Israelis wondering if his true motive is the wellbeing of the country, or his narrow political and legal needs. Is another national lockdown really necessary, or is it the only solution for a prime minister who cannot enforce stringent public health measures exclusively on ultra-Orthodox communities where the pandemic is the most widespread, because their political leaders have vowed to stand by his side no matter the result of his trial? Is his latest economic proposal a stimulus plan badly needed by those hurt most during this crisis, or is it a shiny object flashed in front of the public’s eyes to draw attention away from the fact that beginning in April, the prime minister will need to be present in court three times a week?
Worst of all, it is now crystal clear that the only reason Israel is headed for a fourth, and perhaps a fifth election, is because Netanyahu has not yet obtained a coalition that will put an end to his legal troubles. The immediate victim of this situation has been the country’s civil service, where the positions of key senior officials have been left unfilled, as the Prime Minister either sought candidates that he believed would be loyal to his personal cause, or those that can be used as pawns in a political chess game. For this same reason, Israeli citizens continue to face one of the worse economic crises in the country’s history, without a budget passed by the government and Knesset since 2018. Here too, Netanyahu was willing to allow the Knesset to disperse for the first time because it failed to pass a budget, all with the goal of ensuring that he arrive at his trial still serving as prime minister and with the possibility of forming a coalition that will do his legislative bidding.
This brings us to the blow yet to be dealt to Israeli democracy. If Netanyahu is able to form a government made up of parties who see no problem in a prime minister serving in office while on trial for corruption charges, there is a real possibility that they will seek to advance legislation that will either grant Netanyahu immunity or delay his trial until he is out of office. Then, if the Supreme Court would strike down this law as unconstitutional, the next step would be to enact an ‘override clause’ that would allow the Knesset to reverse the court’s decision. With only one house of parliament and a legislative branch, in which – by design – the government holds a majority, a wide-ranging override clause would in effect remove the one true check that exists on Israel’s executive branch.
What is to be Done?
So, what can be done? First, we now know that a prime minister cannot simultaneously fulfill his elected duty while also standing trial. While such legislation may not exist in other democracies, Israel needs some sort of legal mechanism that will force an indicted prime minister to either resign or temporarily suspend himself from office until his name is cleared in court, or alternatively, he is convicted.
Regardless of whether or not the above changes are made, the case for electoral reform in Israel is clearer than ever. The mess of the past two years could have been avoided if two basic political reforms had been implemented. First, if the largest party in the Knesset would form the governing coalition. This would replace the current law whereby the president tasks the Member of Parliament he thinks has the best chance of succeeding in assembling a coalition. Such a law would eliminate the political blackmail of smaller parties that now demand payment up front in return for the president’s recommendation.
This reform would also incentivise Israelis to vote for a parliament made up of two main political parties, along with a much smaller number of satellite parties. During the 2019-2020 elections, this theory was put to the test when in their campaigns, both Netanyahu and Benny Gantz assured voters that the head of the largest party in the Knesset would form the next government. While this was not technically true, when Israelis thought that a vote for the larger parties would determine the premiership, this resulted in the largest number of seats for just two parties in the parliament since the early 1990s.
Second, once in place, a new government should not require a vote of confidence to begin its term. After the head of the largest party forms a coalition, the new government should get right down to work—avoiding the sort of posturing and unreasonable demands too often proposed by potential coalition partners. While such a government would not enjoy an automatic majority on its legislation, as is the case in the current reality, the need for ad-hoc coalitions might actually force Israeli governments to think out of the box, not march forward with a dogmatic rigidity on all issues, so that they could finally end up implementing real reforms that a majority of Israelis are yearning for.
While the young Israeli democracy has endured countless wars, political assassination and a fragmented and often divided society, there is no doubt that the past two years have constituted the country’s worst political crisis. An electoral system which was put together as the state was established and which is long-overdue for reform, now seems to have brought the country to a stalemate; a situation in which a strong civil service ensures that the diplomatic and economic engine runs in neutral, without forward-thinking leadership able to move Israel ahead in an increasingly challenging world. Add to this reality a prime minister who will stop at almost nothing to ensure that he remain in office (and out of prison), and it becomes all too clear that the country is in dire need of the reforms described above. The question now is whether there can emerge a political constellation and the leadership able to ensure that such changes can be implemented.