A minority government in Israel?

One of the few options for forming a government after the recent Knesset elections is the formation of a minority government, which is based on the “outside support” of one or more parties that are not part of the coalition, but which had reached an agreement with the ruling party to guarantee it a majority in parliament, in return for various benefits. More specifically, there is talk of a minority government led by the Blue White party with the participation of Yisrael Beytenu and Labor-Gesher-Meretz, and with the support from the outside of the Joint List. Together, these 4 electoral lists have 62 Knesset seats. Even if the three Knesset members from the Joint List who represent Balad – a nationalistic Arab party that declared it would not support a government led by Gantz – would abstain, this minority government would enjoy a majority of 59 against 58, and therefore could be established (under the Basic Law: The Government, a simple majority is sufficient in order to form a new government).

This would be a first in Israeli history. No minority government has ever been established immediately after Knesset elections. There have been several minority governments over the years, but they all resulted from the defection of coalition factions in mid-term. Yitzhak Rabin’s second government is the prime example. After Shas jumped ship in September 1993, it continued in office as a minority government, which depended on only the 56 MKs of Labor and Meretz, and survived — thanks to the outside support of the Arab parties.

Many Israelis feel that a minority government is somehow incompatible with democracy. This reflects the Israeli political tradition, which calls for the formation of the broadest possible coalition (made up exclusively of Jewish parties, of course), as well as a perception of democracy in which only majority decisions are legitimate. Specifically, many Jewish Israelis do not consider the Arabs to be legitimate partners in government, and consequently reject the formation of a minority government that relies on the support of the Arab factions.

It is not clear, however, that the Israeli aversion to minority governments is justified. Since the Second World War, about a third of the governments of European democracies have lacked a parliamentary majority. In some countries — Denmark, Spain, Sweden, Romania, and Norway — most of the governments were minority governments. An example of such an arrangement is the minority government set up in Great Britain after the 2017 elections there: the Conservative Party and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) signed an official and public accord, whereby the latter agreed to provide outside support for the government. A “pure” minority government, in which there is no such agreement among parties, is much rarer, but can exist – the conservative party of Canada, for example, formed such governments in 2006 and 2008.

What about the performance of minority governments? Contrary to popular belief, they do not necessarily function more poorly than majority governments, especially if they enjoy the guaranteed support of parties with an ideology close to that of the ruling party. On the one hand, they generally have a guaranteed parliamentary majority, almost on a par with majority governments, and thus are able to implement their policies — just as Rabin’s minority government won approval for and implemented the Oslo Accords. A minority government includes fewer ministers and fewer ministries, leading to a major saving of public funds and streamlining its work. In addition, minority governments have the potential to enhance the representation of excluded groups. Because the government has to win outside support, it may try to gain the support of the factions that represent these sectors of the population, on a regular or ad hoc basis — in return, of course, for various material benefits. In fact, many consider the Rabin government of the 1990s, which for most of its tenure was a minority government that depended on the outside support of the Arab factions, to have been among the best ever for the Arab sector.

So should we conclude that a minority government is the best option available to us today? Not necessarily. Even though such a government could function just as well as a majority government, it is not certain that it would enjoy strong public legitimacy. In addition, most of the minority government options being floated today, especially for one supported both by Yisrael Beitenu and the Joint List would be too broad and heterogeneous, in terms of political views and ideology, to function well over time. On the other hand, if the choice is between a minority government and another round of elections the former option might just be preferable.

About the Author
Dr. Assaf Shapira is a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute’s Center for Governance and the Economy.
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