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A unity government is nearly impossible. It’s also the only option

With the health crisis and the Joint List's ineligibility as partners in a center-left coalition, there's one good solution for the political impasse

There is plenty of room for change in the Israeli system of government, but this is not what has left the State of Israel without a government for more than a year. Our current limbo can be attributed only to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s personal legal situation. As a result, Israel has had to deal with serious security issues on its northern and southern borders; with the growing threat of Iranian nuclearization; and most recently, with the coronavirus pandemic, all while under the protracted rule of a caretaker government, and with no budget in place to make it possible to address the formidable challenges we face.

But if we are already stuck in this situation, we should take advantage of the opportunity to examine just how problematic two slogans trumpeted by the right in recent years have been. The first expresses its hostility toward the supposed “rule of bureaucrats.” Based on the fact that it has received the public’s direct support, the political echelon has been granted the legitimacy for making any decision it chooses to make, while civil service “bureaucrats” have been portrayed as seeking to sabotage this freedom of action in favor of their own private agenda.

Clearly, every democratic regime is founded on a defined hierarchy in which its elected representatives oversee its bureaucratic system, and set policy. But the integrity and professionalism with which bureaucrats, headed by Health Ministry director-general of the Moshe Bar Siman Tov, are handling the immense challenge of the coronavirus crisis should go a long way towards moderating the tone of contempt inherent in the phrase “rule of bureaucrats.”

Just as the State of Israel could not function without an elected political echelon to set national policy, it also cannot do without a committed professional echelon to implement this policy on the basis of its best professional  skills. And just as we should not brush away the fears that the professional echelon might have its own ideological agenda, which must be curbed by our elected representatives, neither should we ignore far greater concerns regarding the possibility that the political echelon will seek to set policies that are not in the public interest. It is important that we have professionals who can oppose such efforts.

The second slogan of Israel’s right is its opposition to the Supreme Court, and in particular, to the powers the Court has assumed to strike down legislation passed by the Knesset. In recent weeks, those on the right have witnessed what once seemed to them unimaginable, the emergence of a center-left majority. And they’ve now seen that same slim majority seek to pass a law tailored to an individual case legislation according to which a person under indictment can’t be elected as prime minister, possibly even with retroactive application. In such a case as this, only the Supreme Court can save the right. Had the “override clause” already been passed into law, then even the High Court of Justice would be powerless to intervene.

The most challenging political question to emerge in recent weeks is, of course, the question of relying on the Joint List, which is composed of four Arab parties, in order to form a government. This is indeed a thorny issue. The alliance between the Joint List and Blue and White can be framed in two ways: On the one hand, as three former IDF Chiefs of General Staff groveling before an anti-Zionist parliamentary faction; but on the other, as a first-of-its-kind case of an anti-Zionist party being open to cooperation with a party headed by three former IDF Chiefs of General Staff, including the one who oversaw Operation Protective Edge, the bloody 2014 Gaza war. In the Israeli context, this is akin to the coming of the Messiah.

But ultimately the inclusion of any party in a governing coalition depends on its platform and on its willingness to accept the consensus reached among the coalition member parties, and this applies to the Joint List. Yet Joint List members have expressed views that place them well below the minimum requirements expected even by the Zionist Left. And unfortunately it’s not just long ago statements that were never repudiated. During the negotiations with Blue and White, MK Aida Touma-Suleiman said one of her first demands would be to revoke the Law of Return. MK Ahmad Tibi announced that his party would move to block a Center-Left coalition from pursuing any military operation in Gaza, whatever the circumstances. The time is clearly not yet ripe for such collaboration.

Thus, the main choice that we face, now as we did after the two previous elections, is between a narrow right-wing government and a broad unity government. Clearly, the right option is unity. Israel cannot deal with the dramatic issues it now faces with a narrow government, and with a prime minister whose very legitimacy is strongly challenged by half the Israeli public.

A word to members of the right-wing bloc: In recent days you called on right-leaning Blue and White MKs Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser not to succumb to pressure to ally with the Joint List. You said they must be willing to pay a personal price to uphold their principles. By that logic, you should wake up and ask no less of yourselves. You too should be willing to display courage, albeit in much smaller measure, and stand up to the prime minister with a dual message: “Even if, by various manoeuvres, you are able to gain a majority of 61 in the Knesset, we will not support you in any legislation or any decisions that would set a precedent for allowing a public figure to escape being tried for his or her actions. Similarly, we demand that you form a unity government, one that will not save you from your own personal troubles, but that can do much to rescue Israel from its current problems.”

About the Author
Yair Sheleg is a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute