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Been elected? Deal with it

With less than a month to go to Israel’s fifth elections in three and a half years, it is clear that governmental instability has wreaked huge damage. The work of the Knesset and of the government has suffered, as Knesset members and ministers are constantly operating in a campaign mode. The rules of the game that are generating this instability must be addressed carefully and based on a broad consensus.

With the approach of Israel’s fifth elections in three and a half years, governmental instability is worse than ever. Yet this instability is hardly something new, or characteristic only of the last few years; rather, it is a chronic problem of Israel’s political system, and one which has simply become more extreme in recent times.

The last Knesset assembly that completed its term was elected in 1984. Since then, every single election was held early—in some cases, by just a few months, but in several cases (1999, 2006, and 2009) by a year or more. Over the last decade, the majority of Knesset assemblies have served for a very short period, including the Knesset of 2013–2015, and all four of those that have served since 2019. The instability is even more pronounced when it comes to the terms of office of government ministers. For example, until the early 1990s, ministers of the interior served an average of 3.3 years in office, but since then, this has dropped to a pitiful 1.3 years.

The damage caused by this instability is tremendous. A prominent aspect of this damage relates to the work of the Knesset. One of the Knesset’s primary functions is legislation. But most legislative processes are complex and require a considerable investment of time and resources—including drafting a bill, securing a coalition of Knesset members who will back it, gaining the support of ministries, legal experts, and Finance Ministry officials, and getting it through committees and the final votes in the Knesset. When Knesset assemblies are dispersed within a year or two, the vast majority of bills under consideration are either held up for many months (in the best-case scenario) or halted entirely. There are many examples of laws whose advancement has been suspended due to upcoming elections, including the amendment to the Metro Law, the climate bill, and the amendment to the Prevention of Domestic Violence Law, with regard to electronic tagging.

The problem is that even when a Knesset assembly serves for a relatively long period of time, as in 2015–2019, the chronic instability still seeps through and has an effect. All the actors in the political arena and in state agencies are well aware that at any moment, a small Knesset faction or even a handful of Knesset members can decide to leave the government and drag the entire country to elections.

Thus, for example, Knesset members are constantly operating in campaign mode: their attention is constantly focused on the next round of elections, rather than on carrying out significant parliamentary work. The same is true of government ministers, who have nothing to gain from meaningful long-term planning, as they know that there is a good chance that they will be forced to leave office very soon. They are only interested in immediate achievements, even as the State of Israel is in desperate need of long-term planning in areas such as education, health, housing, climate, and transportation.

Civil servants in government ministries also adapt themselves to the situation. Since reforms requiring legislation are likely to be deferred if elections are held early, they design a priori reforms that do not require Knesset legislation or approval of regulations by Knesset committees. While this is undoubtedly a very logical tactic from their perspective, it deals a significant blow to the Knesset’s ability to oversee the government.

The conclusion to be drawn is that the negative consequences of governmental instability extend beyond the inconvenience of having to hold elections every year, and even beyond concerns about a decline in voter turnout, or the possibility that such frequent elections will encourage public desire for a strong leader who will “impose order.” Rather, the damage is being caused here and now, and affects each and every one of us.

The frequent recurrence of elections in Israel undoubtedly stems from political circumstances—such as a political deadlock between the two main blocs, the growing political polarization that hampers the prospects of cooperation between them, and Netanyahu’s personal circumstances. But it is also a product of the rules of the game in Israel, and in particular-the great ease with which the Knesset can be dissolved—with a bare majority of 61 members, with dissolution being triggered by the State budget not being passed, or by failure to form a government, or by a prime ministerial order. And unlike the surrounding political circumstances, these rules of the game can most certainly be addressed: Carefully, cautiously, and with broad consensus, steps must be taken to beef up the required conditions for dispersing the Knesset. The default situation should be that the Knesset concludes its term, and is dissolved before that only in exceptional cases. The current situation is the reverse, and it must be changed.

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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