Is Israel still a democracy if the country has been ruled for a year by an unelected government?
Just over a year ago, the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, voted to dissolve itself and call an early election. On that day in December 2018, the government became the “Outgoing Government”, no longer having the confidence of the Knesset.
In Israel, the acting Outgoing Government continues to serve in order to keep the country running until a new, legitimate government can be seated by a vote of the Knesset. Until then, the Outgoing Government has no real democratic legitimacy, and no Knesset to provide oversight. Its job is to keep the country running without making any major decisions.
More than a year, two elections and several criminal indictments later, Israel is still being run by an Outgoing Government that nobody elected. And, despite having been rejected by the voters twice, it’s doing its best to carry on like it’s a fully-legitimate government with the full powers of the people it’s ignoring.
An Outgoing Government has one power that a full government doesn’t. In normal times, every ministerial appointment in Israel needs the approval of the Knesset. During a transitional government, though, this requirement doesn’t apply because the appointment is only supposed to be a temporary one, for a couple of weeks.
Today’s Outgoing Government, though, looks very different from December 2018. The most senior members of the Cabinet — the Defence Minister, Foreign Minister and Justice Minister — were appointed under these temporary powers without the approval of the Knesset. So far:
- Naftali Bennett quit his party, formed a new party, lost an election and left the Knesset, was fired as Education Minister, got a seat in the next election and was appointed Defence Minister.
- Israel Katz was appointed Foreign Minister
- Amir Ohana was made Justice Minister after Ayelet Shaked was fired.
- Yoav Galant became Aliya Minister.
- Dudi Amsalem was made Communications Minister.
- Rafi Peretz was appointed Education Minister
- Betsalel Smotrich was appointed Transport Minister
- Yitzhak Vaknin was appointed Religious Affairs Minister
- Yifat Shasha-Biton became Housing Minister
None of these ministers (except for Galant, I think) was approved by the Knesset to fill their roles. As ministers, they have powers to make decisions about the country, its future and its present.
Incoming-Outgoing Justice Minister Amir Ohana, for example, fired senior officials because they were accused of being close to the previous two justice ministers, Ayelet Shaked and Tzipi Livni, and therefore must be “Leftists”, and tried to appoint a political ally as acting State’s Attorney until the courts intervened .
Whatever you think about political appointments of senior officials, surely a Government that nobody elected and nobody approved shouldn’t be able to reshape the civil service. According to media reports, there are about to be even more ministerial appointments.
The next Israeli general election is on 2 March 2020, more than two months away. There isn’t likely to be a new government until May at the earliest, almost a year and a half.
If the polls are correct, then this one will produce a result very similar to the previous two, and Outgoing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will fail, again, to form a government. Equally, though, by refusing to allow another Likud Knesset member a chance to try, he might again be able to block anyone else from forming a government either. In that case… Israel would head to a fourth election. And the Outgoing Government would last another several months.
Sure, lurking in the sidelines here are Mr’s Netanyahu legal troubles. He has been indicted for a series of offenses including bribery. As long as he remains Prime Minister he gets certain legal protections (like a guarantee of a three-judge trial panel). He also has increased political leverage when it comes to things like asking the Knesset to grant him immunity from prosecution. He has all sorts of personal reasons to want to remain Prime Minister.
But all of that is not directly relevant to the matter at hand.
Nobody elected this government. It was only supposed to last for a few weeks, but it’s been ruling us for a year and will stick around until May in the best case. And it could end up still being here in September 2020, almost two years later.
Israelis don’t seem particularly angry about this situation. But maybe we should be. In a parliamentary democracy, our leaders rule by the consent of the representatives of the people. Nobody elected this government. No Knesset approved it. No votes appointed almost half of its members. It rules by virtue of itself and a loophole in the law.
The question for Israelis is: how long can we be ruled by an unelected government, led by an indicted Prime Minister, without the approval of the Knesset?
I worry about the answer to that question.