The recent trial balloons about changing the electoral system have been met with derision. But while it’s reasonable to suspect anything originating with the Likud spin machine, direct election of the prime minister is not a terrible idea.
It should be especially appealing to the center-left, which in the existing system faces a structural problem in leading a government that is truly its own, because that would require working with the Arab parties. Even though many in Israel do yearn for such a thing, they’re probably not in the majority and in any case such a government would struggle.
How would a Blue and White government dependent on the United Arab List (which I have on these pages in fact recommended) respond to provocations from Gaza, Hezbollah or Iran? It’s easy to imagine Hamas testing Benny Gantz immediately upon his swearing-in with rockets, hoping his reaction would offend his Arab partners. Bringing down a government is not easy once it’s sworn in, but it would be hobbled if the Arabs swiftly bolted.
Of course, one might hope such a government would be focused on peace, not war. Even if that happened, any steps toward partition and accommodation with the Palestinians would be hysterically opposed by the right for lacking a “Jewish majority.” That is racist and undemocratic, but few would be surprised, and Israel does not lack for hooligans who could be incited by the right to violence.
Furthermore, the left in Israel and indeed all over the world does not have the same drive as the right.
It is typical that Benjamin Netanyahu reacted to the corruption charges announced last week with an offensive against the legal system he presides over, accusing it of a coup d’etat despite having benefitted from an array of legal discounts. He is willing to burn down the house and can dupe many into thinking it patriotic.
This typifies the global right-wing populist movement these days, whose willingness to do anything to gain power is why its leaders are often quite rightly accused of vehiculating lies. They have what Nietzsche called the Will to Power (a term whose meaning is debated but which fits Netanyahu like a glove). The left is simply not as determined.
In Israel, the left cannot even devise a narrative to address the complication of its alliance with the Arabs. Its perfectionists and idealists are incapable of creative compromises and wily marketing.
Anyone needing a reminder received it today from Blue and White Knesset member Zvi Hauser who ruled out a government based on United Arab List support because its Knesset members supposedly do not embrace Israel’s self-definition as “Jewish and democratic.” You can call Hauser a right-wing fig leaf but he speaks for a much wider group that has trouble grappling with reality as it is.
To state the obvious, it’s no disgrace that the center-left has no majority without the Arabs. Get over it.
The right has no majority without the Haredim, currently holding more seats than the United Arab List. The Haredi parties are neither Zionist nor democratic. It also has no majority without religious fascists who are neither democratic nor humanist. The “mainstream right” (even emptied of the few decent leaders who somehow stuck around until a few years ago) currently has about 35 out of 120 seats’ worth of support on a good day and depends for any majority on forces that politely can be described as problematic. Can anyone imagine prominent Likudniks ruling them out?
This landscape is why the left is always yearning for a “unity” government with the Likud (but one that it somehow leads). Blue and White has taken this to new lows, practically insisting on it at the expense of other scenarios. One can understand a gesture – an outreach to moderate members “across the aisle.” But what kind of potentially ruling party runs around begging its rival (and in this case a rival it views correctly as destructive to society) for support and partnership? It is bizarre, offensive and political foolish.
The Likud, sensing this pitiable weakness, is not likely to give in, even if it has one seat less by part count, as it does today.
Even in the wider sense, Israel faces an intense problem forming coherent governments, because the population is too fragmented for a majority that cuts across all the issues: the territories with their millions of Palestinians, the economy, the role of religion, and cultural and social matters.
Just as one example, nationalists who want to be on the right have needed to also align themselves with religious fanatics who oppose the study of math and refuse to allow a normal weekend to take place. That is because the right has in fact needed to be the right-religious bloc in order to get a majority. That was never going to be stable, and it led to Avigdor Liberman’s 2019 abandonment of Netanyahu – with the resulting prospect of three elections within 12 months.
Governments are unlikely to enjoy widespread acceptance under such circumstances. This is more dangerous to the left than to the right, because the left these days tends to be less likely to revolt when it does not get its way. But even the left has a devil of a time coming to terms with the type of government that the system has foisted upon it. The whole thing is a crisis of legitimacy, of the sort that has led to revolutions, civil wars and the collapse of empires.
It mirrors what’s going on in America. But there, for all the unhappiness and unfairness of the Electoral College, with its imposition of minoritarian governments, at least there is a clear winner. Israel could use one as well – and that is what a direct election of the prime minister would offer. A decision by the public that is inarguable, even if it is absurd.
The procedure can be debated. How to define and limit powers? How to enable the prime minister to govern, when the party breakdown is likely to stay much the same (since party voting is more of a census than an election)? That was the problem with the last direct election effort, which foundered when prime ministers struggled to maintain a Knesset majority and gradually lost legitimacy.
One possibility is to not require a majority – perhaps allowing a supermajority to remove the prime minister and dissolve the Knesset. Another is to grant the elected prime minister a large bloc of seats automatically, yielding a majority in most cases. Yet another is to introduce mandatory voting (meaning a penalty for not voting); that may have the effect of helping the left, which currently suffers due to the low voting rates among the Arabs (that have no equivalent, of course, on the Haredi side).
Whatever the details of the arrangement, it would avoid the current fiasco of no elected government.
And the left need not fret so much. Let it find a candidate as clever, focused, ruthless and charismatic as Netanyahu. That may be Gantz, and it may be someone else. One day justice will prevail, and Israel will leave most of the West Bank, and shake off the grip of religious fundamentalists. That day could come in March under the current system; but it is far more likely with a direct election.
Israel’s politics are in a state of intolerable dysfunction. It is time to drain the swamp.