Jim Shalom
A semi-retired physician

Inflection Points in Israel’s Chaotic Politics

Yet another Israeli government has fallen. The Bennett-led coalition collapsed after remaining in power for over a year – longer than many pundits had predicted. Since neither Netanyahu nor any other opposition Knesset member has been able to form an alternative government, Israel is headed for elections once more. Furthermore, current polls do not predict the emergence of a potential coalition of parties likely to cooperate to form a majority. The Israeli political scene is in the throes of chaos yet again. This will be the fifth election since April 2019. Why is this happening? This can be explained by understanding Israel’s political landscape and using an inflection point analysis.

The explanations are multiple. Firstly, the Israeli electoral system is one of proportional representation, in which even losing votes count. In most democratic countries, when one party wins in an electoral district, the votes for the losers are lost; if, for example, party X has received 10% of the votes, these votes will no longer be counted. Even if the party wins 10% of the votes in every constituency in the country, under most electoral systems that party will gain no seats in parliament; in Israel, however, they will receive 10% of the seats. This proportional system gives rise to the proliferation of small, often fractious fringe parties, thereby complicating the process of establishing a majority.

Secondly, the Israeli public is divided, often down the middle, on many fundamental issues: nationalistic Right versus accommodating Left, the economic Right versus the Left, Israeli Arabs versus Israeli Jews.

Thirdly, issues of ego and personality have led to the creation of multiple parties which, despite overlapping platforms, do not automatically cooperate with one another. In the present configuration, for example, if all the seats on the Right are added, there would be a clear right-wing majority. However, three of the right-wing parties have refused to help form a Netanyahu-led government, while Netanyahu’s Likud party was unwilling to participate in a government not led by him.

In the past, as the Israeli Arab parties refused to participate in government, their seats were thereupon lost. However, in the last election, one Arab party made the leap into the activist arena and helped form the government.

It was within this challenging situation that, by a slim majority, a Bennett-led government was formed. Why then did it fall?

When trying to explain the world around us, although often a problem erupts because of series of events and circumstances, there is sometimes a single discernible occurrence that contributes most crucially to precipitating the disruption. This factor can be termed a negative inflection point: a turning point that irrevocably leads to a breakdown.

Application of this model can help to explain the fall of the recent Israeli government. While the coalition was a combination of ideological opposites, it was nonetheless united by two factors: the determination to have a government not led by Netanyahu and despite ideological and personality differences, the resolve to act in the public interest. Rather than pursuing a narrow policy agenda, members of this government focused on national consensus issues that required attention yet presented no overly conflicting ideological conflicts for any of the coalition participants. Since almost any policy can be considered political, to succeed, each party had to display flexibility and acquiesce to some policies that, although they were not a part of their own political agenda, in their final analysis were “not unacceptable.”

During its year in power, Bennett’s government did indeed get things done, the most far-reaching being the passing a budget. A budget is essential for effective governance and had not been voted in for two years because of the Knesset political deadlock. Another accomplishment was improvement of relations with Israel’s Arab neighbors culminating in a summit meeting in the Negev. Mention should be made of the taking of an assertive stance against Iranian hegemony, improved relations with the US government and not only advances in dealing with violence in the Israeli Arab sector but helping the topic become a consensus issue garnering widespread support. These achievements were attained while all the time, the government had simultaneously to deal with both the continuing pandemic and a spate of terrorist attacks.

What then went wrong?

The answers are that the government lost its mere one-seat majority and immediately afterwards the disciplined cooperative approach of all the remaining participants. MK Idit Silman’s decision to resign breached the government majority. Also, her attitude change upturned the emphasis that other coalition members had placed on government stability and compromise to one of individual jockeying for personal agendas. After Silman’s resignation, the fall of the government was inevitable.

Silman’s motives remain unclear. Her declared reason for resignation was Bennett’s refusal to back an ultimatum requiring Israeli hospitals to ensure that non-observant Jews and non-Jews observed dietary restrictions when visiting sick relatives during the Jewish holiday of Passover. Did she fully recognize the obvious ramifications of her decision? However serious this issue may be for observant Jews it does not appear to justify bringing down the government and leaving the country to cope with elections in a probable stalemate. After all, it is not new or out of the ordinary for observant Jews to have to deal with the differing lifestyles of others around them. Alternatively, one may speculate that the real determining factor was, perhaps, a shift in her priorities that caused her right-wing religious and ideological beliefs to take precedence over her commitment to the common pluralistic good. The shift in priorities from being cooperative to individualistic represents a significant inflection point.

In contrast, Bennett, who led the same Yamina party that Silman belongs to, chose the alternative route, and was willing to put ideology aside for the sake of pursuing the public good. This led to a year-long series of accomplishments. Hopefully, history will judge him favorably. To paraphrase Robert Frost: “He took the road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” Had Silman done the same, the government, too, could have continued to make a difference.

Individuals may enter politics to pursue an ideal and certify their success only if their ideal is attained. Reality, however, is rarely so accommodating. Consequently, in due course, as they mature, many politicians change their point of reference to the pursuit of what is attainable towards accomplishing their goals, given the political reality in which they find themselves. In more blunt terms: to get things done, politicians must often set their pristine ideals and fantasies aside and accept a partial solution. Perhaps limited solutions were something Silman could not or would no longer be willing to cope with. While ideals can and should direct us, successful politics sometimes comes down to accepting and reconciling with partial accomplishments.

It is true that flexibility cannot be endless, and it must not be spineless. Every politician and party will obviously have a bottom line – and, indeed, they must have one. When a politician, or anyone else for that matter, concludes that any further concession will undermine everything they stand for, they may well resist and change their behavior. That would be considered a natural and healthy inflection point. Had Silman really reached that point? It does not appear to be so. One could surmise that her priority shift occurred even though she had not reached her bottom line.

What is additionally unfortunate and tragic about Silman’s action is that, typically, even people in positions of power experience only a very few opportunities during a lifetime when they as individuals can actually make a difference. If we look at elections for example: as long as one side receives many more votes than the other, whether a particular individual voted or not, or for which side they voted, makes no difference to the eventual outcome. In contrast, in Bennett’s government, each member did make a difference: the difference between functioning and collapse; between political (even if not ideal) order and governmental and national chaos. Furthermore, now Israel’s plethora of present problems, together with future issues such as President Biden’s visit, continuing improved relations with neighboring countries and mounting domestic issues, will all have to be dealt with by an ersatz transitional government with little clout or authority. Nor is there any assurance that a new majority-based government will successfully be formed after the next elections.

Because the Israeli political landscape comprises multiple political parties and so many diverse fundamental issues, it seems reasonable to presume that any future rigidly and excessively ideological approach will also fail. As with the Bennett-led coalition, only the willingness of all involved to navigate carefully between their bottom-line inflection points and the imposition of ideological issues will determine the establishment and viability of any future government.

About the Author
Jim Shalom is a specialist in family medicine, with interests in end-of-life care and the Israeli political scene. He resides in Galilee. He has spent most of his adult life living and working in Israel.
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