Israel has just announced its fourth election in two years, following three dysfunctional governments in a row. Unlike in the US, if the state budget is not passed within a certain amount of time (it wasn’t), the government falls. This is but one way of several that the government can dissolve itself before its 4-year term finishes.
Another difference from the US is that here there are not just two major parties. In Israel, there are many political parties. In the 72 years since Israel’s independence, no party has ever won a majority of the voters. Therefore coalition governments consisting of numerous parties are the rule. In past decades, either the Labor party or the Likud party has usually been the largest party, requiring many disparate parties to join a coalition to achieve a majority of 61 MKs (members of Knesset).
Now, after three previous elections in which Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu of Likud became prime minister, there is a real possibility that the mold will be broken in the upcoming election. Bibi has already served as prime minister more years than any other, eclipsing David Ben-Gurion’s tenure a few years ago. Currently Bibi is on trial with three indictments against him which could result in jail time if he is found guilty. (Ehud Olmert was imprisoned for crimes which preceded his prime ministership.)
Consequently, Bibi must divide his time between running the government (he makes almost all the big decisions by himself) and defending himself in court. Many people, including me, believe that this task is too much, even for an accomplished politician who is still thought to be the most qualified leader by a plurality of Israeli voters. Consequently, breakaway politicians from various parties are making possible a government which excludes Bibi.
Israeli voters are overwhelmingly on the right side of the political spectrum. According to the latest Jerusalem Post poll, the (left) Labor party – which ruled Israel for decades – might fail to win a single seat in the next Knesset. The left could be represented by only 18 seats in the 120-member Knesset, and that would be mostly due to the United Arab List, augmented by the tiny, far left Meretz contingent. Another two parties of observant and ultra-orthodox Jews usually join with the right wing, but might be excluded this time.
This time around, center and right parties, without Likud, may total more than 60 seats, leaving Bibi out of a job and out of the ruling coalition. The latest polls show a former Likud member, Gideon Saar, heading the new, second largest, party behind Likud. There is the possibility that other party members may opt out of Likud, prompting the remaining members to push Bibi aside to allow Likud to join its ostensible allies on the right, sans Bibi. (But early polls tend to be inaccurate.) With a Democratic president assuming office in Washington next month, it would be beneficial for Israel to elect a prime minister not so identified with the previous Republican administration.
It should be noted that Israel’s president, who is elected to a mostly ceremonial 7-year term, is tasked with choosing the politician who will attempt to form a majority coalition government. The president is not required to pick the party leader; he could choose a lower ranking member of the party whom he thinks might be more successful. It’s well know that President Rivlin, approaching the end of his term, dislikes Bibi.
Bibi Netanyahu has failed to form a successful, functioning government after three serial elections. These were prompted by his decision to prematurely dissolve the previous government two years ago. It’s tempting, and probably true, to believe that Bibi is following a long line of successful heads of state who lingered on past their “sell-by” date, failing to leave office at the top of their game, thereby diminishing their legacies.
However, Bibi is still the politician most Israelis prefer to be prime minister. His historic leadership has brought Israel into the 21st century, made Israel one of the world’s most powerful nations, brought the world’s attention to Iran’s nuclear weapons development, secured peace treaties with four (and counting) Arab countries, and led Israel to be foremost among all Western nations in vaccinating its citizens.
Although the election is on March 23, less than three months away, it’s too early to make predictions from inexact polls. (In Israel election campaigns are conducted in months, not years like in the US.) There is only a short time before the various parties must submit their party lists to the election authorities in early February. We expect more tumult on the part of current politicians and political wannabes, the latter including retired IDF generals/chiefs of staff. Some of those generals serving as MKs may quit, leave their party for another, or even form their own new parties. There is also talk of yet another retired former Chief of Staff weighing in. Whatever the result of this election, Israelis can only hope for a functioning government to serve its full 4-year term. Stay tuned…