David Newman
Views on the Borderline

Political Stalemates in Israel and the UK

If  Benjamin Netanyahu does not continue as prime minister, he will be forced to step down after having served as Israel’s longest ever serving prime minister, having recently passed the length of time served by state founder David Ben-Gurion.

If, on the other hand, British prime Minister Boris Johnson is forced into resignation following yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling that his actions in suspending Parliament were unlawful, he will have been Britain’s shortest ever serving Prime Minister.

Elected to replace Teresa May just two months ago, he has attended eight sessions of the Parliament in his role as prime minister and has, quite amazingly, lost all six votes which he has attempted to push through Parliament, relating to Brexit. Surely a new entry for the Guiness Book of records which will be hard, almost impossible, to surpass.

Both Israel and Britain lack a written constitution. But while Israel has 95 percent of the constitution in place (the major exception being the Basic Law determining nationality and citizenship, the sensitivity to which has prevented the full constitution from being completed), including the way in which prime ministers are elected and governments are to be formed following elections, Britain has been governed according to unstated conventions and a political culture. The intervention of the Supreme Court, itself a relatively new institution in the UK’s political history, less than 20 years old, is a rarity, unlike the case in Israel where the courts are often called upon to intervene in the political process.

The fact that another former British prime minister, John Major from the same party as Johnson, was one of the appellants to the Supreme Court, clearly did not help the government case.

In Israel, we are used to the idea that prime ministers will grasp on to their position in all conditions, while some party leaders who lost election after election – such as Menachem Begin in the 1950s and 1960s, or Shimon Peres in the 1980s and 1990s – succeeded in retaining their leadership roles where, in other countries, they would long have been relegated to a short note in the history books.  In the UK however, prime  ministers have resigned – or been deposed in the middle of their tenure – on many occasions.  Back in the 1950s, Anthony Eden was forced to resign as a result of Britain’s role in the Suez Campaign, Margaret Thatcher was deposed in the middle of her third tenure, while Teresa May had no choice but to step down following her bungling of Brexit during the past three years.

And once gone, there is no come back for past prime ministers of  party leaders in the UK – however long or short their tenure may have been.

For his part, former prime minister David Cameron  immediately stepped down  following his failed referendum attempt, designed to achieve the exact opposite of what happened in reality. But he too, in a very un-British way of doing things, had the audacity, last week, at the height of the latest Brexit controversy, to publish his new autobiography and accuse just about everyone else of betraying him. Diplomatic it may not have been, but his book , priced at at 25 pounds sterling, is selling like hotfire in all major UK book stores.

But in a brief interview from New York, where he is attending the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly,  Johnson has already made it clear that he has no intention of stepping down, despite the categorical and unanimous ruling of the entire eleven Supreme Court Justices. The pressure on him in the coming days and weeks will be intense – no previous prime Minister in the history of the UK has ever been found guilty of “unlawful conduct” , let alone bringing the Monarchy into disrepute by convincing the Queen to sign the longer than usual suspension of Parliament, or prorogation as we have come to learn a new word in the English language, as a means of preventing any further discussion of Brexit before the UK leaves the EU – with or without an agreement – on 31st October 2019.

What is really needed in the UK are two votes – a second referendum on Brexit and a General Election. They could easily be held on the same day – with the referendum requiring clear questions and detailed alternatives (Remain, Brexit only with a deal, Brexit without a deal)  and a special majority to pass, while the General  Election would be held according to the first past the post British majoritarian system.  This would enable the British people to vote across party lines on Brexit, while voting for their preferred party on issues relating to economics, social, health and welfare issues which normally divide the maor political parties in Britain. No doubt that participation rates would be far higher than in previous elections (or in the Brexit referendum of 2016), owing to the intensity of the debate and the desire by most UK citizens to put it behind them and move on with life.

A double vote of this type  would be detrimental to the third party, the Liberal Democrats, who have declared categorically that they wish to have a general election over Brexit, with the stated intention of  remaining within the EU, but given the enormous political debate which is taking place over Brexit, ad nauseum, it would be best to separate the two issues one from the other and, as the Brits would say, “to have done with it once and for all”.

What is definitely not needed in Israel is a third election. We have had two with similar results and there is absolutely nothing to make us believe that a further election would produce anything which would be significantly different. Without a different electoral system, one which would maintain representation for all major groups in society but at the same time provide us with clear and stable government, there is no point in holding yet another meaningless, and costly, election. the two leaders, Gantz and Netanyahu, do have a responsibility to come together and to create a coalition government which can make the necessary constitutional and electoral changes for the next time, whenever that may be.

It is not unknown in Israel for family and former friends to get so heated over issues relating to the Arab-Israel conflict, that they end up screaming at each other, breaking off relationships, not talking to each other and even splitting up families, as they each see the issues dividing the nation as truly existential. There are many families and workplaces in Israel where agreements are reached not to undertake political debates at weddings, barmitzvot or festival gatherings , or during the lunch breaks at the office, so as to avoid heated controversy and to retain friendships.

The same has been happening in the UK over Brexit. A country where political debate has been far more restrained than in Israel, is on the verge of breaking up over the intensity of the Brexit debate. There are many reports of  broken relationships. Workplaces and families, and even some pubs, have banned all talk of Brexit, as many former friends and even family members have ceased to interact with each other over, what they also perceive, as being in the long term benefit or detriment of the country, and hence their own personal and family futures.

Whether Johnson survives, and whether Britain does eventually leave the EU at the end of October, remains an unknown, despite the short period of time left until then. What is clear however is that the British political system is undergoing an earthquake of the size it has never experienced before.  Many serious constitutional questions, the role of the Supreme Court and the obvious need – just as in Israel – to reform its electoral system, will all be on the public agenda once Brexit, this way or the other, has been left behind.

A shakeup of old institutions every so often is not necessarily a bad thing.  There is a possibility that  a month or two down the road, we will have different governments in both Israel and the UK – and then again, nothing may have changed and the debate – whether to leave or remain in the EU, whether to have a national unity government or go for third elections – will still be with us. A New Year – Rosh Hashana – is upon us, the time when we reflect on events of the past year and look towards new, healthy and positive futures.

Time indeed to move on from the stalemate that each of the countries, Israel and the UK, finds itself in at present.

About the Author
David Newman is professor of Geopolitics in the Department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. BIO: David Newman holds the University Research Chair of Geopolitics at Ben-Gurion University, where he founded the Department of Politics and Government, and the Centre for the Study of European Politics and Society (CSEPS) , and served as Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences from 2010-2016. Professor Newman received the OBE in 2013 for his work in promoting scientific cooperation between Israel and the UK. From 1999-2014 he was chief editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics. David Newman moved to Israel from the UK in 1982. In 2017 he was selected as one of the 100 most influential immigrants to Israel from the UK. His work in Geopolitics focuses on the changing functions and roles of borders, and territorial and border issues in Israel / Palestine. For many years Newman was involved in Track II dialogues between Israelis and Palestinians.He has additional research interests in Anglo Jewish history, and is a self declared farbrent Tottenham Yid.
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