Jim Shalom
A semi-retired physician

The challenges facing any Prime Minister of Israel

This blog is not intended to be political. Nor is it meant to be a vote of support for Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister for the past 12 years. It is meant to illustrate the contextual and structural challenges facing any Israeli prime minister. While I do believe that the time has come for him to go, to blame much of Israel’s woes on him would be misreading the situation. Israeli reality is far more complex.

Israel has made many advances during Netanyahu’s leadership of the country. Among other accomplishments, Israel’s robust economy, strong army, dramatic success over COVID and levelheaded responses to crises in the face of multiple other simultaneous crises can all be attributed largely to his leadership role. Netanyahu is extremely bright and experienced.  He is one of the more experienced and competent leaders in the world.  That does not deny that there are also serious problems such as the recent war with Gaza, the lack of an active peace process, polarization within Israel and lack of strategic planning for the future.

However, these problems were also present to some degree before Netanyahu took power leading to the conclusion that there are numerous unique and structural challenges facing any Israeli leader, not just Netanyahu. Here are some:

  1. In contrast to the US where once a president is elected, he will be in power for 4 years unless impeached or dies, Israeli’s system is more like the Canadian and British.  The prime minister can face a vote of confidence and be defeated at any time, even from within his own party. The Israeli reality where the government in power often only has only a slim majority puts the government’s stability at the mercy of every disaffected MK (member of the Knesset).
  2. Second, Israel’s political system of proportional representation, while the most democratic electoral system in the world, is problematic in practice.  Let us take a theoretical example of a radical party called the Purples.  Let us say in Canada that they receive 10% of the popular vote.  Within the Canadian system, if they do not receive a majority in any constituency, they will end up with zero seats in Parliament.  In contrast, in Israel they will receive 10% of the parliamentary seats. This system, while more democratic (i.e. each vote counts) promotes the existence of multiple parties, making it more difficult to form a coalition majority.  It also radicalizes the Parliament giving undue clout to fringe parties.
  3. Israel is divided — more than the US — left and right; religious and secular, Arab and Jewish, and subdivided within each category. These differences are not subtle. What about a two-state solution? Do you continue with more West Bank settlements or face the ire of the settlers? With regards to promoting settlements, even though his Likud and the other right-wing parties are strongly in favor, he has not infrequently restrained the process. Since no government has ever attained a majority, success in forming a coalition government requires providing concessions to the participating government coalition parties. With regards to the peace process, in 2009 Netanyahu declared support for a two-state solution and afterwards publicly changed his view.  Because of the right-wing composition of the last governments, had he not done so, the result could easily have led to a fall of the government and yet another election.

    Some of the demands of coalition party participants are unfortunately unrealistically parochial.In order to gain the support of the Haredim the government has been subsidizing them, releasing them from serving in the army, and imposing religious laws on the secular population. In return, for the most part, they conveniently do not interfere with non-religious related policy. Accommodation to religious party demands, albeit to a lesser degree than those offered by the Likud party, began with the Labor governments which were in power during Israel’s first decades of existence.

    During the present negotiations among parties hoping to form an alternative government to one run by Netanyahu, his adversaries are encountering firsthand the same sort of difficulties that Netanyahu has had to face for the past 12 years – appeasement of one leader and party leading to a conflict with another party and its leader.

4a. Do you reach out to the corrupt, unelected Palestinian Authority (P.A) who at least refrain from using violence? When the left-Labor was in power, they tried this approach (Oslo accords). No matter how conciliatory the Israeli government was, the P.A. refused to commit themselves to a signed peace agreement ending the Israeli-Arab conflict. (This was not the first time that the Palestinian leadership turned down a peace opportunity.) Subsequently Israel had to deal with Palestinian terror incitement leading, among other things, to many civilian buses being blown up by suicide bombers who were deemed heroes by the PA The PA are not calling for a two-state solution as an end in itself, but rather a steppingstone to the ultimate elimination of the Jewish state.

This has been a recurring pattern: when a conciliatory approach has been taken towards Arab entities, be they the P.A., Hamas or Lebanon, it has been interpreted by the other side as a sign of weakness, and exploited against Israel, leading to exacerbation rather than minimizing the problem. The failure of a conciliatory approach has led to harder public Israeli line both for pragmatic and ideological reasons vis-à-vis the Israeli-Arab conflict. The prime minister’s hands, any prime minister’s hands are tied when both conciliatory and militant approaches fail.

4b. In addition to the PA, Israel is surrounded by real enemies who openly call for Israel’s destruction — Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran to mention a few. Their despotic nature further aggravates  the Arab Israeli conundrum. The Hamas wanton aggression towards Israel only worsened when Israel withdrew from all its Gaza settlements. Brave Arab leaders such as Sadat have been murdered for supporting peace with Israel.

4c. Many influential liberal left-wing western columnists and international institutions such as the UN gloss over the Hamas terrorist behavior and at most give lip service to their terror actions. Because any successful solution will require change on both sides, particularly radical change on the Arab side, the incompetence or bias of these Western institutions, newspapers and pundits only addressing Israel’s reluctance of the peace process and giving more weight to Israel’s response to Arab aggression than the aggression itself have made it more difficult for any Israeli prime minister to find a workable solution.  Israeli leaders saw firsthand how this misguided liberal approach failed miserably in Iraq when after removing Saddam Hussein, they tried to enforce democracy there.  With the American GDP reduced by $274 Billion and 4,572 American deaths, Iraq is still not significantly more democratic, peaceful, or appreciative of American support than during the despotic rule of Saddam Hussein. Why should one expect that the PA or Hamas react differently?  No Israeli leader wants or will tolerate American losses or such a similarly failed experiment on its people.

  1. Aside from the differing ideologies, many of Israel’ leaders can be characterized as having  inflated egos. They seem to think that only they have what it takes to the leader, with the others following as the only acceptable path to take. This position wears down with coalition negotiations but is always present under the surface and tends to flare up every time there is a crisis. Between policy differences and ego issues, it is very difficult to get a coalition government to agree on just about anything.
  2. Israel is under the scrutiny of a double standard international microscope more than any country in the world. Concern for Arab or Muslim welfare only seems to attract attention when Israel is involved. Take the Sheik Jarrah issue. Without minimizing the objections of many to this decision, it is basically an issue dealing with eviction of several families. There are far more severe contentious messes elsewhere in the world and in particular the Arab world.  There have been an estimated 400,000 deaths in the civil war in neighboring Syria with Assad nevertheless claiming 95% victory in the recent election.  There are hundreds of thousands of miserable Syrian refugees in Europe and beyond.  Should that not have received more press coverage, expressions of concern, and international actions than that of Sheik Jarrah?  Every Israeli leader has had to contend with the potential of any minor dispute blowing up dis-proportionality into an international fracas or even all-out war with our neighbors.
  3. Everybody has a voice in Israel. Consider the case of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured by Hamas. His father mobilized public opinion in Israel to the point that the government released over one thousand Hamas prisoners in exchange for his successful live release. Could an American captive’s parent mobilize political support to the point that the president and Congress would intervene in such a manner for one American?
  4. It seems as if everybody in Israel considers him/herself a potential prime minister. Politicians, civic leaders and members of the public at large routinely second guess policy decisions proclaiming they know what Israel should do in a given situation — more so than in other countries. When Nixon was president and Golda Meir prime minister, the following joke went around as follows: Nixon complained to Golda that he had the heavy responsibility of governing over 200 million people.  Golda retorted:  That’s nothing.  I have the challenge of being the prime minister of 2.5 million prime ministers. When there is continuous vociferous criticism along the way, it makes it more difficult to successfully implement multi-step policy. Nevertheless, Israel does occasionally succeed, a recent example being the insistent COVID vaccination policy which has at least temporarily eliminated COVID infections in Israel while most other countries are still struggling for control.
  5. The Arab parties in the Knesset presently have 10 seats of the 120-seat parliament. Until recently most opposed the very existence of the Jewish State of Israel.  You had an absurd situation of members of a democratically elected parliament, the only democracy in the Middle East, who are opposed to the existence of the state they were born in and representing and refusing to take an active positive role in parliamentary activity. In their speeches there was often expressed support of Israeli’s enemies who blatantly called for Israel’s destruction. Exclusion of these 10 or so Arab party seats in the political process of a 120-seat parliament further challenged the ability of any Israeli leader to form a majority government. Thankfully and hopefully, there has recently been a moderating shift both in the rhetoric of the Arab Israeli Knesset members, and in the willingness of the other parties to try to involve them in the political process.

Given all these difficulties, it is remarkable that imperfect Israel has remained democratic, safe and successful during its 73 years of existence. Leadership has played a role in this success.

Why do I think that Netanyahu should go?  Aside from the court cases pending against him, like many others, I believe that he has been in power for too long. Power entrenched is power corrupted, not just for the leader but also for his partners.  The American politicians who enacted a law placing a limit of two consecutive terms for a president correctly understood this phenomenon.

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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