David Newman
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The fallacy of a national unity government

A national unity government without either the Arab or the Haredi parties is no national unity at all
Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox and secular Jewish men face off in Jerusalem, 2008. (Nati Shohat/ Flash90
You call this unity? (Illustrative photo by Nati Shohat/ Flash90)

In the next few days, we will hear a great deal about the need for a national unity government comprising both the Likud and Kachol Lavan (Blue and White) parties, if only because it will prove, yet again, impossible to put together a narrow and unstable 61 seat coalition government by either of the two major party leaders. Both Avigdor Lieberman and Benny Gantz are already on record for promoting this solution to the latest electoral stalemate.

The well known mantra, is that “the results of the election show that the people want national unity”.

But this concept and justification of a national unity government is a fallacy. On the contrary, the people have shown that they are split between different perspectives on the major issues which face any future government. United they are not.

Past instances of national unity governments, such as that between the Labor Party of Shimon Peres and the Likud then headed by Yitzhak Shamir, proved to be governments of national paralysis. Neither side could advance any major policy issues as they immediately became neutralised by the other major coalition partner. The Agreements which determined the nature of the Prime Ministerial rotation, the number of ministerial portfolios to be held by each party, and the “no go areas” concerning policy issues, were always worked out in great detail by the respective party’s lawyers (more often than not in the most powerful institution of the time, the law offices of Herzog, Fox and Neeman, the senior partners of which – the Herzog family and Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman — represented both major political parties). These agreements determined the limited number of areas within which such governments could act — failure to do so would bring about an end to the government and lead, it was assumed, to new elections which would not necessarily, just like the situation today, result in a different outcome.

One of the main issues which was agreed upon by previous governments of national unity was the so called freezing of West Bank settlements. But this was a fallacy. The establishment of new settlements was stopped, but settlement activity within existing communities was allowed to go ahead. In retrospect, this was the greatest boon for the settlement movement (even if they do not publicly acknowledge this fact) because it allowed them to expand and consolidate the many small settlements which had been established during the late 1970s and early 1980s and which were becoming a major economic burden because of their relatively small size. The large townships which exist today in the West Bank, consisting of a large range of public services, schools, synagogues, commercial and business enterprises, and populations in the many thousands, are in no small part due to the impact of the settlement freeze which, in turn, was part of the national unity government coalition agreements.

Should a national unity government arise out of the present stalemate, it is clear that no compromise over issues relating to the Israel-Palestine peace process could be agreed upon other than a “sit and do nothing” policy. Given the major move rightwards by the present Likud party, it would be a convenient way of enabling Prime Minister Netanyahu to renege on his pre-election promises to formally annex some of the settlements and the Jordan Valley in his largely failed attempt to induce the more right wing elements to vote for the Likud instead of the splinter parties of the right, such as Yemina (which has already split up into two factions just hours after the election results were known).

Governments of national unity are formed in moments of severe crisis and threat. The best example of this would be the broadening of the coalition immediately prior to the Six Day War of June 1967 when, for the first time in Israel’s history, the Herut party (which later became transformed into the Likud) of Menachem Begin were brought into government for the duration of a crisis which threatened the very existence of the State. In a similar vein, but under very different circumstances, indecisive results in the 1984 general elections led to the formation of a National Unity Government based on a rotation agreement between Shamir and Labor leader Shimon Peres. Shamir served as vice premier and minister of foreign affairs for two years, while Peres was prime minister. But this was a period when the rampant inflation of the early 1980s, a major crisis facing the state’s economy, was brought under control by joint action.

Another attempt at national unity government was brought to an end in 1990 when Prime Minister Shamir dismissed Finance Minister Shimon Peres, the leader of the Labor Party, prompting the rest of Labor’s Cabinet ministers to resign. The 15-month coalition broke up over a deep disagreement between Labor and Likud on whether to accept an American plan for starting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

But national unity spreads way beyond the main parties, who tend to occupy the center (or moderately right and moderately left) stage in Israeli politics. A national unity government without either the Arab or the Haredi parties is certainly no national unity. Both the Arabs and the Haredim (including Shas) gained approximately fifteen seats each, after they respectively came together to beat the electoral threshold and unite, each within their own camp, over the major issues that are common for all of them.

It is somewhat ironic that the politician who is promoting the concept of national unity more than anyone else, Avigdor Lieberman, refuses to include either the Arabs or the Haredim in his version of national unity. He wants to exclude some 30-35 percent of the population in the name of unity. In a similar vein, Gantz’s version of a national unity government is a “Zionist” government, intended to bring in the right under the banner of Zionism and patriotism, but equally to exclude those who do not believe in the concept of Zionism as the underlying State ideology, notwithstanding the fact that they are all citizens of the State with (supposedly) equal rights and obligations..

Both the Arabs and the Haredim are even more central to the concept of national unity than are the small left wing parties which just about scraped through the threshold of 3.25 percent to gain five seats each in the new Knesset. There was something sad, even pathetic, in watching the joyous celebrations from each of these party headquarters, as though their success in passing the threshold was akin to winning the elections themselves. The left continues its downward progression and the parties that founded the State of Israel and ruled it unchallenged for thirty years, are no more than left wing fragments who seem unable to undergo internal rejuvenation and are increasingly cut off from the Israeli street, including the many whom they should be representing – at least on social and welfare issues – but with whom they seem to be completely out of contact and cut off.

It is amazing that the Likud, who have ruled the country for the better part of the past 20 years, can still get away with accusing the left wing elites of monopolising the media, the universities and the justice system when, in reality, this has not been the case for such a long time. And it is even more amazing that the residents of the country’s development towns, poorer neighborhoods and peripheries, still buy into this message and vote for either the Likud or the religious parties. It is something which the left have never succeeded in internalizing and which has brought them to this lowest of depths, remote from positions of power or decision making. And ironically, if indeed there is to be a national unity government, headed by Gantz, Netanyahu or a combination of them, it will be the splinter parties of both the right and left who are more likely to be part of the coalition, than the much larger interests of either the Arab or Haredi parties.

The day when Arab parties will finally be accepted as full partners in an Israeli government will be the day when Israel’s democracy will move up a stage. The day when Haredi and other religious parties are accepted as full coalition partners without being sneered at, especially by those who have appointed themselves as the self champions of democracy and universal values and have adopted a moral higher ground, is a day when Israel’s democracy will be even more of a democracy than it is at present. For as long as the Israel-Palestine conflict continues to challenge the status of the country’s Arabs, and for as long as the religious beliefs of the rapidly growing orthodox population are mocked at, the concept of national unity is unachievable in anything but labels.

It looks increasingly likely that the only way out of yesterday’s stalemate will indeed be a broad coalition consisting of both of the larger parties. But to call this a government of national unity is a fallacy. It is a technical solution aimed at solving a an electoral and governmental problem. Unity it is not.

About the Author
David Newman is professor of Geopolitics in the Department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Originally from the UK, he was awarded the OBE in 2013 for promoting scientific links between the UK and Israel. From 2010-2016, Newman was Dean of the faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at BGU. His three distinct, and vastly different, areas of expertise cover Border Studies, Israeli Politics and Society, and Anglo Jewish history of the 19th and 20th centuries.
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