This coming week is justifiably considered to be one of the most precarious and momentous in Israel’s political history. After over a decade of democratic backsliding, two years of political crisis and four elections, by the end of these fateful seven days, Israelis will know whether they will entrench a populist autocracy or begin the long, oftentimes unpredictable path to democratic recovery. Most Israelis, wrapped up as they are in the exigencies of their current condition, still firmly believe that their situation is special, that it is unparalleled both historically and comparatively.
The prevailing tendency to view Israeli developments as sui generis, specific only to Israel, is more than unfortunate. It disregards years of similar processes throughout the globe, disregards possible insights that may be gleaned from the experiences of others and makes it ever so much more difficult to carve a feasible route to democratic rehabilitation. A comparative analysis of the main elements of possible governmental resuscitation illuminates some of the possibilities, pitfalls, obstacles and potentialities inherent in Israel’s efforts to shed itself of its increasingly illiberal and personalistic trappings.
The first element is the question of how autocratic rulers are ousted. In Israel, four sets of elections seemingly yielded political deadlock, but the latest round, in March of this year, may have also generated an alternative that was unattainable in the aftermath of the previous polls. Several changes highlight this shift: the emergence of political parties on the right strongly opposed to the continued tenure of Benjamin Netanyahu; the evolution of an Arab party bent on integration into the Israeli power structure (Ra’am); the fragmentation of old alliances in the center and left; and the legitimization of a far-right, ultra-nationalist Jewish party averse to any partnership with Palestinian citizens of Israel or to parties on the political left.
There is nothing much new in this composite pattern. In most competitive systems populist autocrats have usually been ousted at the polls. From interwar Finland and post-Soviet Romania to Columbia, Ecuador, Sri Lanka and Italy in recent years (not to mention the United States after the November 2020 elections), extremely diverse groups forged alliances to oust problematic illiberal incumbents at the ballot box.
These cross-ideological partnerships have included breakaway groups that abandoned the ruling coalition and vastly diverse political bedfellows spanning the political spectrum, united in their utter distaste for the ruler, his abuse of authority, his disregard for constitutional safeguards, and the patronage he doled out to supporters at the expense of the public good.
Similar examples abound. As in Israel today, behind the (usually very narrow) success at the polls lie several clearly identifiable factors. Most obviously: the charismatic glow of the populist leaders in these cases, as in that of Netanyahu, began to fade, as fatigue set in and increased evidence of corruption became widespread. Early economic successes, so critical to the maintenance of competitive autocracies, began to wane in the face of global crises or unanticipated events (most notably the coronavirus pandemic). The shrinkage of once-major parties witnessed a proliferation of splinter groups that made the construction of stable coalitions more difficult. The social landscape became riddled by government-inspired polarization. And, inevitably, time took its toll: too many years in office diminished sustainability. Put together, the Israeli example is, with its peculiar manifestations, very much a part of what has become a global trend in the 21st century.
The second question relates to how the incoming coalition is constructed (in many cases seen as a reform government; in Israel probably a stability agglomeration although self-identified as a “change” government). The incoming Lapid-Bennett 26-member coalition has several notable characteristics: it is composed of eight separate political parties (of a total of 13 in the current Knesset); it is slated to be headed by the leader of Yamina, one of the smallest parties in the Knesset, which barely garnered 6.2% of the vote in the last elections; and it is predicated on a rotation agreement between Bennett and Yair Lapid, who is due to take over the Prime Minister’s Office in September 2023. The pro-Netanyahu alliance and most political commentators have taken pains to point out the absolutely unprecedented nature of such a constellation.
This is far from true. Most parliamentary democracies with proportional representation systems are governed by multi party coalitions (especially in Europe). This has always been a hallmark of Israeli politics. For many years, power shifted between two major parties – or blocs – and their smaller allies. For a couple of decades, however, the large parties have undergone a process of shrinkage, expanding both the number of parties in ruling coalitions and their ideological range.
A trend towards grand coalitions is noticeable throughout Europe, for example, and in some instances even wall-to-wall coalitions have been established. Even in the European Parliament, the recent breakdown of the large grand alliances has given way to the inclusion of smaller groupings, thus increasing both the number and variety of participants in its ruling bodies. Israel is now becoming a part of this emerging mode, as the bloc system is being broken down, replaced now by a broader and more heterogeneous political pact.
Handing the reins of power in the first instance to a junior partner is also not unique. It is the necessary compromise that provides the adhesive for the incoming government. In Belgium, the Francophone Liberal party, headed then by Charles Michel gained 7.56% of the vote in the 2019 elections; he later ceded his place on becoming president of the Council of Europe to Sophie Wilmes, who briefly headed a five-party coalition. In the Netherlands, shifting coalitions have given particular weight to swing parties to maintain control. A not dissimilar strategy was employed in Sri Lanka for a brief period under the aegis of Maithripala Sirisena, who headed a group of close to fifty political parties and civil society groups. Not all of these arrangements lasted, but some have held together successfully for quite some time.
In many instances, their viability may be attributed not only to their relative efficacy, but also to the entrenchment of rotation agreements amongst the various components of the coalition. To return to Belgium for a moment, Sophies Wilmes was replaced by Alexander de Croo of the Flemish Liberal party without elections and now holds the office of minister of foreign affairs. In Switzerland, the idea of rotating leadership has been institutionalized as the presidency is transferred on a regular basis between the leaders of the main political parties.
For Israel it is also important to learn from the answers to a third question: how these constructs have fared in the post-populist phase. The evidence is mixed. Four distinct possibilities exist: a) a return to entrenched forms of populism, as exemplified most recently, among others, by Italy, Greece, Ecuador, Argentina, and Sri Lanka; b) the institutionalization of autocratic rule (Hungary, Venezuela, Turkey, to mention but a few); c) ongoing polarization between liberal and populist forces (as is occurring in some Latin American and European countries and possibly in the United States should Donald Trump return in 2024); and d) the reassertion of democratic institutions, norms and practices (Finland provides one historical example, the United States, should the Biden administration build bridges to Republican strongholds, another).
Israeli prospects down the road may consist of any combination of these scenarios. What is clear is that the capacity to build a consensus-seeking set of compromises is central to democratic stabilization, especially as moderation is under increased attack not only by the outgoing government but also by unfettered extremist digital networks advocating violence to prevent change. The chance for rehabilitation will increase with the delivery of palpable improvements in daily life, coupled with greater international receptivity. Here, undoubtedly, the skillful handling of disagreements is key, along with the capacity to dismantle the inequities that have sustained socio-political rifts.
This leads directly to the last question: how long can such a patchwork government with few common denominators last? Conventional wisdom suggests that its shelf-life is severely limited. But the more serious response lies in the answers to the preceding questions, with special emphasis on how the incoming coalition manages its work during its formative period. It would benefit greatly from investing in a careful and critical analysis of how others have succeeded in averting a deterioration into violence, cementing inclusive alliances and establishing a semblance of predictability under not dissimilar circumstances. After all, the essence of democratic life is the management of disagreements through the peaceful transfer of power at the ballot box. If others have been able to do so, Israel can as well.