Political tensions in Israel are spiking as only a couple of days remain to see if the second attempt to create a coalition — this time headed by Benny Gantz — will bear fruit or whether it will meet the same fate as Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent efforts. Conventional wisdom has it that only three options exist: a national unity government including the Likud and the Blue and White Party, a small minority government containing barely 44 members with the tacit support of Avigdor Liberman and key segments of the Joint List, or a return to the ballot box. But are these the only alternatives? Perhaps there is a fourth possibility, one which rests on out-of-the-box thinking involving a comprehensive paradigm shift? Given the dim implications associated with the existing choices, such a prospect is unquestionably worth further exploration.
The coalition-building process that has dominated Israeli politics for over six months has been propelled more by mutual fear and intolerance than by any real concern for building a workable government. Each side, in turn, has focused more on avoiding their worst-case scenario than on constructing an effective ruling coalition. For Mr. Netanyahu, this has meant doing everything conceivable — including engaging in all-out incitement against one-fifth of the citizens of the country — to prevent the formation of a government without him and his party at its helm. For newcomer Benny Gantz and his Blue and White faction, it involves ensuring that any arrangement distance Netanyahu from the Prime Minister’s Office as long as the cloud of public impropriety hangs over his head. In both instances, the aversion to ongoing subservience to kingmaker Liberman and his Yisrael Beytenu’s eight uncommitted seats remains strong — as does the contemplation of another replication of a political deadlock in a third round of elections next spring.
Glaringly absent is any serious attempt to address the root causes of Israel’s political quagmire. These may be attributed to several factors, the most notable being the depth of societal polarization as expressed in the widening of major cleavages (between Arabs and Jews, between religious and secular, between rich and poor, and between the various groups that compose Israel’s ethnic mosaic). Social divisions have been compounded by increasingly severe problems of governability: in real terms, Israel has been ruled by an interim coalition lacking accountability and hence public legitimacy for close to a year. And to make matters worse, the tenuous democratic norms binding Israelis together have unraveled in the process. Any leadership team truly determined to grapple with these issues must surely go beyond supporting what essentially would be a holding operation that sustains an untenable status quo.
This conundrum has led several pundits — mainly, but not limited to, academics — to suggest a series of changes in the political system. These have ranged from suggestions on altering the electoral system (introducing a preference vote, creating electoral districts, reviving the direct elections of the prime minister, raising the electoral threshold) to reassessing the viability of Israel’s parliamentary democracy and exploring presidential alternatives. These proposals not only neglect to note that much of the current deadlock is an outgrowth of such tampering in the 1990s, but also that present challenges derive not from the political system per se, but from the way that those in power have manipulated socioeconomic currents to pursue their narrow goals at the expense of the common interest. These are the forces that must be confronted if any real change is to take place.
The starting point for any alternative paradigm, therefore, lies in defining the guiding principles governing behavior in the public domain. These must depict a vision of an egalitarian civic space shared by all citizens of the country — one that takes into account both the diversity of Israel’s population and its multiple asymmetries, along with the explicit goal of achieving a more equitable future for all. The binding concept in such a paradigm, in stark contrast to ongoing coalition construction efforts today, is one of inclusion.
This embracing notion invites all sectors in society and people of drastically diverging political persuasions to participate in the act of governance. The opening up of the ruling coalition, almost by definition, encourages a modicum of mutual toleration and demands constant restraint in the exercise of power. It also underlines the importance of the persistent pursuit of moderation in the public sphere.
Building a government based on inclusion has the added advantage of beginning to bridge existing social gaps. By highlighting the idea of an Israeli identity, it connects between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi, between Russian-speakers and citizens of Ethiopian extraction, without blurring their distinct histories and cultural identities. Underlining the commonalities of citizenship, such a concept can play a role in bringing Jews and Arabs together in a shared society. By highlighting the truism that a multiplicity of beliefs can coexist as long as no one persuasion holds sway in the public sphere, a new respect for tradition can be instilled. Indeed, an inclusive, incorporating, political paradigm could go a long way towards dismantling some of the sources of polarization in the country.
A broad coalition would be meaningful, however, only if it could agree on a common agenda; on what can actually be done in the absence of substantial consensus on most matters. At this time, a renewed commitment to the reinstatement of the rule of law should top the list, especially given the substantial jolts to the judicial system in recent months. A more equitable budget which narrows the gap between rich and poor and benefits the vital yet shrinking middle classes is also particularly urgent. So, too, is the task of shoring up personal security through the elimination of the spiraling violence throughout Israeli society. Less enmity at home may yet pave the way to more openness abroad: it may lay the groundwork for reviving talks with the Palestinians for the first time in over a decade.
Securing accessibility to, and equity in, the public domain is key to progress in these areas. Also central is the reintroduction of civility into public discourse — an ingredient so critical not only for improving the now rancid public climate, but also for reviving trust in the political realm and in its leaders. These are not pipe dreams: an extremely broad coalition may actually advance the formation of shifting alliances and thus promote greater inter-group cooperation.
Is the construction of such a paradigm-changing government possible at this juncture? Most would argue that it is beyond the realm of the imaginable. But so too, it appears, is the formation of the more talked about national unity alternative. A closer look at the narrow government option still being discussed shows that it might contain the kernel of a broader inclusive formation. A more precise, value-based, definition of such an alternative is now in order. It may improve governability, compel cooperation, noticeably improve policy initiatives and begin the long, painful, reversal of the regressive processes that have chipped away at Israel’s democratic foundations in recent years.