Election after election after ... Is it harming Israeli democracy?

Why We Wrote This

How long can a democracy tolerate temporary government before public trust is eroded? If Israeli leaders fail to form a coalition, a third consecutive election would prolong the stalemate beyond a full year.

Heidi Levine/AP
Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz (right) reaches out to shake hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a memorial for Yitzhak Rabin and his wife, Leah, commemorating 24 years since the assassination of the Labor prime minister, in Jerusalem, Nov. 10, 2019. Between the two rivals are President Reuven Rivlin (left) and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, of the Likud party.

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Israel faces no shortage of challenges: an underfunded health care system, a national budget and multiyear plan for the military needing approval, a moribund peace process, and ever-present security threats, from Iran, to Hezbollah, to Gaza.

But as a postelection deadline to form a coalition government looms, Israel faces the real prospect of yet another round of elections. That would stretch the nation’s political deadlock beyond a year. President Reuven Rivlin and political analysts are already warning about the damage to public faith in political institutions if that happens.

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz has until midnight Wednesday to form a coalition in his bid to succeed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who also may be indicted on corruption charges within the coming days.

A late October poll by the Israel Democracy Institute showed declining public faith in the system. “Just because we’re talking about government doesn’t mean we can allow ourselves to complacently continue with such a situation,’’ says Yohanan Plesner, president of the institute. “The public ... [doesn’t] think another election will change anything, and they expect the politicians and the political system to sort things out.”

With the deadline looming for forming a new government two months after an invective-filled general election, Israel is staring down a sobering anniversary.

Since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu first dissolved parliament last December in preparation for an earlier round of elections, a “transition” caretaker-like government has effectively been running the country on autopilot, unable to embark on new policy directions or fund new initiatives.

There is no shortage of challenges. The nation’s health-care system and hospitals are underfunded; there’s no national budget for 2020; and a multi-year plan for the military is waiting for approval. To say nothing of transportation projects, a moribund peace process, or security: the strategic threat posed by Iran and a more powerful Hezbollah to the north, and the ever-present danger of escalation in Gaza.

But the prolonged deadlock’s biggest danger, some warn, may be to Israelis’ faith in their political system.

With the real prospect that Israel could be headed to a third consecutive round of elections that would extend the political paralysis beyond a year, the nation’s factions are pointing fingers at one another, making preemptive accusations about who will be to blame.

The parties have until midnight Wednesday to forge a compromise on a governing coalition, but President Reuven Rivlin and political analysts are already warning about the damage to public faith in political institutions if that fails. 

A late October poll by the Israel Democracy Institute testing public optimism over Israel’s democracy found a 10 percentage point drop from April, the date of the first election.

“If it were a private business that couldn’t make decisions, competition would be going ahead and it would be in serious danger of going into a decline. Just because we’re talking about government doesn’t mean we can allow ourselves to complacently continue with such a situation,’’ says Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute.   

“The public is strongly opposed to a third election campaign, even though the public is unhappy about the election results,” he says. “They wanted a decisive election outcome. They don’t think another election will change anything, and they expect the politicians and the political system to sort things out.”

Indictments expected

The endgame of this phase of Israel’s political stalemate is as uncertain as ever: Mr. Netanyahu, leader of the right-wing Likud party, is fighting for his political life against retired general Benny Gantz amid a cloud of dramatic eleventh-hour brinkmanship.

In a matter of days, Israel has careened from a deadly escalation with Gaza militants that briefly shut down half the country, to a race-baiting offensive by the prime minister Sunday. Mr. Netanyahu charged that Mr. Gantz was poised to cement a political alliance with Israeli Arab lawmakers who he alleged support terrorist organizations and want to destroy Israel. 

Mr. Gantz, leader of the centrist Blue and White party, is working against the Wednesday deadline, when his mandate to form a government expires. The prime minister, meanwhile, and right-wing rival Avigdor Lieberman appear to be making an effort to resolve a bitter rift that has prevented establishment of a new right-wing coalition.

And all this is unfolding as Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit is thought to be days away from handing down a set of corruption indictments against Mr. Netanyahu that could throw Israeli politics into even more turmoil and shift the tide decisively against the prime minister. 

“Israel’s exhausted political system has moved to a game of chicken – two cars hurtling toward one another on a narrow road. Someone needs to blink and swerve to the shoulder at the last minute,’’ wrote political commentator Yossi Verter in the liberal Haaretz newspaper. “As of Sunday, neither driver, Benjamin Netanyahu nor Benny Gantz, intends to give in. A head-on collision, which means elections, remains a likely option.”

Suhaib Salem/Reuters
Trails of smoke are seen as rockets are fired from Gaza toward Israel, in Gaza, Nov. 14, 2019. In the outburst of fighting triggered after Israel killed an Islamic Jihad leader, 34 Gazans were killed and hundreds of rockets fired toward Israel.

The political limbo, combined with the looming charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust against Mr. Netanyahu, have sharpened speculation among his critics that the government’s decision to authorize the Nov. 12 targeted killing of an Islamic Jihad commander in the Gaza Strip was colored by political calculations.  

The resulting outburst of fighting left 34 Gazans dead – including an entire family – and dozens injured, and rained hundreds of rockets down on southern Israel.

Suspicions about timing

At an “emergency conference” of his Likud party Sunday night, Mr. Netanyahu accused Mr. Gantz of holding coalition talks with enemies of the state, and warned that a minority government supported by the predominantly Arab Joint List party would mark a “breaking point” for Israel and represent a terrorist attack on the country.   

“Blue and White are negotiating with Knesset members who support terrorist organizations and want to destroy the country,” Mr. Netanyahu inveighed. “If a minority government is formed, they will be celebrating in Tehran, Ramallah, and Gaza, like after a terrorist attack. It will be a historic attack on the state of Israel.”  

Though Islamic Jihad leader Bahaa Abu Al-Atta was described by the prime minister and Israeli army generals as a “ticking bomb” involved in the planning of rocket attacks on southern Israel, Mr. Netanyahu’s broadside has reinforced speculation that the attack’s coinciding with Mr. Gantz’s efforts to form a coalition may have been more than mere coincidence.   

“In the last year and a half, there’s been plenty of opportunities to eliminate [Abu Al-Ata] and other senior figures in Islamic Jihad and Hamas, but the cabinet has demurred from doing so,’’ wrote Omer Bar-Lev, a Labor Party Knesset member, last week. “Why has Netanyahu changed his position now, seven days before the end of Gantz’s mandate to compose a government? The answer, I’m afraid, is clear.’’

Such suspicions are shared by members of the public. Oded Ginzburg, an architect from Tel Aviv, says he also suspects the timing of last week’s assassination was calibrated to Mr. Netanyahu’s political calendar. 

“He’s playing with Israeli citizens’ minds, but Israeli citizens aren’t empowered to make any change,’’ Mr. Ginzburg says. “We’re just the audience. We’re in the crowd.” 

He speculates that if Mr. Netanyahu is nudged aside and the political crisis is resolved, it won’t necessarily lead to dramatic changes in foreign or domestic policy, but it could help bolster Israel’s governing system and the rule of law. The stalemate is a symptom of the weakness of Israel’s government, he adds, and related to political polarization faced by other democracies around the world.

No solution from public

Daniel Ben-David, an economist at Tel Aviv University, says Israel is “muddling around” with a caretaker government, and the state of limbo is damaging for the government system. For the time being, government programs are going unfunded, not to mention the neglect of badly needed reforms in the country’s education system.

“The money that we need, needs to go to hospitals, health care, transportation infrastructure, and fixing our schools,’’ says Mr. Ben-David.

Dahlia Scheindlin, a public opinion expert, says the Israeli public is frustrated that politicians seem to be looking out more for their own interests. And while most want to see a national unity government, few want the leader they support to serve under the rival. 

“People don’t want third elections,” she explains, “but I don’t know if the public knows how to solve it better.’’

According to a poll by the Israel Hayom newspaper, a plurality of Israelis support a power-sharing national-unity government between Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Gantz. However, the sides won’t budge on who would start off as prime minister, and what parties would be in the government.

“I wish they will form a national unity government. Who wouldn’t want something like that in the country? But it doesn’t look like it will happen,” says Eti Dor, a hairdresser. “Each person is in their own corner. Everyone is pulling toward their side.’’

The prospect of new elections is worrying, she says, because its projected cost would be better spent on Israel’s health system. It would also be a sign of instability akin, she says, to the southern European governments that have collapsed frequently over the years.

“We’ve become like Italy,” she says.

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