Pity the Israeli voter. The Jewish state holds itself up as the Middle East’s only true democracy. But, over a two-year period, Israelis have voted in four elections — the latest last week — only to be stuck with the same inconclusive outcome.
In a poll that pitted a pro-Benjamin Netanyahu alliance against a disparate group of parties united mostly in their opposition to the veteran prime minister, neither camp secured the 61 seats in the Knesset required to form a majority, according to provisional results. Israelis are back where they were when the crisis began in April 2019, following a similar result.
A fifth election cannot be discounted. It is a cycle that is partly the result of Israel’s system of proportional representation, in which no single party can secure a majority. But it is also a symptom of Netanyahu’s legacy.
During a decade in office, he failed to groom a successor in his Likud party. He exploited the weakness of the opposition, and manipulated and outmanoeuvred both rivals and allies. He has made politics more about personality than policy, while capitalising on a political landscape that gives myriad small parties an oversized role.
His most recent victim was Benny Gantz, a former army chief who fought Netanyahu to a draw in three previous elections. After months of haggling, and with the coronavirus pandemic spreading to Israel, the two men agreed to a coalition last year. Under the deal, Gantz was to replace Netanyahu as prime minister in 18 months. But the coalition collapsed after Netanyahu refused to pass the Budget. Many suspect it was a cynical move by a politician bent on retaining power as long as he faces trial on corruption charges. Unless he secures immunity, his tactics are not likely to change.
Likud did win the most seats in Tuesday’s poll, but with only about 25 per cent of the vote. If it is unable to pull together a coalition, the party should consider selecting a new leader. It could then improve its chances of wooing potential allies and forming a more stable government. Netanyahu is still the most popular politician, but also a hugely divisive figure. He has alienated erstwhile allies who share Likud’s rightwing ideology but despise him.
Ideally, another stalemate would prompt the premier to step aside and let his trial take its course. That, however, is not how he operates. He might still, somehow, secure a deal that sees his alliance hit the 61-seat target. It is likely to be another weak coalition that includes the Religious Zionists, a far-right party.
The saga should make Israelis think hard about the need for electoral reform. The system has spawned the proliferation of small parties and led to endless post-election horse-trading and weak governments. It has been tinkered with in the past, without success. From 1996 to 1999, Israelis voted directly for the prime minister, but that exacerbated the fragmentation as many made their choice for premier only to vote for a different party.
One option, advocated by The Israel Democracy Institute, would be for the head of the largest party in parliament to become prime minister automatically, while it is made harder for the fractious Knesset to self-dissolve. That could lead to minority governments, but the hope is it would favour larger parties and so contribute to greater stability.
With the Biden administration expected to be less fawning towards Israel than Donald Trump, it is in the country’s interests to have a stable government. Israel’s perpetual crisis serves Netanyahu, but not Israelis.