The Impact of Political Instability on Israel

Israel will hold its fourth round of legislative elections in less than two years on 23 March despite what has been known in Israel as "the diplomatic crisis," which started in 2019. Following the election of the country's 21st Knesset on 9 April, Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) Party, declined to join Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in establishing a new right-wing government that year, due to the latter's insistence on enlisting ultra-Orthodox Netanyahu Jews in the army and secularising the state.

the Failure to Form a Government and the Arab-Jewish Conflict in Israel

If these were Lieberman’s stated motives, many analysts saw his refusal to assist in the formation of a government headed by Netanyahu as an effort to avoid Netanyahu’s return to power.

Former Chief of Staff Benny Gantz formed the Blue and White Party in that election. Since it featured retired generals and chiefs of staff Moshe Ya’alon (also a former defense minister) and Gabi Ashkenazi, it was nicknamed the “Generals’ List.” Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (There is a Future) Party was also portrayed in Blue and White. In April 2019, the Blue and White list won 35 seats, equivalent to Netanyahu’s Likud, but no party was able to form a government— Many members of Gantz’s list defected from his Blue and White alliance, believing Netanyahu would not honor the rotation deal. As a result, the coalition effectively vanished from the political scene. Following the Netanyahu-Gantz deal, the government won a vote of confidence in the Knesset, which resulted in an agreement on legislation supporting the 2020-2021 Budget.

Neither Netanyahu nor Gantz could form a government of their own, but the spread of COVID-19 aided Netanyahu in convincing Gantz to join an emergency coalition cabinet. The deal called for consecutive three-year premierships, followed by another election, with Netanyahu completing the first 18 months. Many members of Gantz’s list defected from his Blue and White alliance, believing that Netanyahu would not honor the rotation deal, resulting in the coalition’s virtual departure from the political scene. The Netanyahu-Gantz deal resulted in an agreement on legislation authorising the 2020-2021 Budget shortly after the government’s vote of confidence in the Knesset.

Daily squabbles between Netanyahu and his wife surfaced easily. The majority government failed on 23 September 2020, when the Knesset immediately dissolved itself due to significant disagreements about the 2021-2022 Budget and Likud’s continued procrastination. The country’s 24th Knesset will hold its fourth round of elections on 23 March 2021. According to the most recent opinion polls, there are dozens of electoral lists, but only 11 have a chance of passing the 3.25% popular vote threshold.

Direct Causes of the Current Crisis

The ongoing crisis has been precipitated by deep direct and indirect systemic factors, most notably Lieberman’s split with Netanyahu, which has stripped Netanyahu of his 61-vote clear majority in the Knesset. In a right-wing coalition of Netanyahu, Lieberman is the rational ally. But if Lieberman has his way, the premier’s relationship with the religious parties would be jeopardised by his emphasis on a secular state and his proposal that ultra-Orthodox Jews serve in the army.

Netanyahu’s problems are exacerbated by the fact that he is facing three charges of corruption: bribery, theft, and abuse of confidence. If sentenced, he could face jail time. Netanyahu’s critics argue that he should not be prime minister because he is politically corrupt and therefore unfit to act as a role model. Furthermore, he was unable to distinguish between his trial and his official position and decisions, making him untrustworthy. Even from a realistic perspective, Netanyahu will be unable to perform his duties if he were required to attend his trial three days a week, beginning in April, and this will take him away from his office. To be sure, the massive protests that started almost a year ago and continue on a weekly basis throughout the country and in front of Netanyahu’s Jerusalem residence are evidence that a sizable portion of Israel society opposes Netanyahu’s continued leadership.

Netanyahu’s allies, on the other hand, see the trial as an effort by the deep state to circumvent parliament and compel him to quit. They also portray the conflict as a fight between the “first” Israel ––leftist Ashkenazis––who still dominate state agencies like the Supreme Court, the state prosecutor’s office, and the police––and the “second” Israel ––rightist easterners––who comprise the oppressed. Against this backdrop, Netanyahu and his allies are fighting a populist war against the courts and the police, in which the prime minister adopts a populist rhetoric that positions him at the forefront of the people against the state, accusing the opposition of appropriating the will of the masses, whom he claims to serve.

Netanyahu’s populist policy, according to his critics, has badly shattered the values of the Israel system of checks and balances and good governance––the statism developed by none other than David Ben Gurion, the country’s first prime minister––to maintain the independence of state agencies and to keep them apart from partisan and personal ambitions. Opponents say Netanyahu has undermined statism by deliberately attacking these institutions’ objectivity and putting doubt on their aims. They argue that by doing so, Netanyahu has ensnared state institutions in political squabbles and jeopardised democratic values, particularly after granting legal status to the far-right, terrorist, Kahanist Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) Party––which seeks to oust Arab citizens from Israel ––by recognising it as a coalition partner in his government following the election.

Variables of Structure

Netanyahu’s personal and legal problems continue to be entangled with Israel ‘s deep electioneering crisis. However, a closer examination of the Israeli scene and the country’s changing debate reveals that the ongoing crisis is a result of a multitude of socioeconomic forces and variables that have arisen over the last few decades. These can be summed up as follows.

Changes in demographics and society: These are related to the immigrant essence of Israel society and represent the vulnerability and end of the rule of the first generation of secular Ashkenazis (western Jews) who established and dominated the Labour Party. Instead, historically marginalised communities such as Sephardic Jews (from Arab and Muslim countries), Haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews), industrial zone residents, settlers, and Palestinian people are of prominence.

In reality, there is no dominant party in Israel today, as there was in its early years. This occurred gradually but slowly as diverse waves of immigrants from Arab and Muslim countries, and later, the former Soviet Union, arrived. Because of their high fertility rate, ultra-Orthodox Jews have grown in number, as have settler groups since the 1967 war. Concurrently, the former ruling groups––first the Ashkenazis, then the secularists––began to splinter, and divergent ideological and cultural views arose.

The shift was mirrored in Israeli President Reuven Rivlin’s speech to the 2015 Herzliya Conference, in which he described Israel as a state of four tribes, each with its own outlook on the political and social systems, as well as its own schools and curricula.

Fundamental shift among ultra-Orthodox Jews: Since the 1990s, ultra-Orthodox Jews have abandoned their utilitarian philosophy of supporting whichever party protected their rights, including the Labour Party, in favour of full-fledged support for the Israeli right in the person of Benjamin Netanyahu.

This happened eventually, as a result of the secular-religious conflict over the state, as Yesh Atid advocated requiring the ultra-Orthodox to serve in the army. It was also the product of the right-wing government’s policy of primarily constructing settlements for the ultra-Orthodox, who form the largest bloc (at least 30%) of settlers in the occupied Palestinian territories. The growth of Israel ‘s religious minority has increased the influence of the Israeli right, creating conditions for a general schism in the country’s social stability.

Palestinian electoral influence is growing. Palestinians in Israel today cannot be dismissed as a political bloc due to their solidarity with Palestinian Arab groups. The Palestinian Joint List received 15 seats in the March 2020 elections. And, amid reports of list disunity, internal schisms, and efforts by some Zionist parties to win Arab votes, there is a firm belief that the Arab parties will receive the vast majority of votes.

Proportional representation is used. To win seats in the Knesset, all parties competing in elections must meet a 3.25% electoral threshold. When a political alliance of at least 61 out of 120 seats will form a government, minor parties have disproportionate control. In other words, no matter how odd or radical the latter’s viewpoints and policy stances are, big parties become prisoner to smaller ones.

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