Decision of third elections doesn’t reflect instability in Israel

The insistence of the Blue and White party not to form a government with an indicted prime minister and the ensuing decision to hold third elections, actually testify to the stability of Israel's governing institutions.

al-monitor Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the swearing-in ceremony of the 22nd Knesset, Jerusalem, Oct. 3, 2019. Photo by REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun.

Dec 12, 2019

When President Reuven Rivlin told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his rival Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz on Dec. 4, "It seems to me that you want to go crazy," he was expressing the prevailing view among most Israeli analysts and pundits. “If that is what you want, go crazy! But why drag the people of Israel with you?” Rivlin asked, urging the duo once again to join forces in order to “return Israel to the correct path."

The politicians and pollsters are already busy playing the blame game, ranking in order those most to blame for the “insanity” of holding the country’s third elections within less than a year. The financial papers are detailing the costs of the election and estimating the loss to the economy of the legally mandated election-day holiday. But what is the essence of the "correct path" for "the people" — the path that Netanyahu and Gantz are blocking? What is the alternative to the newly scheduled March 2020 voting? If another round of elections is a mark of "craziness,” is the alternative Rivlin is urging — i.e., a government with a politician indicted for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, the archenemy of all the country’s law enforcement authorities — an example of sanity? Rivlin had tried to advance a unity government deal of a rotation agreement between Netanyahu and Gantz, with Netanyahu declaring incapacity to function as premier after his indictment. But would such a deal have liberated Israeli society from the blinded followers surrounding Netanyahu? Obviously, even if Netanyahu would have taken the deal and declared incapacity, his dark ways and spirit would have hovered over Likud legislators and ministers.

The Dec. 11 Knesset decision to vote itself out of office is not only a sane move. It is a badge of maturity for Israel’s young democracy. Knesset members from the opposition who voted in favor of dissolving the 22nd Knesset are not keen for yet another battle over public support. Instead of raising his hand in favor of new elections, Gantz could have gotten his foot in the door to the prime minister’s office. The Foreign Ministry gates would have been opened for Blue and White senior Yair Lapid, and his ally, Labor-Gesher head Amir Peretz, would have been offered the choice of the Finance or Welfare ministries. “The people” would have rejoiced at seeing the Likud and radical right ally Yamina shoulder to shoulder with Blue and White and its allied Democratic Camp party, and also with the ultra-Orthodox parties, posing for a happy family photo. Just as long as it was not marred by the faces of Arab lawmakers.

“The people” love to see everyone “joining forces” in defense of their children against the Arab enemy, and especially the Iranian one. “The people” do not like the “establishment” and hate “the media.” They want a strong leader who generates respect for the people of Israel around the world.

Professor Jan-Werner Muller of Princeton University, author of "What is populism," told Haaretz in an August 2017 interview that populists try to sell the public on the idea that they are the true representatives of the public. When Viktor Orban lost the elections for the Hungarian premiership in 2002, he refused to accept the results, explaining that “homeland [the people] cannot be in opposition.” US President Donald Trump said in a 2016 campaign rally, “The only important thing is the unification of the people — because the other people don’t mean anything.” When populists wax poetic about “the nation” or “homeland’’ or “the people,” they are obviously not referring to all citizens, only to their supporters. Such was the case when Netanyahu whispered loudly to a popular rabbi that “the left has forgotten what it means to be Jewish,” or when he claimed on the 2015 campaign trail that “they” (the opposition) have the “V15 movement” (formed to replace Netanyahu), “we have the people,” and the more recent catchy Hebrew-rhyming Likud slogan, “The people vote, the leftists frame.”

In a 2018 article headlined “Can liberalism save itself,” Muller argued that what differentiates between populists and other politicians is “rhetoric that they alone represent the authentic, homogeneous will of the people.” Anyone who disagrees with you — whether a politician or fellow citizen — does not really belong to the people, and anyone who runs against you is completely illegitimate. For example, ahead of the 2016 Brexit referendum, leader of the United Kingdom’s Independence Party Nigel Farage predicted the results would be “a victory for real people.” As far as he was concerned, the 48% of the British people who voted against the divorce from the European Union were not real Brits. The populist claim about the existence of one authentic popular will means that anyone who disagrees with it is by definition disloyal to the people. Legitimizing Israel’s populist, anti-liberal, messianic camp would have dragged the country to very dark places, indeed.

The prevailing view among Israeli populists is that holding new elections destabilizes the political system. A position paper published by the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) argues that Israeli governments are not “chronically unstable,” on the contrary. Given the conditions under which they are formed and despite the difficulty in maintaining them — due to a divided political party system and multiparty coalition governments with varying and often contradictory interests — Israeli governments display “an impressive capacity to survive.” On the other hand, in a bid to ensure their survival, Israeli governments are forced to compromise on budget allocations and policy issues. The burden entailed in preserving their governments reduces their leaders’ capacity to listen, to rule and to lead. The broader the government, such as the one for which Rivlin advocated, the more complex and varied the interests of its constituent parties.

The authors of the IDI position paper contend that a certain degree of instability is inevitable and even essential for Israel’s democratic regime, reflecting as it does society’s ability to contain deep divisions while adhering to the rules of the democratic game, generally at a high but not an inflated cost. Despite the incitement against the country’s legal system and “deep state” conspiracy theories, the IDI’s 2018 Israeli Democracy Index rated Israel highly, for the fourth consecutive year, in terms of political participation and civic commitment to the democratic system of government. Israel is placed in the top 25% of member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in terms of governance, government operations and the rule of law. The coming elections could provide an opportunity to place Israel in the top quarter also in terms of good neighborly relations, equitable allocation of resources and a decent attitude to minorities. Giving up this opportunity is nothing short of insane.

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