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Israel: Four Elections Later, Deadlocked Yet Again

Three questions to Dominique Moïsi

Israel: Four Elections Later, Deadlocked Yet Again
 Dominique Moïsi
Distinguished Senior fellow

On March 23, 2021, Israel held its fourth election in two years. Despite being in power for twelve years, Benyamin Netanyahu's party has once again failed to build a stable government majority, leaving Israelis to vote with no new viable political, economic or social prospects. Although he is the country’s most recognizable and acclaimed leader, his propensity to stir up popular division and his increasingly solo exercise of power is wearying, and reveals the country’s increasing ungovernability. Dominique Moïsi, Special Advisor for Geopolitics at Institut Montaigne, shares his insights on this fourth election which has kept Israel at an impasse and which, yet again, reveals a political system adrift, threatening it’s democracy.

Israel's fourth election - in two years - seems to have ended in another stalemate, leaving many Israelis feeling caught in a never-ending loop. What do you think the next few months will look like?

The contrast between the successes of the Israeli society and the dysfunction of its political system grows ever more dramatic. One might expect that Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu would have benefitted in the polls from the triumphant success of Israel’s vaccination campaign - which has made the country a "world champion" in that area. One might also expect that the Jewish state’s gradual integration into its region, thanks to the signing of the Abraham Accords, would have provided a boost to the sitting Prime Minister - even though he made less of a contribution than Donald Trump, the latter’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, and even Iran which effectively pushed the Gulf states that signed the Accords into Israel’s arms. In fact, this has not quite been the case.

The contrast between the successes of the Israeli society and the dysfunction of its political system grows ever more dramatic.

On the contrary. Between the third election, and this last one, Netanyahu’s majority has continued to erode. He still maintains a lead, but more than ever needs to assemble a vast coalition in order to govern. The polarization of Israeli society is perfectly apparent in its political classes, as if seen through a microscope. Benyamin Netanyahu is simultaneously the most charismatic and divisive of political leaders. 

Beyond traditional party divisions, there is a fault line running across the usual oppositions of right and left, religious and secular. It is the division between those who are pro- and those who are anti-Netanyahu. The pros justifiably emphasize his experience - especially at the international level -, his success with the vaccination effort, and the total lack of any alternative candidate of his "caliber". Neither Lapid, Ganz, nor Bennet is able to compete with him in these areas.

But his political longevity, unique in Israel’s history, is no accident. Those who are anti-Netanyahu justifiably point to the multiple accusations of corruption that have stained the last years of a prime minister facing a sovereign and independent justice system. Is it reasonable to reappoint a man at risk of conviction? One who is moreover amenable - as experience has shown - to any shift towards the right, any transgression, any alliance... in short to any available political maneuver? Aren’t small religious parties asking for backward steps in gender-equality policy in return for their support? There is a delightful Israeli series called Shtisel on Netflix, which humorously and tenderly describes the life of an Orthodox family in one of Jerusalem’s most religious neighborhoods. Reality, however, is much less forgiving and much more brutal than fiction. To use another TV analogy, one might wonder if Netanyahu isn’t the XXL Black Baron of Israeli politics.

This political paralysis calls the state of democracy in Israel into question, as well as the viability of its electoral system and the functioning of its government. Have the existing divisions between the country’s different communities made Israel ungovernable?

Israel’s political system is all the more dysfunctional and paralyzed because, beyond divisions around Netanyahu himself, and beyond the quasi-structural polarization of Israeli society, there is an electoral system of absolute proportionality that freezes and magnifies these fractures and makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to build stable government majorities.

This selection method - on paper the most democratic - is actually the legacy of a history that began before the creation of the Israeli state. In the Zionist body (the Jewish national home), it was necessary to ensure the most accurate representation of all persuasions. A single person could constitute a group. But in politics especially, the perfect is the enemy of the good. This system cannot be overturned. Which small party would vote in favor of a reform that would lead to its own disappearance and ruin, in both a literal and figurative sense?

Is it not a partial democracy, with Israel’s Arab citizens not enjoying the same rights as others, not to mention the fate of the Palestinians in the territories?

The consequence of this roadblock is simple: the "best" people for the most part avoid going into politics in favor of business, research, the arts, or the military. This "inverse selection of remaining candidates" constitutes a threat to democracy, and weakens Israel’s claim of being "the only democracy in the region". That fact remains true, but is it not an illiberal democracy, with Netanyahu in power? Is it not a dysfunctional democracy - this fourth election being further proof of that fact? And is it not a partial democracy, with Israel’s Arab citizens not enjoying the same rights as others, not to mention the fate of the Palestinians in the territories?

The United Arab List - Ra'am - led by Mansour Abbas, emerged as a kingmaker on March 23. Securing five seats, the party holds the balance of power between Benyamin Netanyahu’s bloc and the motley alliance of his opponents. In your opinion, can Mansour Abbas' party get Israel out of this impasse? Could it be the ideal ally for Benyamin Netanyahu?

Arab citizens of Israel have the right to vote. It is a right they have exercised such that the Arab party that won the most votes in the last election, with five members elected to the Knesset (the Israeli Parliament), appears to many analysts to be the ‘kingmaker’ of the next coalition. And it is true that anything is possible, including the most unlikely outcome: the formation of a coalition government behind Netanyahu based on the incorporation of votes from the United Arab List (UAL), a small Israeli-Palestinian party. But the political reality is not going to be improved by these small accommodations between open adversaries. That scenario would be more concession than compromise. Unless there is a last-minute deal, which is a possible but not a probable outcome, we will be heading to the polls for a fifth round of elections.




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