The nation faces a chronic problem of broken democracy. Can the new, disparate coalition provide a stable government or will Likud return?
Despite the four Knesset (Parliament) elections in the space of two years – between April 9, 2019 and March 23, 2021 – the political situation in Israel remains unpredictable. A delicate and disparate coalition of centrist, conservative and Arab parties is set to replace the Likud-led center-right / Zionist government which has been in power for 12 years now.
Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, is not taking his impending departure kindly. He criticized Yair Lapid for being “unprincipled” and “unscrupulous” by associating himself with ideologically disparate elements. Despite an intensely secular outlook, journalist-politician Yair Lapid, who heads the centrist Yesh Atid (“There is a future”) party, corded Naftali Bennett, a millionaire tech entrepreneur turned Tory leader, who may soon be named. The first Israeli Prime Minister wearing the kippah. To add to the numbers and drama, the ruling coalition will feature, again for the first time, an Arab party. Mansour Abbas, the leader of Israel’s United Arab list, is likely to join the Salad Coalition as minister.
Netanyahu is banking on people’s disgust to prevent this coalition from seizing power. At the same time, he alleged “electoral fraud”. We hope that by “electoral fraud” he means a manipulated mandate, not an actual forgery. One could hardly claim that the elections are rigged, more than two months after the announcement of the results. Israel does not have a permanent electoral commission and little electoral reform has taken place since independence.
Israel is undoubtedly an island of democracy, in the desert of the Middle East of Sheikdom, demagogues, civil wars and ayatollahs. Despite the perpetual clouds of war, democracy has not been eclipsed for a single day in this Jewish country since its independence on May 14, 1948. Israel actually tends to suffer from too much democracy. The political space is cluttered with parties / parliamentary groups of all colors. Members are never elected to the 120-member Knesset territorially or individually, but from specific lists submitted by different political parties / alliances. Elections are held on the basis of a proportional representation system where all of Israel is considered as one constituency. Registered voters vote for political parties / party alliances rather than candidates.
AB Magil, Marxist journalist and himself an American Jew, witness to the war for the liberation of Israel (1948) could not stop wondering about the political scenario in the new independent state: “The visitor to Israel never fails to ” be amazed at the complexity of his political life. It is not easy to find one’s way in the midst of the mass of parties, electoral blocs, political sects and schisms. In Israel’s first election, 450,000 voters were presented with no less than 21 tickets to choose from… The fragmentation of political life is in large part a reflection of the fragmented people from which the nation of Israel was assembled ”(Israel in crisis, p.111).
Magil’s book ‘Israel in Crisis’ (1950) appeared barely a year after the first general election in the newly independent nation on January 25, 1949. In these elections, the Labor Party (Mapai) with 34.7 percent votes resulting in 46 seats, and United Workers Party (Mapam) with 14.5 votes and 19 seats, were the main elements. For 15 years since March 1949, the Mapai (Labor Party) has ruled Israel with David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Sharett and Levi Eshkol as successive prime ministers.
Governments, however, have proven to be less durable than Knesset mandates. So, by the time of the Sixth Knesset, the 12th government was in place. Then, in November 1965, Levi Eshkol formed a new alliance, Alignment, comprising Mapai and Ahdut HaAvoda. The most famous Prime Minister (1969-74) of the Alignment was Golda Meir.
Mapai’s control has been almost absolute over national institutions, the economy, the military, the media and education. Gil Samanov, in his recent book Netanyahu and Likud leaders (2020), called it “totalitarian” as in communist countries. The shock of the Yom Kippur War (1973), which Israel ultimately won but with considerable deaths, had major repercussions on the national psyche. The time had come for Menachem Begin (1913-92), an intransigent anti-Mapai politician, to reverse the political scenario. Begin discussed his plans for a nationalist formation with Major General Ariel Sharon (retired), leading to the founding of Likud (Consolidation) in 1973. The rise of Likud marked the end of Mapai. As Prime Minister, Begin had to sign the Camp David Accord (1978), ceding the Sinai Peninsula captured by Israel in 1967. On the positive side, this led to the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty (March 26, 1979) , the first recognition of Israel’s right to exist by an Arab country.
Will the latest coalition lead Israel into the future or will Likud challenge fate again, as it did when one of its founders, Ariel Sharon, shattered it to form a Kadima party moderate in 2005 who decided the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza without any substantial benefit?
(The author is a New Delhi-based independent author and researcher. The opinions expressed are personal.)