June 27, 2022

It’s all too easy to view the chaos of Israeli democracy as an outcome of close elections and irreconcilable differences. But elections have been close before, and fundamental disagreements on policy have barely registered since Naftali Bennet and Yair Lapid ended Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12-year reign with their “change coalition”. If anything, differences inside the coalition, comprising parties from the Right, the centre, the Left, and one Islamist party, were greater than any difference between it and the opposition.

As it turned out, there was no major diplomatic or military or economic crisis that put those differences to the test. There was no war, no painful peace negotiation, no wave of terrorism or runaway inflation. Instead, the drama has been internal, petty and personal.

The political crisis which began in November 2018 seemed banal by the standards of parliamentary democracy. A senior minister resigned over some forgotten policy difference; a coalition lost its majority; new elections were called. The disagreement, regarding Israel’s policy towards the Hamas regime in Gaza, didn’t seem unusual. Nor did the characters in the drama seem particularly special. Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman was once a close ally of Prime Minister Netanyahu, but had become his sworn rival. It’s a story you could find almost anywhere in almost any ruling coalition, especially one that had been in power for a decade.

The “early” elections called for 2019 weren’t even all that early. The previous election was in 2015. It was, in other words, a completely ordinary end for a comparatively stable government in a relatively long Parliament. There was nothing to indicate that this was the beginning of a crisis of governability — except, of course, for the Prime Minister’s burgeoning legal troubles.

Nothing in the outcome of that first election in April 2019 indicated that trouble lay ahead, either. Armchair constitutionalists from the English-speaking world had long bemoaned the ills of Israel’s chaotic proportional system. But in this election the two largest parties each secured 35 seats, the first time since 1996 that two parties won more than 30 seats and the first time since 1988 that two parties had won at least 35. And the Right bloc had a secure majority at 65 out of 120 Members.

But when Lieberman refused to join the rest of the Right in a Netanyahu-led coalition, Parliament dissolved without any government being formed. New elections were called, but the result was the same: no Government.

Throughout this period, and following the third round of elections in 2020, Netanyahu remained in charge of a caretaker government. Budgets weren’t passed, crucial positions in the civil service went unfilled, and the basic functioning of the state was impaired. It escaped nobody’s notice that this had the potential to benefit Netanyahu just as his trial for corruption was getting underway. It was a crisis Netanyahu never wanted and didn’t seek, but he and his supporters gradually realised that operating in crisis mode had its benefits.

The formation of a new government in 2020 after the third round of elections with Netanyahu’s rival Benny Gantz didn’t really end the crisis. A complicated rotation agreement was reached in the peak of the panic of the first wave of pandemic lockdowns and a general anxiety about the possibility of holding yet another election during the pandemic. But by blocking a budget from passing only a few months later, Netanyahu managed to dissolve Parliament before he would have needed to start the rotation; he sent Israel into a fourth round of elections, while still in charge of a caretaker Government.

The Israeli public was effectively told in no uncertain terms that it would not enjoy a functioning government unless it gave Netanyahu and his backers a solid majority in the Knesset. Nevertheless, the public, for the fourth consecutive time, did not live up to its end of the bargain.

So even though a new Government was formed without Netanyahu and without the Likud, and even though this Government entered office with the confidence of a parliamentary majority and surprisingly coherent coalition policy guidelines, the defeated bloc sought to undermine the legitimacy of the new Government and to obstruct any and all legislation regardless of the merits — in a manner more reminiscent of Gingrich and McConnell than anything seen in Israel’s undisciplined parliamentary tradition.

The now-former Prime Minister was routinely addressed by his supporters as “Prime Minister Netanyahu”. A campaign of harassment was conducted against MPs in the coalition who came from the Right, particularly from Prime Minister Bennett’s party. Bennett himself was routinely referred to as a “crook” (by supporters of a leader on trial for corruption, it bears mentioning), including in settings previously seen as outside the boundaries of politics, such as a Memorial Day ceremony for Israel’s fallen soldiers. And a kind of parliamentary obstructionism that has been the norm in the United States since the Nineties was brought to the Knesset, making even the most routine legislation impossible to pass unless it had the backing of every single member of all parties of the governing coalition, something which has never been the case in any Parliament.

Barely one year old, the Bennett-Lapid Government already lost its working majority in Parliament thanks to defections from Bennett’s right-wing Yamina party — defections secured by dubious promises of jobs in future Likud-led governments. Despite this, it could have limped on as a minority Government until at least the deadline for the next budget in March 2023. Under normal political conventions, it might very well have done just that. But these are not normal times; the crisis was not over. So Bennett and Lapid announced that this Government had reached the end of its viability and the two set out to dissolve Parliament last week.

What has plunged Israel back into its state of political temporariness is, ironically, a piece of legislation relating to a much deeper and more existential temporariness which Israel has been living in since its lightning victory over three Arab armies 55 years ago. An emergency regulation passed by the Knesset in the weeks immediately following the Six Day War applied some Israeli civil and criminal law to Israelis in the occupied territories. As an emergency regulation, the law has to be renewed every five years.

There are many reasons why such an emergency regulation was necessary even in 1967, but its principal import is in regulating the lives of Israeli settlers living in the West Bank. It means that Israelis living in West Bank settlements are subject to Israeli income tax when they work, that their children’s schools are administered by the Israeli Ministry of Education, and that they are drafted into the Israel Defence Forces when they turn 18.

No one knows quite what it would mean for the law to expire. Israelis living in West Bank settlements might no longer be covered by Israel’s national health insurance; they might not be eligible for unemployment or other welfare benefits. It’s not clear that income tax could be collected from them. The Israel Police could not operate in the West Bank, and all police action would become the responsibility of the military, just as all criminal and civil proceedings would be the responsibility of military courts, none of which are staffed for such an endeavour. An Israeli wanted for a crime could slip across the Green Line into the West Bank and no police officer could legally arrest him. It’s not even entirely clear how the roughly half a million Israelis living in West Bank settlements could vote in a future general election.

A failure to renew the law would lead to legal chaos and materially hurt the very population that is the base of Netanyahu’s support, the West Bank settlers. But the opposition calculated that even in such an extreme case, that anger would be directed at the Government and in particular at Prime Minister Bennett, the “crook” who “betrayed” the Right in general and the settlers in particular. And so the entire opposition voted against renewing basic civil and political and social rights for the settler population that is their most loyal constituency. They didn’t even demand some petty or symbolic change to the legislation to gain their support. They demanded an end to the Government that was in power and which had achieved power, however narrowly, through entirely democratic means.

This wasn’t an impasse, but rather a hostage situation. Netanyahu, his party, and his bloc of Right-wing and religious satellite parties were essentially demanding to have power handed to them — despite not having a majority in Parliament — or they would plunge the country into chaos. That the population they were threatening to hurt most, West Bank settlers, was their most ardent and loyal public only served to emphasise that this was disaster bartering without even a thin veneer of policy difference.

If there is an international precedent for this kind of hostage situation, it is the 2011 American debt ceiling crisis, when Republicans in Congress threatened to bring the US into default despite there being no shortage of funds, counting on any blowback being blamed on the Obama administration. When you know the other side will be blamed for the chaos you engineer, all there is to stop you from pursuing it is perhaps love of country or some quaint notion of decorum. Absent those, it’s pure political profit. And, let’s be honest, a bit of a thrill too. The thrill of responsibility-free chaos was a big part of the attraction in both the debt ceiling holdup as well as the West Bank emergency regulations extension.

Just as no one was willing to contemplate an American default and the pointless financial destruction that would entail, no one here seriously entertained the idea that the emergency regulations in the West Bank would actually be allowed to expire. By convention, a law in Israel that is set to expire on a date that falls in the term of a caretaker government is automatically extended to three months past the date of the formation of a new government. This meant that the only way to release the hostage was for the government to end its tenure early, dissolve the Knesset, and schedule new elections.

An election is now scheduled for November this year, exactly four years since the coalition collapse which began the whole endless cycle. In those four years, Israel has spent more time in caretaker Governments than not, and the two short-lived coalitions that did govern did so under the terms of a new and untried arrangements of alternating Prime Ministers. One way or another, Israeli governance has been in a permanent state of temporariness for four years and counting.

One way or another, Netanyahu has never in those four years secured a majority in Parliament to back him for a full term in office. And if the most recent polls are any indication, he will not secure a majority in this upcoming fifth round either. Almost half the country wants to see him in power, but almost half, in a democracy, is not enough.

Chaos, then, isn’t just a side effect of this reality, and it isn’t just a coordination failure. But nor is it part of some grand masterplan to consume Israel’s democracy from within and replace it with some crude form of dictatorship. It has become an end itself. For the loose coalition that swept Netanyahu into power in 2009 and kept him there despite a few close calls for 12 years, the formula is simple: either we govern, or nobody does. Only a decisive outcome in either his trials or in a future election (or both) can bring an end to the madness, and neither seems to be in the offing.