Israeli Democracy in Flux – Again
Israel’s protracted political stalemate raises serious questions about governability and its citizens’ faith in democratic institutions
As Wednesday rolled into Thursday and the midnight deadline passed without any member of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, able to garner majority support to form a new government, Israeli voters became resigned to returning to the polling stations on March 2, 2020 for a third election in less than a year.
By that point, the country will have been in political limbo for a year and a half, and officially under an interim government for a year. What impact will this protracted stalemate have on the Israeli government’s ability to govern and on Israeli citizens’ faith in their country’s democratic institutions?
An interim government has limited powers. It is intended to be a short-term arrangement allowing for continuity during a transition from one government to another.
Speaking to journalists in a conference call, Yohanan Plesner, the president of the Israel Democracy Institute, expressed concern about the lengthy tenure of this interim government. “The law and practices [of interim governance] have never been designed to deal with such a situation. It will exact some real costs on the national interest and on Israeli citizens.”
Many observers have expressed regret at the direct cost of holding an election – around 600 million to 800 million shekels ($170 million to $230 million) – and the cost to the economy of an added vacation day for the entire workforce – estimated at around 1.5 billion shekels ($430 million). But, says Plesner, “the real major cost is the fact that for a year and a half, decision-making at the highest level is not functioning.”
Prof. Eran Vigoda-Gadot, from the University of Haifa’s School of Political Sciences, agrees, telling The Media Line that the biggest problem with an interim government is the freezing of budgets, which, he says, deprives the government of its main tool for carrying out its political program. “Once there is no budget,” he points out, “there is no strategy behind the ideology of the government because there is simply no government.”
Significantly, he adds that because the system is on hold, it “eliminates many options to move forward with reforms. … As long as the situation continues, the damage will increase.”
A Widespread Impact
The Knesset passed a biennial budget in 2018 which runs out at the end of 2019. But, as Plesner points out, “starting in January 2020, there is no budget. That means extensive areas of government and budgeting are going to be paralyzed, new programs cannot be extended; existing programs that require new authorization will have to be suspended.”
The Knesset, he adds, is “essentially in a state of recess.” The impact could be felt across many sectors, says Plesner. He notes that transportation, infrastructure investment, the military’s next five-year plan and even the cost of medicines that would normally be subsidized as part of the country’s government-funded health care are all vulnerable under an interim government. Similarly, senior appointments cannot be made. Currently, says Plesner, “there’s only a de facto chief of police” and the promotion of other senior officers has been delayed indefinitely. Likewise, the state prosecutor, who is expected to retire soon, will be replaced by a caretaker without the authority that his position should have.
The fact that politicians have been in constant campaign mode for so long has also left them with little opportunity to govern: “The only thing that they care about is the forthcoming elections,” says Vigoda-Gadot.
While Israel’s “three-peat” elections are widely referred to as unprecedented, Plesner says that “we’re not the only ones in that club. Greece had three elections in 10 months, Israel is now going to have three elections in 11 months. Ireland had three elections within 17 months.” And frequent – though not this frequent – elections are the norm in Israel. Since 1995, it has gone to the polls every 2.3 years on average, which, Plesner says, made Israel the most frequently voting country among functioning parliamentary democracies.
Still, the government continues to function on some level, thanks to a strong civil service that carries on regardless of the political situation.
And Plesner says that despite the country’s electoral deadlock, “Israeli democracy is solid.” He mentions, as an example of this, the country’s “strong, independent law enforcement institutions that are able to indict an incumbent prime minister.”
Prof. Udi Sommer, from the Political Science Department at Tel Aviv University and chairman of the Israel Young Academy, told The Media Line that Israeli democracy remains strong: “My sense is that the institutions will be able to get back to normal assuming that a coalition is formed.”
Is Netanyahu the Issue?
Plesner identifies two main causes for the current repeated electoral impasse: the “inherent weaknesses in our electoral system” and the fact that the “law is not explicit enough when it comes to the right to compete [in elections] of a prime minister or a top politician who has been indicted.” Aside from these issues, he believes “our democratic system and institutions are strong, solid, and in this respect, I don’t think there’s cause for long-term alarm.”
Vigoda-Gadot agrees. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, he says, “has become the problem of the entire system and I think that he knows that.”
What is needed, he believes, is legislation that would empower the president or the Knesset speaker to break the impasse. Without such a fix to the electoral system, “democracy is being damaged.”
Vigoda-Gadot acknowledges that the country’s deep political divisions complicate coalition building but he believes “the country is governable.”
Sommer cautions that Israeli citizens are starting to feel that government institutions “just don’t work.” He believes the loss of faith in democratic institutions is a worldwide phenomenon. He points to the election of US President Donald Trump and passage of the Brexit resolution in the UK as symptoms of this crisis. In Israel, he says, “it’s accelerated because of the failure to form a government.” He says that if a country’s democratic institutions don’t work, “people may think they need something else. … What’s at stake is the future of Israeli democracy.”
Plesner doesn’t think the current morass has affected the public’s trust in political and public institutions in general. Trust in political institutions was low and remains low; trust in public (nonpolitical) institutions was high and will probably remain high. The one exception: “The law enforcement institutions … are now going through a systemic, ongoing campaign of delegitimization. Sadly, this campaign is led by the prime minister, himself, who is now a defendant against three very severe indictments.”
Vigoda-Gadot says that in his experience, citizens, viewing the repeated failure of their elected representatives to form a government, “become more cynical about the system.”
How this will impact voter behavior remains unclear.
A number of analysts question whether voter fatigue from repeat elections will be reflected in lower turnout. Plesner notes, however, that “the rate of participation in the September election was even higher than in the April election. It was around 69%, which is one of the highest in the democratic world. … I don’t think anyone expects a serious decline in the next election.”
One voter from Haifa who spoke to The Media Line on condition of anonymity, said, “I would like to refrain from voting to show my disgust, but I know that could have dire consequences were many to do likewise.”
Another voter, Tzur Yitzhak resident Larry Butchins, told The Media Line, “We don’t want a third election – the result will be the same, and we, the people, are funding it through our tax money.” He suggested that individuals and companies refuse to pay taxes “until these stupid politicians get their bloody act together and form a stable government.” But when asked if his disgust with the politicians would cause him to boycott the election, he said: “I will never give up my right to vote. I come from a country [South Africa] where the vote was denied to 80% of its people for far too long. … How could I possibly not exercise my right to vote?”