Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party won the Knesset elections a month ago amid expectations that he would quickly form a government, but a coalition remains elusive as the May 7 deadline draws closer.
Unfortunately, winning the election is only the first step toward becoming prime minister. To secure the position, Netanyahu must cobble together a coalition with at least 61 of the Knesset’s 120 seats. Likud alone, with 30 seats, is almost halfway there, but then things get murky.
The 20th Knesset, sworn in March 30, represents 10 parties, down from 14 in the last Knesset. An increase in the threshold to enter the Knesset from 2 percent of the vote to 3.25 percent helped reduce the number of parties, but too many remain.
Take away Likud’s 30 seats and the Zionist Union’s 24, and eight parties are splitting 66 seats, an average of just over eight each. That’s less than 7 percent of the Knesset per party outside the big two.
But those small parties, often based on one issue or one leader, wield big power because the would-be prime minister needs so many of them to build and maintain a governing coalition.
All of the horse trading involved in forming a coalition takes place behind closed doors. The prime minister must offer parties positions as Cabinet ministers and deputy Cabinet ministers to persuade them to join the government, then must remain true to their agendas, lest they quit the government and bring it down. Complications arise when likely coalition members have conflicting positions on secondary issues or want to control the same agencies and policies.
Coalitions collapse so often that no prime minister has made it through a full five-year term without re-forming the government. New elections come along about every 3½ years.
Twelve people have served as Israel’s prime minister in its 67 years, but four of them have resigned six times, three have died in office, and five, from David Ben-Gurion to Netanyahu, have served nonconsecutive terms. Only once has Israel given one party a Knesset majority, when Ben-Gurion’s party won 63 seats in 1958, and even that government collapsed.
To some extent, that chaos is intentional. It’s part of the more direct democracy involved in a parliamentary system with proportional representation. By contrast, the American and English systems of electing lawmakers by district create republics with legislative majorities that don’t accurately reflect the political breakdown of the population.
Theoretically, an American political party could win every congressional race by a single vote and wind up with all 435 House and 100 Senate seats despite having the slimmest of majorities in the vote counts; that could not happen in Israel.
The good side of Israel’s system is that issues important to small percentages of the population are heard. Unfortunately, the fragility of the coalition system prevents action on the big issues most of the population cares about.
Issues that are important but go nowhere include marriage restrictions, minority rights, religious pluralism, military or national service for the Haredi, public subsidies for Haredi communities, exactly who is a Jew, and even the settlements and peace process.
The stalemate with the Palestinians and constant threats from Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, Syria, Islamic State, etc., expose the other big problem with Israel’s governmental chaos: Such instability could be fatal for a nation in a perpetual state of war.
Israel should be focused on finding a practical solution to Iran’s nuclear program and fending off U.N. resolutions for Palestinian statehood, but Netanyahu must concentrate on finding at least four coalition partners or must break a campaign pledge and reach out to the Zionist Union for a unity government (which still would require at least one more partner).
It’s possible if unlikely that Netanyahu won’t be able to pull a coalition together, forcing President Reuven Rivlin to turn elsewhere, likely to Zionist Union head Isaac Herzog, and possibly leaving Likud out of the government.
All of this chaos and political drama might be fun and even beneficial in a place like Italy, which can count on the European Union and NATO for external matters. But an isolated, threatened nation like Israel needs more stability.
A possible solution would be a system in which the leader of the largest party is automatically the prime minister. The elected leader would still need a coalition to govern effectively, but he or she could form a Cabinet and get on with business even with a minority government. Potential coalition partners thus couldn’t hold the prime minister hostage.
We believe that letting the Israeli people choose the prime minister by giving the post to the leader of the party with a plurality would lead to the formation of fewer, larger parties addressing a wide range of issues during the campaign instead of resolving matters in secret after the election. Governments then would be less likely to fall at the whim of a single party or even a single lawmaker angered by a single issue.
Israel would have more transparent, more stable, more consistent governance, and that’s a good thing no matter who holds office.