Why Israel’s Political System Is Broken and How It Can Be Fixed
Do-over elections and political paralysis are undermining faith in the system.
TEL AVIV, Israel—Israel is stuck in a political twilight zone.
For the third time in less than a year, voters will head to the polls on Monday in a parliamentary election that’s supposed to decide whether Benjamin Netanyahu gets a fifth term as prime minister or challenger Benny Gantz, Israel’s former military chief, becomes the country’s new leader.
Two previous rounds of voting—one in April 2019 and a second in September—delivered deadlock: Each time, unsuccessful coalition negotiations gave way to decisions by Israel’s 120-member parliament, the Knesset, to dissolve itself and hold a new election.
The limbo is unprecedented in Israel’s 71-year history: The country has been operating on autopilot with a caretaker government since the end of 2018. And with polls predicting the same gridlocked parliament—neither a right-wing religious bloc nor a center-left bloc is forecast to get a 61-seat absolute majority—a fourth election seems like a realistic scenario.
“It would be chaos. I don’t even want to think about it,” said Avraham Diskin, a political scientist and fellow at the Kohelet Policy Forum. “The whole system may collapse.”
Is Israel’s political system broken? Not necessarily, experts say, but it’s in trouble.
The paralysis stems from a confluence of factors. The first is the looming corruption trial for a polarizing prime minister—Netanyahu’s first day in court is scheduled for just two weeks after election day. That has clogged up parliamentary maneuvering, making a majority beyond reach.
“The simple answer [for the stalemate] is Netanyahu. Without him, we would have had a government probably in April, definitely in September,” said Reuven Hazan, a political science professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “The system did not produce deadlocks until last year. If you look at the first 70 years of Israel and the first 20 elections we had, we always managed to put together a government.”
Israel’s longest-serving leader faces charges of fraud, breach of trust, and bribery in three cases—making Netanyahu the first sitting prime minister to go on trial. The prime minister has said he’s innocent, alleging instead that he’s the target of a biased media, the police, and prosecutors.
Despite that, Netanyahu has stubbornly clung to the premiership. (There’s no legal requirement that he resign.) He has kept members of his Likud party solidly behind him by arguing that he’s the only one capable of leading the country—he won a Likud primary challenge in December by a landslide. Netanyahu has also convinced right-wing religious party allies to stay loyal, organizing them into a bloc that has vowed not to join a government under his rival.
Even though Gantz’s Blue and White party isn’t that different from Likud on many key issues, Gantz has refused to join a Netanyahu-led government, saying that he can’t lead the country and plead his case in court at the same time. Much of his support draws from a constituency of center and left-wing voters who are virulently anti-Netanyahu.
“It’s a matter of people who put an absolute veto on Netanyahu,” Diskin said. “I’m sure that if Netanyahu would step down, a national unity coalition would be formed immediately [composed of Likud and Blue and White].”
The second complication is Israel’s tribal politics—parties based around social identity have become inflexible about whom they’ll partner with in a coalition.
Exhibit A: Yisrael Beiteinu, a party of secular right-wingers that appeals to Russian-speaking immigrants, refuses to join a coalition that relies on the three Jewish religious parties—alleging that they’re bent on turning Israel into a theocracy. The party is led by former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
Over the years, Israel’s ultra-Orthodox parties have evolved from acting as kingmakers between the left and right blocs to solidly identified and loyal to the right-wing.
Meanwhile, the party representing Israel’s Arab minority—the Joint List—has been delegitimized by centrist and right-wing Israeli politicians as a group of terrorist-supporting lawmakers who oppose Israel’s definition as a Jewish state. Nearly all the parties in the Knesset have ruled out sitting in a government with the Joint List, including Blue and White and Yisrael Beiteinu.
With identity politics as an electoral wedge, it’s more difficult for Israel’s proportional parliament system to deliver a decisive outcome.
“Rather than political parties playing a role in mediating the conflicts between the groups, our electoral system instead creates an incentive to amplify those differences,” said Yohanan Plesner, the president of the Israel Democracy Institute. “There are some inherent weaknesses in our democracy and election system that have been brought to the fore and need to be remedied.”
Scholars at the institute believe that a reform conferring the premiership on the head of the party with the largest representation in the Knesset—even if that party does not win a majority of the seats—would mitigate the problem. (Under the current system, a party head becomes prime minister only if he or she can assemble a majority coalition.)
Experts also believe that a law barring a prime minister from serving under indictment would prevent a repeat of the current paralysis.
But Bernard Avishai, a professor at Dartmouth College and an author of numerous books on Israel, says the problem is beyond structural and goes to Israel’s lack of a constitution and a common set of political values.
“If there are chickens coming home to roost, it’s not that there’s a political system that’s broken. It’s a society that’s fractured,” he said.
To be sure, for fragmentation and tribalism to roil elections isn’t unique to Israel. Last November, Spain held its fourth election in four years. It took the Netherlands more than 200 days in 2017 to form a government. Nearly a decade ago, Belgium operated with a caretaker government for 18 months.
Diskin noted that ideological stalemates in European countries between World War I and II prompted the collapse of democracies and the rise of dictators. Since the turn of the century, several democracies in Latin America and Europe facing similar issues regressed to authoritarianism.
In Israel, the electoral redundancy has meant less efficient governing. The country has been led for almost a year now by interim governments that have limited authority to address budget issues and make key appointments. As a result, a larger-than-anticipated budget deficit has gone unaddressed; a new multiyear plan for the military has languished; a much-needed infusion of funds for the health care system has failed to materialize; and top appointments in the police department and state prosecutor’s office have been postponed.
“Basically the government is paralyzed,” Plesner said. “It’s unhealthy for our political culture.”
The rapid-fire votes are also threatening to depress turnout. Voter participation unexpectedly ticked up by 1.4 percentage points in the September election to 69.8 percent, but that could reverse itself, according to polls. One poll conducted this month by the Yisrael Hayom newspaper and the i24News channel found 62 percent of respondents said they would definitely vote and another 24 percent said “probably.”
According to the latest surveys, Likud and Blue and White are running neck and neck, suggesting an outcome similar to the one in the September vote. The Joint List is projected as the third-largest party. Lieberman’s party will likely hold the balance between the two blocs. And though a fourth election is already being widely discussed, some analysts believe that the start of Netanyahu’s trial could make it more difficult for him to initiate a new round of voting.
“[The stalemate] can really create legitimacy issues in this country,” Hazan said. “And I think this already has started. People are not seeing democratic government produce what it should.”
Correction, Feb. 27, 2020: Israel has been operating under a caretaker government since the end of 2018. A previous version of this story misstated the year.