Israel’s Government Has Nobody at the Wheel

A cycle of deadlocked elections has left the country without a functioning administration—and a foreign policy set on autopilot.

A car drives past a campaign billboard of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
A car drives past a giant campaign billboard showing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, on March 15, 2015. AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images

Hearts were set aflutter in the “start-up nation” when Tesla began marketing its semi-autonomous vehicles to Israelis earlier this year. The excitement seems to have been contagious. Paralyzed by a spate of inconclusive elections—the latest was held on March 23—governance has now been put in driverless mode as well. Careening recklessly through a geopolitical obstacle course, Israel is now threatening to crash into a wall.

Israelis have been trapped in a time loop since April 2019, when the first of four rapid-succession elections was conducted and ended in a stalemate. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—whose Likud party finished in a dead heat with the Blue and White party, chaired by Benny Gantz—dissolved parliament after failing at his presidentially assigned task of forming a new ruling coalition.

Two subsequent attempts didn’t fare much better. Both Netanyahu and Gantz proved incapable of cobbling together a majority after a repeat election in September 2019. A dysfunctional and inappropriately named unity government created under their joint leadership following the March 2020 vote collapsed after only seven months, when the Knesset was dissolved once again and Israelis were summoned back to the polls.

Chaos loves a vacuum. Feuding Israeli lawmakers have not passed a national budget since 2018, well before the advent of COVID-19 and its unprecedented financial burdens. Cabinet meetings have been canceled routinely, including a March 29 date to discuss contracts for procuring supplemental coronavirus vaccines. (Pfizer has now put a hold on future doses because Israel hasn’t yet paid for the last batch it received.)

Multiple ministerial portfolios have been taken hostage, as it were, already or soon-to-be vacant because Netanyahu and Gantz cannot agree on permanent officeholders. Replacements for key positions—including outgoing security chiefs Yossi Cohen and Nadav Argaman—still haven’t been confirmed. The system is hopelessly logjammed.

Careening recklessly through a geopolitical obstacle course, Israel is now threatening to crash into a wall.

Nothing better illustrates what Israelis like to call a “full gas in neutral” situation than the split-screen events of April 5, the day when Israeli President Reuven Rivlin began welcoming representatives of the 13 parties elected to the incoming Knesset and soliciting their preferences for premier precisely 30 minutes after Netanyahu, to whom Rivlin has since awarded the mandate to build Israel’s next coalition, took his seat in the dock, awaiting the start of witness testimony in his corruption trial. But Israel’s perpetual campaign hasn’t only wreaked domestic havoc. It’s made a shamble of the nation’s foreign policy too.

The governance deficit in Israel—which has been ruled uninterruptedly by caretaker or unstable governments since December 2018—makes it exceedingly difficult for interlocutors to conduct professional business with the country. Competing centers of authority undermine one another and telegraph contrary messages about the arbiters and direction of Israeli policy. Thirty-six new ambassadorial appointees, authorized already by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, are languishing idly, waiting for Netanyahu to end his half-year embargo on bringing them up for cabinet approval.

This predicament, which could continue for many more months, will not be helpful in establishing a constructive Israeli dialogue with other members of the international community.

The ongoing turmoil has cast a cloud, first and foremost, on Israel’s endeavor to transition smoothly from former U.S. President Donald Trump’s “years of plenty”—when Washington heaped treasure on Jerusalem—to what is expected to be a more unpredictable relationship with the Biden administration.

Thirty-six new ambassador appointees, authorized already by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, are languishing idly.

Readouts from initial conversations, which Netanyahu held with U.S. President Joe Biden and, subsequently, with U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, disclosed nuanced differences in approach, with the prime minister projecting conspicuously that he is in their good graces. While Netanyahu’s summation of the calls noted explicitly, for instance, that the U.S. president and vice president had both “commended” his prowess in beating back the pandemic—which was a central component in his reelection strategy—the White House versions mentioned no such praise.

Both Biden and Harris took pains to emphasize their strong commitment to Israel’s welfare but were equally cautious to not endorse either Netanyahu or his personal worldview. The U.S. government is staying out (at least overtly) of the horse race and, meanwhile, making its own independent determinations about the best way forward on myriad issues that will impact Israel directly.

Almost three years after Trump withdrew U.S. support for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the United States has now launched indirect talks with Iran toward reviving the moribund deal. The return of engagement between the two countries and Washington’s willingness to adopt conciliatory measures, such as “lifting sanctions that are inconsistent with the JCPOA,” won’t sit easily with Israel—which has made no attempt to hide its distrust of Iranian intentions.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin arrived for discussions in Israel on April 11, but Israeli hopes that a bilateral effort to strategize with the United States on Tehran’s nuclear ambitions might have allowed Israel greater leverage seem to have been disappointed, evident in the disclosure by a U.S. government source that Israel had apparently given advance notice of an April 6 strike on an Iranian military vessel operating in the Red Sea.

“The Americans are not really taking us into consideration at this point,” said a senior Israeli security official. Israel’s vulnerable and confused political circumstances, which included an earlier tug of war over who would shepherd the Iran portfolio, have made it all too easy for the United States to ignore Netanyahu’s advice.

A similar dynamic characterized Israel’s muddled preparations in advance of the April 9 deadline for responding to a letter from Fatou Bensouda, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague, regarding the initiation of a war crimes probe.

Israel’s senior-most officials did not convene their first meeting on the subject until April 7—despite having received Bensouda’s dispatch in early Marchresolving only after a follow-up consultation the next day to reject the ICC’s jurisdiction. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, sharing Israel’s indignation over the investigation, tweeted on March 4 that the United States “firmly opposes an @IntlCrimCourt investigation into the Palestinian Situation.”

But sympathies for Israel’s case aside, Blinken announced on April 2 that Biden would be revoking an executive order that his predecessor invoked last year to sanction Bensouda. Neither the United States nor Israel has signed onto the Rome Statute from which the ICC derives its authority, but their leaders clearly diverge on their views of the institution’s legitimacy.

Israeli politicians, sensing another election might be just around the corner, are compounding the problem, exploiting the authority void and escalating their rhetoric and promises to appeal to constituents. Some of the fallout from recent weeks has undoubtedly unnerved current U.S. leaders. Speaking on April 7, a defiant Netanyahu warned “our best friends”—the United States, presumably—that “an agreement with Iran, which paves its way to nuclear weapons that threaten us with destruction, … will not bind us.”

Meanwhile, politicians are sending astonishingly different messages to the outside world. Right-wing prime ministerial hopeful and annexation enthusiast Naftali Bennett, quizzed about the feasibility of heading a future coalition to extend Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank, replied that “if we get enough seats, [my partners] won’t have a choice.” Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz, on the opposite end of the political spectrum, legitimized the ICC inquiry into Israel’s conduct—in outright contravention of the position taken by Blinken. A functional government that showed up for work and injected a degree of discipline would go a long way toward improving coordination between Israel and the United States.

The same can be said for Israel’s other relationships. Drawn grudgingly into Netanyahu’s bid to remain in power, the United Arab Emirates—Israel’s shiny new ally—offered a brusque rebuff, acting swiftly to try and insulate its prospering ties with Israel from the vicissitudes of politics. The United Arab Emirates “will not be a part in any internal electioneering in Israel, now or ever,” Anwar Gargash, the former minister of state for foreign affairs, explained resolutely on Twitter, after the Emiratis rejected repeated attempts to engineer what would have amounted to a glitzy pre-election campaign stop for Netanyahu in the country.

Netanyahu also intervened to block retiring Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, who had planned to inaugurate new Israeli missions in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, from “upstaging” him with a prior visit. Israel’s new friends in the Gulf are demonstrating little patience for the antics that have displaced competent statesmanship at a time when rapprochement is still in its early stages.

Tensions have also surfaced between Israel and Jordan, whose reported interference with Netanyahu’s flight through its airspace was also cited as a factor contributing to his UAE tour being scrapped. The incident—which came against the backdrop of a dispute that caused the cancellation of a trip by King Abdullah’s son, Crown Prince Hussein, to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem—provoked retaliation from Netanyahu in the guise of a (quickly rescinded) reciprocal order to close Israeli airspace to Jordanian traffic and his lethargic consideration of a Jordanian appeal for assistance with water shortages.

The crisis has become ever more acute given current instability in Jordan, in the aftermath of what may have been a thwarted coup, with a bizarre Israeli angle, that could have conceivably hampered security cooperation with Israel.

Nowhere is this breakdown in Israel’s foreign-policy apparatus more apparent than with regard to the Palestinians, who are soon slated to cast ballots for the first time in 15 years for the Palestinian Authority presidency and legislature. Despite the obvious ramifications for Israel, Netanyahu, as of April 4, still had not called together a single meeting on the Palestinian election, leaving Israel with no official policy toward the event. Decision-makers appear out to lunch.

A functional government that showed up for work and injected a degree of discipline would go a long way toward improving coordination between Israel and the United States.

The horizon is not at all clear. Netanyahu has been unreceptive to thoughts of stepping down or “graduating” him to Israel’s ceremonial presidency, clearing the way for a cohesive conservative majority.

Immediate and more credible prospects for Israel include tenuous leadership that will likely include either far-right extremist elements or, alternatively, a wildly heterogeneous mix of factions united by little other than their opposition to Netanyahu. That’s not to mention the very real possibility of yet another—fifth—election, which may or may not resolve matters once and for all. (Rivlin, in allotting Netanyahu 28 days to construct a new executive, expressed the disheartening belief that “no candidate has a realistic chance of forming a government that will have the confidence of the Knesset.”)

In the interim, Israel will continue to be run by a part-time prime minister who will likely be distracted by the steady, three-day-a-week presentation of courtroom evidence seeking to convict him.

After two years of its electoral Groundhog Day nightmare, it’s obvious that Israel is in dire need of political reform that fosters the sort of responsible governance where cabinet members get off the campaign trail to assemble for regular deliberations and make relevant decisions in a timely fashion. Otherwise, it could be a long time until a new driver takes the wheel and restores confidence that he, or she, will place the country’s best interests over his or her own.

Shalom Lipner is a nonresident senior fellow of the Middle East program at the Atlantic Council. From 1990 to 2016, he served seven consecutive Israeli premiers at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem. Twitter: @ShalomLipner