The 20th Knesset dissolved in late December 2018 sending Israelis to the polls on April 9, 2019. The election results seemed to indicate that Prime Minister Netanyahu would have little trouble forming another government based on the religious-right bloc, but several weeks of negotiations yielded no practicable coalition. Consequently, the newly installed 21st Knesset decided to dissolve, and Israel embarked on yet another round of elections scheduled for September 17, 2019.
Although the results of the second round of elections are unknown at the time of this writing (August 2019), major trends can be discerned, and important lessons learned from their very existence. The need to hold two rounds of elections in quick succession has made domestic political machinations Israel’s main preoccupation over the past year. This in and of itself points to a problem with Israel’s political system. A second round of elections within a so short a timeframe constitutes a costly burden for the Israeli public and its elected officials.
By the time the September 2019 elections take place, Israel will have spent the better part of a year in an undesirable state of governance. The government, of course, continues to function and render decisions on current matters, but the lack of a stable coalition makes it difficult to act on major issues and engage in long-term planning. This can be seen clearly with regard to the budget deficit, whose troubling proportions emerged as the (first) round of elections was called, and remained inadequately addressed for many months afterward. This deferment in addressing the deficit will oblige the new government, once elected, to take harsher measures than might have been necessary under normal political circumstances.
During election seasons, leaders take stronger, more insistent stands, and sharp contradistinctions between their electorates and those of competing political parties. The Israeli political discourse in 2019 has been characterized by separatism and exclusion – toward the Arab minority (which expressed its own separatism and exclusion), toward leftist groups (“leftist” being loosely defined as anyone who doesn’t support the religious-right coalition aspiring to renew its government hold), toward the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) public (on the part of secular groups, including the secular-right), and toward the right, especially the religious right (on the part of the center and the left). Each of the aforementioned groups has tried to delegitimize the ideas and deeds of the others. The left has been accused of being unpatriotic, the right of harboring fascist tendencies; religious groups have been accused of hadata – “religionization” – and so on. The effect of this discourse on the Israel public is to alienate the various groups from each other, and to foment anger, resentment, and frustration.
The publicly claimed cause of political crisis, (and there are doubtless additional causes, including the prime minister’s legal situation), was the impasse in resolving a contentious and longstanding social issue: IDF enlistment of Haredi yeshiva students. A High Court of Justice-mandated timeframe obliged the political system to make a decision, and the deadline loomed. It became evident that although the differences between various legislative proposals (for a new arrangement regarding the yeshiva-student exemption from IDF service, one that would satisfy the High Court and the Israeli public) were relatively small, no consensus could be reached and, consequently, no viable coalition could be formed. The results of the forthcoming September elections will determine whether and how a majority agreement can be reached with respect to the court-mandated enlistment legislation.
In both rounds of elections, Israeli citizens have been expected, first and foremost, to make a personal decision: do they want to see Benjamin Netanyahu heading the government even after having overtaken David Ben-Gurion as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister? The desirability of Netanyahu’s continued leadership encompasses a variety of considerations. Some of these pertain to his policy record (avoiding descent into all-out war in Gaza, the ongoing military effort to keep Iran from strengthening its hold on Syria, his close relationship with the US president, and open dialogue with the leaders of Russia, India, China, and other nations, etc.). Other considerations relate to his political approach (alliance with the religious right and the Haredim) and his personal qualities as a leader who – pending a hearing – is about to be indicted on charges of bribery and breach of trust.
The first round of elections in 2019 showed that Israelis have not abandoned, in any dramatic way, the positions that put Netanyahu and his Likud party in power more than a decade ago. The religious-right bloc, whose advance commitment to strive for a Netanyahu-headed government was one of its defining characteristics this time around, won a large majority of votes. It was only the high election threshold, and the splintering into satellite parties, that kept this majority from being fully reflected in the distribution of Knesset seats, and in the establishment of a stable coalition. Another prominent feature of the April 2019 elections was its high centrist-Israel voter concentration. Essentially, the two big parties (Likud and Blue and White), which positioned themselves in the center, together won a clear majority of 70 Knesset seats. However, theoretical considerations (can a government function under a prime minister threatened with indictment?) and issues of political strategy prevented (in the first round of elections) the formation of a coalition that would reflect the Israeli public’s “centrification.” The group most negatively affected by this sociopolitical trend is the camp formerly identified as the Jewish left. This camp’s two major representative parties (Labor and Meretz) garnered, together, only ten Knesset seats (less than ten percent). The share of elected MKs representing the Arab voting public also declined in this election cycle due to political splintering and a substantial drop in Arab Israeli voting rates (an ongoing issue that merits separate discussion).
The recent and forthcoming Israeli election cycles have also called attention to the fact that Israelis are no longer preoccupied by foreign policy issues, on which there is a broad consensus among most voters. In particular, the Israeli-Palestinian conundrum, once a major fault line between political camps, ceased to be a partisan acid test. In its place, personal conduct and corruption issues rose on the agenda, along with the dynamics between the elected legislative and the appointed judicial branches, and religion-state relations. Quite a few members of the main opposition party, Blue and White, strongly – even very strongly – concur with the foreign and security policies of the present government; their criticism touches primarily on the issues noted above: To what degree, if any, do corruption allegations necessitate the introduction of new blood into the governmental system? Is there an urgent need to limit the High Court of Justice’s power to intervene in parliamentary legislative activity? And, has the religion-state balance been harmed (or more explicitly: have the religious-Haredi parties become excessively influential in shaping Israeli public life)?
In this context it is also important to mention that among certain sectors of the public (mainly supporters of the rightwing government but also others), there is a declining trust in legal authorities, the police, the state attorneys and the courts. This decline makes the public discourse on political corruption partisan, as government opponents argue that the government is guilty of corruption while government supporters claim that the legal system is biased against a particular political camp.