Netanyahu Calls for Elections, But Will It Change How Israel Is Governed?

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Yin Dongxun / Xinhua / Corbis

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a Likud party convention in Tel Aviv, May 6, 2012.

Update:  The late-night, last-minute deal to avert early elections by bringing the centrist Kadima party into the ruling coalition — announced in the early morning hours of Tuesday in Israel — comes with an agreement to pass some sort of governance reforms.   “The parties pledge to work towards fundamentally changing Israel’s government system and establishing a new system that will enhance government stability, allow the prime minister to complete his term, create ruling continuity, allow long-term planning and protection of the public welfare,” was the language in an the agreement signed by Netanyahu and Kadima chairman Shaul Mofaz, who assumes the title of deputy prime minister. 

No suspense at all, really, lurks in Monday’s announcement that Israel will elect a new government on Sept. 4. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided the date, and won the approval of the Knesset with a swiftness that testifies to his political primacy — his Likud Party utterly dominates every poll. In the same motion, he managed to extinguish the one possibility for real change in how Israel is governed. Because while no one much doubts that Netanyahu will be returned to the Prime Minister’s Residence this fall, how much he’ll be able to do once ensconced there is a far more slippery question, given the Rube Goldberg mechanics of Israel’s political system.

It might look simple enough. Like most Western democracies, the Jewish State has a parliamentary government.  Voters cast ballots for parties, as opposed to individuals. The Prime Minister emerges from the faction that either wins a majority outright or cobbles together a coalition of parties that together control more than 60 seats in the 120-member Knesset. But the reality is so many parties now exist that no “major” party comes any where near a majority — Likud, dominant as it is, polls around 25% — and so building a coalition requires an unwieldy number. The coalition Netanyahu pulled together in 2009 numbered five parties. That’s down from eight in his first term 13 years earlier.

Every party that joins the coalition naturally expects a reward. That comes in the form of cabinet posts, which now number north of 30. Because each minister is also a member of the Knesset, that means once you throw in deputy ministers (who are also parliamentarians) there’s a whopping 20% overlap between the executive branch and the legislative branch. The executive is so big it behaves like a legislature. And the legislature has a great deal of the executive in its ranks. That raises the constant issue of checks and balances. The system is also notoriously unstable. Governments are allowed to serve four years, but Netanyahu’s current coalition is unusual for making it to three. The typical lifespan of an Israeli government is 23 months. Cabinet ministers hang around even less time, an average of only 18 months. Between gearing up and transitioning out, very little actually gets done.

“Under such a system it’s no surprise that over 70% — seven-oh — of government decisions are not implemented,” says Uriel Reichman, president of the Interdisciplinary Center, a private university in Herzliya.

What most galls many Israelis, though, is the power the system throws to small, single-issue religious parties who manage to land a place in just about every government. The most powerful of these represent Israel’s ultra-Orthodox population, the Hasidic and similarly strictly observant Jews who may not even support the Zionist idea of Israel but who are very keen to assure that their members receive generous welfare benefits, such as subsidized housing and monthly stipends for studying Torah instead of working for wages.  The arrangement has worked splendidly for decades; of Israel’s 24 governments since 1959, only one has not included a religious party. They typically keep a low profile,  playing what in baseball would be called small-ball. In exchange for, say, the housing ministry, a religious party will join almost any coalition and generally vote as it is told, so long as its people get, say, housing units on the West Bank, where some of the biggest settlements are, in fact, reserved for the ultra-Orthodox.

The result is a mammoth welfare state for the ultra-religious. Most ultra-Orthodox men do not work.  Fewer still serve in Israel’s military, a three-year obligation for other Jews, with a serious reserve obligation into middle age. As the size of the religious population grows — families with seven children are not unusual — the situation irks the Jewish Israeli taxpaying majority, which overwhelmingly supports legislation to require more ultra-Orthodox to serve in the armed forces, at the least.  In fact, if one factor prompted Netanyahu to call early elections, it was the insistence of his foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, to put forward such a measure in the new Knesset. Instead, the Knesset is dissolving itself — and, in the process, undoing the possibility for political reform. (Lieberman was under the most pressure to deliver a bill because he’s had little to show so far to his constituents: the Russian immigrants who the ultra-Orthodox rabbis do not recognize as converts.)

“We were waiting for three years,” says Arye Carmon, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, which advocates an array of changes.”When elections are on the horizon, coalition agreements get loosened, and then you have about two weeks to raise these issues.”  It’s an exceedingly narrow window: a time of flux when incumbents feel free to impose a new means of election, but by using power acquired under the old way.  Reformers must move quickly, lobbying lawmakers to amend the system before that system requires that they close up shop because the coalition has surrendered its mandate.

It could have happened last week, as the smell of change hung in the air.  But it didn’t.

“We were hoping we’d have time to raise it, but it was too quick,”  says Carmon. “We tried. We tried.” The window closed not in two weeks, but in a matter of days. Why? Netanyahu, who was keen to have the election in the first week of September, made a deal with the ultra-Orthodox, according to reports in the Hebrew media: In exchange for their support of that date, the Prime Minister vowed there would be no immediate bill requiring them to serve in the army. Neither the Prime Minister’s office nor the parties involved have denied the reports.

Advocates for reform say they will press on, urging major parties to support changes that will pare back the number of small fry, and voters to support parties that do. The mechanics are not daunting: the simplest fix would involve raising the threshold of votes a party must win to enter parliament. At the IDC, which Reichman founded, a team of academics came up with a comprehensive new system, packaged as Israel’s Hope. The who’s who of former officials backing it are led by former Mossad director Meir Dagan. “What’s important is the understanding that reform is needed,” says Reichman, who spent years campaigning for Israelis to adopt a constitution. “We cannot continue with a system that has the rule of the minority. You need a system that protects the majority from the whim and caprice of the minority. It’s an absurdity. Usually it’s the other way around.”