Looking at Israel beyond political instability

In 74 years, Israel had as many as 36 governments, including the current caretaker administration headed by Prime Minister Yair Lapid.
Israel's caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid (Photo | AP)
Israel's caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid (Photo | AP)

Political instability is an integral and inseparable part of Israel’s landscape. For the fifth time within three years, Israel goes to the polls. The November 1 election will be the 25th since its birth in 1948. Only twice before (1969–1973 and 1977–1981) did the Knesset complete its full four-year term; most were dissolved early due to political crises and instability.

In 74 years, Israel had as many as 36 governments, including the current caretaker administration headed by Prime Minister Yair Lapid. If the average life of a Knesset is about three years, the governments had a lesser lifespan. Israel had four elections between April 2019 and March 2021. Only the unpopular prospect of a fifth election compelled the ideologically incompatible parties to cobble up an anti-Netanyahu government in June 2021. But that did not survive beyond twelve months.

Thus, including Lapid, Israel had as many as 14 prime ministers; if one excludes Netanyahu (over 15 years) and Ben-Gurion (over 13 years), the rest had shorter innings. This contrasts with the ‘political stability’ in Israel’s immediate neighbourhood.

In its hundred-year history, the Kingdom of Jordan had only four rulers. The Assad family has been continuously ruling Syria since 1971. If Mubarak ruled Egypt for over three decades, Gamal Abdul Nasser dominated it for nearly two decades. And, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia saw only seven rulers since its founding in 1932. One can also add that Israeli leaders have so far engaged with as many as 14 American presidents belonging only to two political parties.

Ideological diversity that marked the pre-state Jewish community in mandate Palestine or Yishuv continued and intensified after 1948. Israel’s proportional representation electoral system, as against the Indian constituency-based model, meant that no single party could ever secure the simple majority of 61 seats in the 120-member Knesset. The highest number of seats ever secured by a political party was 56, won by the Labour Alignment in 1969. So long as the Labour party dominated the socio-political landscape, things were relatively manageable, if not stable.

The Labour’s monopoly ended when Likud came to power in 1977, and since then, the latter has emerged as a dominant force through its effective alliance and partnership with the religious parties, which were once Labour allies. With the exceptions of Yitzhak Rabin-Shimon Peres (1992–1996) and Ehud Barak (1999–2001), the Labour Party has become a marginal player in Israel. Its social agenda has been taken over by the ethno-religious Shas party. In the last two decades, centrist parties like Kadima, Blue and White and Yesh Atid have emerged as real alternatives to the Likud.

Given this background, it is safe to assume that the November elections will not give a definite mandate. Current exit polls suggest a clear edge for Netanyahu-led Likud but without an absolute majority. Naftali Bennett, former Prime Minister and currently deputy to Lapid, declared that he would not contest the November election.

Questions have been raised over the political future of a few parties. Crossing the minimum threshold margin of 3.25% of votes will be an uphill task for Yamina (without Bennet), the increasingly marginalised Labour Party, Left-wing Meretz (whose Arab Member of Knesset partly contributed to the fall of the government) and Arab-Islamist Ra’am (whose participation in the anti-Netanyahu coalition facilitated the Bennett-Lapid government). As things stand, the November election might benefit some of the larger parties at the cost of their smaller ideological cousins.

While the four-month timeframe is too long in Israeli politics, it is possible to decipher two important lessons. First, Lapid is officially a ‘caretaker Prime Minister’ but the nomenclature does not impede any of his powers, functions or responsibilities. Netanyahu, for example, was caretaker Prime Minister between December 2018 (when the Knesset was dissolved) and May 2020 (when a brief unity government was formed with the Blue and White Party). Thus, it is safe to assume that the caretaker arrangement under Lapid would continue well into early 2023.

Significantly, perennial political instability has not impeded or slowed Israel’s progress in other areas. It has emerged as a military-security power, a technological powerhouse, a strong market for foreign investments, a start-up nation, premier nation in various scientific advancements. It is a widely-courted diplomatic power and hence a regional power. These accomplishments paralleled decades of domestic political instability.

Though there are enormous disagreements over goals and tactics, there has been a consensus on national priorities among all political parties. While the Left and the Right differed over the means of pursuing national security, there has been convergence on ensuring basic security of the citizens both in military and socio-economic terms.

Political stability is important, especially from the viewpoint of international relations, but unlike several of its neighbours, Israel has ensured the economic and societal security of the people. Inequities and inequalities do exist but Israel has not made them hostage to unclear electoral verdicts or hung parliaments. Israel’s message is loud and clear: political stability and a parliamentary majority are irrelevant to national progress.

P R Kumaraswamy
Professor at JNU. Teaches contemporary Middle East there

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