Israel is not going to an election. Unless it is, of course.
It is impossible to know for sure whether the new crisis between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz is real, or a show put on by Netanyahu as a negotiating tactic.
Reports leaked from Netanyahu’s own advisers on Wednesday that he’s already decided to call elections in November. But there are good reasons to doubt those reports.
For one thing, Netanyahu may lose.
Pundits are pointing to his dramatic lead in the polls. The latest Direct Polls survey on Wednesday gave Netanyahu’s Likud party 35 seats, almost double the second-largest party, Yesh Atid, with 18.
But Israeli elections aren’t won by an individual party’s showing at the ballot box, but by coalitions. The parties Netanyahu can likely rely on for a coalition — Likud, the Haredi parties and right-wing Yamina — were projected to win just 62 seats together, a hair’s breadth above the 61-seat minimum majority to rule, and well within the margin of error of a result that would leave Israel with yet another indecisive race.
And those poll numbers are accurate for this week. How will Netanyahu fare in November, by the time election day rolls around, with the economy deeper in the slumps, global trade continuing to decline, hundreds of thousands more Israelis out of work and a death toll possibly reaching into the thousands?
It’s an exceedingly bad time for Netanyahu to throw those dice.
But it’s still an excellent moment, from the prime minister’s perspective, to threaten elections.
Netanyahu is in a bitter running fight with Defense Minister Benny Gantz over whether to pass a one-year state budget law for 2020 or a two-year budget through the end of 2021. It sounds like a bureaucratic technicality, but it has important implications for Israel’s economic recovery and for Gantz’s chances of taking the prime minister’s chair as scheduled in November 2021.
Finance Ministry and Bank of Israel officials back a one-year budget law, arguing that the future is too uncertain in the middle of a pandemic to make a two-year budget anything but an exercise in frustration and delay.
But Gantz wants the two-year law promised him in the coalition agreement between Likud and Blue and White. Israeli law stipulates that if a Knesset fails to pass a budget, it triggers an election. A two-year law would mean Gantz won’t have to find himself in the spring of 2021 scrambling to pass a new 2021 budget to avoid the automatic triggering of an election. Gantz acknowledges that a one-year budget is better policy, but is convinced Netanyahu plans to stymie the 2021 budget law in order to pave his exit ramp to new elections a few months before Gantz is slated to take the prime minister’s chair.
What better argument to convince Gantz to back that one-year budget, Netanyahu must be thinking, than the threat of even more imminent elections? The prospect of a fall 2020 vote makes that spring 2021 option a lot more appealing.
The Knesset comes roaring back
The coalition crisis that has now engulfed the Knesset is fascinating in its own right. If nothing else, it reveals parliament’s resilience and vitality despite this government’s unprecedented and concerted attempts to neutralize its powers.
The coalition agreement between Likud and Blue and White was designed to make the Knesset subservient to the needs of the two alternating prime ministers — to protect each one’s term as PM from the parliamentary machinations of the other.
It accomplished that by carefully constructing a political straitjacket intended to limit the parliament’s every step.
Yet over the past few days, Israelis have witnessed the Knesset’s Coronavirus Committee freeze, overturn or question numerous new restrictions imposed by the government.
MK Yifat Shasha-Biton, formerly of Kulanu but now of Likud, chairs that committee, and has insisted it will not approve measures it cannot explain to the public. That meant reversing cabinet decisions to close restaurants except for deliveries and takeaway, and to shutter swimming pools and gyms at the weekend — because the Health Ministry could not provide hard data showing they were significant sources of contagion.
Health Minister Yuli Edelstein railed at the “childish” demand, saying epidemiological surveys didn’t always offer that level of detailed information. But while Netanyahu reportedly sought to oust her from her post, Shasha-Biton held firm, overturning or freezing the cabinet closure decisions on Monday and Tuesday.
The Knesset had broken free of its straitjacket, reasserted itself, and demanded answers from a government seeking to impose severe restrictions and economically devastating closures without any serious public debate.
The Knesset’s new assertiveness was a maddening hiccup for Netanyahu’s efforts to impose closures as virus cases surged, and a surprise to everyone else.
And it played a role in the “Great Coronavirus Law” passed late Wednesday night that scaled back the Knesset’s oversight powers to post-hoc consideration of cabinet decisions.
The law bypasses Shasha-Biton by designating four other Knesset committees that will deal with the virus restrictions. But even there, attempts to weaken the Knesset may end up empowering it. The law allows the cabinet to bypass one committee, but at the same time expands the Knesset’s bandwidth and ability to more carefully track the cabinet’s actions. Four committees will now have coronavirus decisions on their agendas.
The problem of governments attempting to railroad the Knesset is as old as Israeli democracy itself.
As one veteran Knesset member once observed: “Formally, the government is dependent on the parliament, a majority of whose members can replace it with another government. But in practice, the dependence goes the other way. The government, which is naturally composed of the political leadership of ‘its majority’ within the parliament, uses that majority to impose its will on the parliament. The government proposes bills and its majority passes them in parliament; and if its opponents propose bills, that majority again ensures that any proposals found distasteful by the executive branch are rejected. In other words, even in a parliamentary regime, the government, the executive branch, fulfills to a great extent, and sometimes to a decisive extent, the job of legislator.”
That was Menachem Begin, writing in 1952, just four years after the founding of the state.
Begin was right — but also wrong. The Knesset is the key player of Israeli politics, not necessarily because it can act in unison to rein in the cabinet or other state bodies, but because it is the arena and the rulebook by which the different factions in Israeli society, represented by their factions in the Knesset, play the political game.
The Knesset found its voice against the cabinet’s new restrictions because MKs grasped that the public has grown wary of new measures and begun to distrust the judgment of the executive branch. Netanyahu, meanwhile, has discovered over the past week that it isn’t enough to threaten; he must control his faction’s MKs if he hopes to have their vital cooperation when public trust wavers.
Netanyahu may want elections to rid himself of the troublesome unity government, but he rightly worries that the next Knesset will leave him in a worse situation instead of a better one.
The Knesset has seemed weakened in recent weeks by an overweening unity government only because the coalition had a very large majority in the parliament, not because its fundamental structures had been weakened. As the coalition has begun to come apart at the seams, the Knesset has reasserted itself with gusto.
It is in the Knesset, not at the cabinet table, that Netanyahu must ultimately win support for his coronavirus response and where Gantz must ultimately ensure that his 2021 budget, so vital to his chances at the premiership, passes without a hitch.
The feared constitutional crisis is less than it initially appeared. The political crisis, even after over 18 months of deadlock, may still get worse.
But at least it won’t spark a fourth election election in 20 months. Probably.