Israel’s unstable, fractious politics: It’s the voters’ fault

The coalition wasn’t felled by ego or inexperience alone, and the political volatility that characterized the past 18 months isn’t going away

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Then-minister of education Gideon Sa'ar (left) and then-minister of environment Gilad Erdan (right) flank Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as they make calls to potential voters ahead of national elections, in Tel Aviv, January 17, 2013. (Gideon Markowicz/ Flash90)
Then-minister of education Gideon Sa'ar (left) and then-minister of environment Gilad Erdan (right) flank Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as they make calls to potential voters ahead of national elections, in Tel Aviv, January 17, 2013. (Gideon Markowicz/ Flash90)

It’s official. The Likud announced on Tuesday morning that it would vote in favor of the opposition-proposed bills to dissolve the Knesset and go to elections.

Wednesday’s vote is a preliminary vote. The third and final vote on the dissolution is expected Monday. But by the simple act of supporting the bills, the ruling party delivered its official notice that the game is up. The coalition is no more.

The collapse of the third Netanyahu government reflects both the immediate challenges that faced the coalition and a deeper confusion that now grips Israeli politics.

At one level, the fractious coalition that has ruled Israel for the past 20 months was felled by sheer inexperience.

Yair Lapid won a spectacular 19 seats in the 2013 elections, surpassing most polls and even his own expectations. But he failed to translate that victory into a legislative position that reflected his political strength.

Lapid demanded and received five ministerial posts — health, science, welfare, education and finance — but largely neglected the Knesset. His party holds junior and powerless Knesset committee chairmanships, such as the Immigration and Absorption Committee and the Committee for the Advancement of Women.

And even as Netanyahu surrendered the powerful Finance Ministry to Lapid, the Likud-Yisrael Beytenu joint faction, now separated, held on to the Finance and House committees, without which no budget or other major legislation can pass.

When a close confidant of Lapid threatened Likud officials that Lapid could piece together a coalition without the ruling party and replace Netanyahu as prime minister, Likud leaders were mystified. The Likud controlled the Knesset speakership and House Committee, without which any theoretical Lapid government could not meaningfully govern. And any changes to these posts would require negotiating entirely new coalition agreements with an array of parties. Yesh Atid tried to threaten a “putsch,” as Netanyahu’s aides now call it, but did not appear to understand what such a brazen move required in terms of hard parliamentary wheeling-and-dealing.

In a sense, then, there is some truth in the prime minister’s frustrations with Lapid, who threatened to fell the coalition repeatedly on a variety of issues, but could not compromise when Netanyahu committed himself to the “Jewish state” bill.

“I have not received even the most basic obligation — the loyalty and responsibility of ministers to the government in which they serve,” Netanyahu lamented on Monday, noting he had agreed to Lapid’s affordable housing plan “that I didn’t like,” because that’s how a coalition works.

Yesh Atid “don’t know what it means to work in a coalition. They think they’re in the opposition,” a Likud source said Tuesday, expressing what has become the Likud’s main explanation for the fallout. “We’ve had more fights inside the coalition than outside it. There’s never been a situation like this in which the coalition repeatedly votes against itself.”

‘New politics’

There is indeed something unprecedented in the conduct of the outgoing government. But then again, it reflects the unprecedented nature of Israel’s current politics.

Until the beginning of the last decade, Israeli politics divided fairly neatly between right and left, between the center-left Labor and the center-right Likud. Each was the overwhelming political power on its side of the political map, and each had a clear answer to the fundamental question that defined the left-right axis throughout the 1980s and 1990s — the Palestinian question.

That question has now been settled, not because peace has been achieved but because the vast majority of the Israeli public is convinced peace is not possible in the foreseeable future. The Second Intifada that launched in late 2000 undermined the essential narratives of left and right. Most Israelis never again believed left-wing leaders who argued the Palestinians seek peace, or right-wing leaders who said the Palestinians could be occupied indefinitely. And with the fall of their unifying narratives, the broad-based parties who once represented the widely-held sensibilities on either side collapsed as well.

In the 2000s, Israeli politics began to fracture into smaller, more numerous parties. Labor is now only the third-largest party in the Knesset. The ruling Likud is now second. Immense centrist parties — Kadima had 28 seats in the last Knesset, Yesh Atid has 19 in this one — rise and fall in the space of a single election cycle.

The electorate is more fickle, and more cynical. In polls that ask Israelis which state institutions they consider the most corrupt, political parties come out at the very top of the list. Israeli voter turnout was remarkably stable and remarkably high for much of Israel’s history, staying within two percentage points of 80% since the 1950s, and then nosedived from 79% in 1999 to 62% in the post-intifada prime ministerial elections of 2001. It hasn’t risen above 68% in the four elections since.

And voters no longer seem to vote on clear-cut ideological lines. In the last election, fully one-third of likely voters were undecided by election day. A December 2013 poll found that perhaps as many as half of the 345,985 Israelis who voted for the right-wing Jewish Home, which explicitly opposes the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, actually support such a state if it brings about separation between Israelis and Palestinians.

One in five Israelis doesn’t vote, and never has. Another one in seven stopped voting with the collapse of the Palestinian question after 2000. And those who continue to vote swerve easily from left to right, apparently based more on the personalities of party leaders than any ideological commitments.

Into this electoral chaos, this crisis of political identity and purpose, a new breed of Israeli politician has arisen. The old defense-establishment elite that once ran the country, from generals like Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon to former Defense Ministry director general Shimon Peres, gave way to a new class of PR-savvy, socially minded journalists, businesspeople and high-minded academics. Ex-Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich, Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid, Jewish Home chief Naftali Bennett — all reflected an Israeli public seeking a new politics, where personality trumped policy and where domestic concerns were no longer superseded by the now-frozen security-diplomatic track.

As politicians sense the fickleness of voters, and are acutely aware that they are competing for a shrunken electorate with a growing list of parties, the difference between governing and electioneering has collapsed

Some welcome these more “normal,” domestic-centered politics. Others, acutely conscious of the unresolved conflict with the Palestinians, are less sanguine.

But one thing is certain. The “new politics,” as Lapid has framed these new sensibilities and impulses, are turning out to be far less stable, decisive or manageable than the old. Lacking the unifying question of what to do with the Palestinians, both camps in Israel’s parliament have fractured along the fault lines of Israeli society itself.

Secularist politicians work to exclude ultra-Orthodox parties. The ultra-Orthodox excoriate religious-Zionists as “non-Jews” for their liberalizing reforms of the state rabbinate. The far-right advances bitterly divisive legislation that sets the parliament and national media ablaze even when the bills themselves have no hope of passing. Russian-speakers label Arabic-speakers “traitors.” Arab MKs prefer confrontation and shouts of “fascism” in the Knesset plenum to the harder legislative work that might help fulfill the wishes of their constituents, according to polls, for greater economic and social integration into Israeli society.

And in this free-for-all, where politicians sense the fickleness of voters and are acutely aware that they are competing for a shrunken electorate with a growing list of parties, the difference between governing and electioneering has collapsed.

Israeli political observers sometimes joke about politicians who wish they could vote out the electorate and replace it with a better one.

In an important sense, it isn’t Lapid or Netanyahu who have brought such profound instability into the political system, but the indecisive Israeli voter. And it is in the name of this voter that the maneuvering and grandstanding that has brought down the government was conducted.

Lapid has accused the Likud party of “selling out the country” to special interests — but he didn’t start making that charge on Tuesday, after the coalition effectively collapsed. He delivered the accusations publicly and repeatedly over the past few months, even as he has sought to pass his state budget, housing reforms and other measures with his ostensible Likud coalition partners. Livni, whose Hatnua party now skirts the electoral threshold and may not return to the Knesset in its current form, has openly called coalition members a danger to the future of Zionism — with some skeptical observers suggesting this was an effort to position herself as a credible leader in a new left-wing political alliance. Netanyahu, facing Likud primaries in January, continued to insist that the parliament vote symbolically in favor of two right-wing versions of the nation-state bill that Livni and Lapid vehemently opposed — even though the bills had already been canceled by a November 19 cabinet vote.

Posturing, not policy, drove much of the government’s behavior. And in the end, it was not any substantive disagreement that broke the coalition apart. It is hard to see how the attempt to govern through electioneering could have ended differently.

And if the electorate doesn’t offer more decisive results at the ballot box, there is every reason to believe this new merger of governance and electioneering will be a defining — and destabilizing — feature of Israeli politics for years to come.

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