A third election in less than a year. It’s axiomatic that this is an absolute catastrophe, that our politicians have failed us, that the electorate’s faith in our democracy is being stretched, that our country is becoming a laughingstock.
And there’s some truth to all of that. It’s unhealthy, and potentially dangerous, for Israel to labor without a fully empowered government for what will now be well over a year at minimum — from late December 2018, when the Knesset initially dissolved ahead of the April 2019 elections, all the way through to spring 2020, when the incoming crop of MKs elected on March 2 will again try to coalesce into government and opposition.
The transition governments, all of them led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, are circumscribed when it comes to making major strategic decisions: As far as we know, they don’t have the authority to make fateful, long-term diplomatic moves; they can’t annex territory; they’re not permitted to accept or reject American peace plans; they can’t even appoint a new police chief. (I say “as far as we know,” because these are largely uncharted legal territories, untested in the courts, and emphatically open to debate and disagreement.)
Lacking the necessary Knesset support, our hamstrung governments have also been unable to pass the 2020 budget — meaning that starting next month, government ministries will simply be allocated a twelfth of their annual 2019 budget, with no adjustment for any new developments. Most Knesset committees haven’t been functioning. (The Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, which oversees the security establishment, is among the exceptions.) The sole acts of legislation passed by the members of parliament we elected in April and September were the laws dissolving the Knesset — their two acts of self-dismissal from office.
The sheer cost of these repeat votes is embarrassing — tens of millions each time just on election propaganda; two days off work nationwide in April and September and possibly another in March, unless they decide we’ve had enough national election holidays; and a staggering total of almost $3 billion (according to a Ynet report) for all the combined direct and indirect costs of the three elections). And oh how we could do without the weeks and weeks’ more political infighting on the campaign trail — the bitching, and the spinning, and the demonizing of left and right, ultra-Orthodox and secular, Arab and Jew.
Perhaps most troubling of all, given that our political “elites” have spent the past year focused obsessively on strengthening or seeking their hold on power, is that the question of how to utilize that power for the well-being of Israel has been marginalized. Or to put it more succinctly, they’ve all been maneuvering to lead the country rather than devoting every last second to actually running it, safeguarding it, ensuring that it thrives, planning for its future.
Plainly, at least some of our politicians have failed us. Some of them were deeply disingenuous — step forward, first and foremost, Avigdor Liberman. If he was going to refuse to join a coalition with the ultra-Orthodox, he should have said so before the April elections, not after. And let nobody be fooled by his claim that the bill regulating ultra-Orthodox conscription is so perfect that it must be passed in its current draft form — the Liberman demand that scuppered Netanyahu’s coalition-building efforts in April and May. As it stands, that bill would not significantly change the dismal reality in which only a small minority of eligible ultra-Orthodox males perform military or other national service.
Step forward the ultra-Orthodox politicians, too. Rather than resisting laws on IDF service, they should be initiating legislation to enable those in their constituency who want to serve in the IDF to do so, and introduce alternative national service programs for the rest. This would enable the young males of their community to subsequently enter the workforce and provide for their families — like every other ultra-Orthodox community worldwide, where, in tested rabbinical tradition, it is only the best and the brightest students for whom Torah learning is their full-time, subsidized occupation.
As for the key players — Netanyahu and his rival Benny Gantz — clearly they failed to reach the compromises that could have averted this third vote.
But that’s where I begin to wonder whether the resort to a third election is the complete disaster we’re all assuming it to be.
Perhaps our system is actually working for us
Elections are designed to be decisive. We don’t have time to run our democracies ourselves, so we have systems designed to install a new batch of competent people every few years to do so on our behalf. Clearly, that hasn’t been working for us in the past year — even though, in Israel, we have an electoral system that so purely and accurately represents the will of the voter. It’s not like America, where only a few states are really in play. It’s not like in Britain, where parties can win millions of votes and get no seats in parliament. It’s a system where every vote counts. Undiluted proportional representation.
than look at round three of elections as proof of that system’s failure and paralysis, perhaps, in its purity, it is enabling the electorate to work through the hugely sensitive decision of who should lead this country, and thus how and where it should be led, a little more protractedly than is the norm. Perhaps our system is actually working for us rather than against us.
The choice Netanyahu now presents to the electorate is far starker than it was in April or even September
For we now head into our third round of elections better equipped than in rounds one and two to make an informed decision.
Our unprecedentedly long-serving prime minister has now been charged, and his alleged offenses described in detail by the head of the state prosecution. We know now that Netanyahu intends to battle out his legal storm; he won’t willingly quit; he hasn’t ruled out a bid to both obtain parliamentary immunity from prosecution and then legislate to prevent the Supreme Court overturning such immunity; he has declared himself the victim of an attempted coup and encouraged the electorate to believe his narrative of innocence and to mistrust Israel’s law enforcement. The choice Netanyahu now presents to the electorate is far starker than it was in April or even September.
We’ve also heard Likud loyalist David Bitan say that this is “Netanyahu’s last chance” to muster a majority, and seen Gideon Sa’ar become the first Likud MK in more than a decade to begin to mount a challenge to Netanyahu. We know that Blue and White leader Gantz was ultimately unwilling to sit in government with Netanyahu, and that Gantz’s deputy Yair Lapid has given up for now on his dream of the prime ministership. By voting day, we’ll know how the parties to the right of Likud have rearranged themselves, and whether the Kahanists of Otzma Yehudit have inched deeper into the political mainstream; whether Labor and Meretz, however they call themselves, have put aside their relatively minor differences and merged. We’re aware that the Arab sector chose, between April and September, not to self-disenfranchise after all.
Our politicians have been tested twice, we’re about to test them again, and that might just enable us to make a more definitive decision. March 2, 2020, may stand as the date when Israel completed its incremental separation from its longest-serving prime minister, or when it decided that it still couldn’t live without him.
Let’s face it, we don’t always make the right decisions at the first time of asking. Remember that car you bought? That house? It’s not always easy to get it right. (Marriage and divorce emphatically do not belong in this analogy; in a democracy, prime ministers and coalitions are not for life.)
Between them, our electorate, our system and our politicians have combined to force us to a third election in less than a year. We might not like it, but ultimately, in our purest of systems, we chose it; we did it to ourselves.
It’s certainly no luxury, but Election 3 is our creation. And maybe — third time’s a charm? — we’ll finally manage to make up our collective mind.