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The status quo holds?

  • Published at 05:30 pm September 27th, 2019

The new government in Israel is unlikely to make policy changes

As I write, I have no idea who will form the government in the wake of last week’s inconclusive general elections in Israel; in that lack of a crystal ball insight, I suspect I am joined by many observers, including Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin.  

As a former student and teacher of politics, it is quite fascinating, nonetheless, to observe the workings of Israel’s democracy. And observing it from my vantage point, I see a system which is strong, often unpredictable in its corner turns, but generally conservative in its U-turns.

While it is true that Israel invokes a very intense response from many in the Arab and Muslims worlds, by most measurable criteria it remains, other than neighbouring Jordan, the closest thing to a working, pluralist, albeit imperfect, democratic regime in the Middle East. 

Regular elections which are conducted by an impartial and powerful election commission, independent courts of law where the police and prosecutors can drag sitting prime ministers to be questioned, and a press which has no qualms about threadbare discussions on the very ideological foundations of the country, are but attributes that are almost unheard of in much of the landmass that sweeps from Cairo to Canton.  

As colourful a character as Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu is, his long tenure at the helm has not affected these contours of Israel’s polity and, if anything, those contours have likely put boundaries on his well-known ambitions finally. 

His known scepticism of Israel’s Arab citizens seems to have been paid back with interest in this election as Israeli Arabs turned out in record numbers to elect a dozen law-makers who may hold the key to forming the next government.

Which leads me to the unpredictability of Israel’s electoral turns. As a parliamentary system with a distinctly proportional representation election method -- as opposed to the usual first-past-the-post formula used in English-speaking democracies and former British colonies -- and multiple serious parties, the luxury of strong legislative majorities is not given to most Israeli governments.  

Thus coalitions, compromises, and temporary consensuses become the norm from government to government. This feature leads to a situation where rarely has an Israeli party won by itself the 61 seats needed for a majority. Most governments, including the ones lead by Netanyahu lately, rely on like-mined smaller coalition partners or, at times, the benign indifference of certain minor opposition parties. 

Often, within like-minded coalition, fissures appear on secondary issues once the main themes of the economy and national security have been squared away in the earlier months of a government. In fact, the collapse of Bibi’s last effort at cobbling a government was brought about precisely by a smaller party that is both nationalist and secular, leading to intra-coalition clashes on the influence of orthodox Judaism in Israel’s policy-making. 

Multiple moving parts make any piece of machinery more delicate than its more discrete and solid-state counterparts; in Israel’s case, the instability of governing coalitions provides a living example in political science of that wisdom from the applied physical sciences.

One of the by-products of political instability in a democracy is the inevitability of policy caution. This by-product looms even larger when broad-based coalitions are formed under the banner of some form of national unity, bringing all the major opposing parties together, as has often happened in Germany and as seems to be a compelling option in Israel again. 

Often put together as an antidote to election fatigue and exhaustion with political conflict, such coalitions have little policy coherence beyond the broadest outlines of avoiding disasters of the economic or military kind. 

The biggest commonality of the partners in these coalitions is the desperate desire to avoid the rough and tumble of yet another general election for as long as possible. Significant policy shifts are hardly a major priority in such coalitions, where the status quo is prized until other dynamics make another election unavoidable or public opinion veers sharply enough to one of the major parties for it to gamble going to the ballot box again.

For the Middle East specifically, and the world more broadly, such caution and its attendant conservatism signals the need for patience. Any Israeli government that is formed in the next few weeks will be a product of dynamics and compromises that make it unlikely to attempt any bold moves on a long-term peace process. 

Bibi Netanyahu may not be prime minister of his country next month, and that change may be reflected in the tone and tenor of a new Israeli government. The tenure of that government, however, may well depend on maintaining a cautious, conservative, and cool headed status quo. 

In other words, prudent minds would be well-advised not to expect substantive policy changes from Israel in the months ahead, no matter who the prime minister is. 

Esam Sohail is a college administrator and lecturer of social sciences. He writes from Kansas, USA. He can be reached at [email protected]

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