Could new elections have been avoided?

From a historical perspective, Netanyahu’s failure to set up the 35th government remains unique.

June 28, 2019 07:29
3 minute read.
Could new elections have been avoided?

Avigdor Liberman sits behind Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on May 29, when the Knesset decided to call new elections on September 17. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)


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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s failure to form a government and the unprecedented decision to call new elections – the second in five months – expose a weakness in our system of government, and highlight the need to modify the current system for forming a government: the head of the party that receives the largest number of Knesset seats (or votes) should automatically become prime minister and form the government he or she chooses, without having to win a Knesset vote of confidence.
How different would the last two months have looked under this model? We can assume that the political dynamic and the various players’ considerations would have been substantially different.

First of all, the election results themselves would have been different. We can cautiously propose that the big lists would have emerged stronger, and the number of small factions in the Knesset reduced. The knowledge that the head of the largest faction becomes prime minister would have been an incentive for voters to cast their ballot for one of the large lists, and would have motivated politicians and small parties to join forces with them.

It is quite likely, for instance, that rather than run on its own, Yisrael Beytenu would have formed a joint list with the Likud. And even if it had opted to maintain its independence, it would probably not have passed the electoral threshold, because many of its voters would have opted out and supported one of the two big lists, the Likud or Blue White, to ensure that it would be the largest list and its leader would form the new government.

Something similar would have happened to the left-center bloc: Meretz and Labor would have joined forces with Blue and White, or faced disaster at the polls.

Second, because the proposed model eliminates the need for the new government to win a vote of confidence, it is likely that had Netanyahu managed to put together a coalition of 60 MKs, as in fact he did, he would have presented it to the Knesset and started the work of governing. This is in stark contrast to what actually occurred: Netanyahu did not present a government to the Knesset fearing that it would not win the support of a Knesset majority.

Moreover, the balance of power in the coalition negotiations would have been very different – to the Likud’s advantage. Small factions such as Yisrael Beytenu would have had much less bargaining power because Netanyahu, as head of the largest list, would not have needed other parties to form a government, and none of them would have veto power over the establishment of the new government.

It is certainly possible that in this scenario, Netanyahu and the Likud would have been able to persuade Yisrael Beytenu and the ultra-Orthodox factions to reach a compromise about the Conscription Law.

From both comparative and historical perspectives, it is important to stress that the system of forming governments in Israel is not fundamentally flawed. The requirement that a new government enjoy the confidence of parliament is characteristic of many (though not all) democracies. From a historical perspective, Netanyahu’s failure to set up the 35th government remains unique – the first time that the MK called on by the  president to form a new government immediately after elections has not succeeded in doing so.
The danger now is that after the precedent of not being able to form a government has been set, Israel may find itself in a dizzying cycle in which this failure is repeated once again. Adopting the system whereby the head of the largest party automatically becomes prime minister would be an excellent remedy for such a potential crisis.

Dr. Assaf Shapira is a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute

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