As we enter the final stretch of the Israeli election campaign, polls are published almost daily, and all of them predict a virtual tie between Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu and Zionist Union chief Isaac Herzog. All polls give each between 20 to 25 Knesset seats. No pollster has predicted more than 25 seats for either of the two parties.
If the polls are correct, and usually they are, what this means is that regardless of who wins the election, the winner will have to add several mid-size and small parties to reach the magic number of 61, and preferably more, to create a coalition government.
Netanyahu will have to add center and right-wing parties and Herzog will look for center and leftwing parties, which are scarce.
The coalition partners will demand a steep price in terms of cabinet portfolios and concrete policies. This situation will make the next government’s operation difficult, while the ministers try to pull the cabinet blanket into their corner.
There is however a different option: a unity government comprising both Likud and Labor, including rotation between Netanyahu and Herzog as prime ministers, each serving for two years.
Netanyahu and Herzog together will control almost 50 Knesset seats.
All they will have to do in order to create a strong coalition is add one or two centrist parties. Extremists from both the Right and the Left will be kept in the opposition.
So far the two leaders have expressed objection to the unity government idea. Their statements are important only as campaign slogans, but once the results are known, it’s a new ball game.
Those who object to a unity government describe it as a government of national paralysis, claiming it will not allow for any progress since both parties will neutralize each other. History, however, proves otherwise.
In the 1984 elections, Labor (under a different name), led by Shimon Peres, received 44 Knesset seats. Likud led by Yitzhak Shamir got 41. At first Peres tried to construct a center-left coalition, but failed. At this point president Chaim Herzog, the father of the current Labor leader, intervened, and demanded a unity government.
Peres and Shamir buried their personal differences and animosities and followed the president’s advice.
This government was a success.
Peres served as prime minister for two years and Shamir followed. The unity government completed its fouryear term, a rarity in Israel, and was extended after the 1988 elections.
(It was toppled in 1990 by Shimon Peres against the will of his colleague Yitzhak Rabin). Labor’s Rabin served as defense minister and Likud’s Yitzhak Moda’i was finance minister.
Peres himself kept the portfolio of foreign minister.
The unity government was far from paralyzed. It was able to stop a terrible inflation; the IDF retreated to a security zone in South Lebanon; this government set a precedent when it released 1,150 Palestinian prisoners to Ahmed Jibril, in return for three captive Israeli soldiers. When the intifada started in 1987, defense minister Rabin was authorized to handle the difficult situation with the full support of the entire cabinet, from both sides of the isle.
With history on their side, Netanyahu and Herzog will soon have the opportunity to create unity in Israel as a product of a unity government.
Herzog can follow the good example of his father, president Chaim Herzog, who urged Peres and Shamir to form a unity government some 30 years ago.
A rotation in the premiership will have to be invoked again. Netanyahu should start the term to foster stability in this high office. In the first two years Herzog can serve as finance minister, as befits a leader of a party that wants to improve the social and economic situation in Israel.
Such a government will have to perform many tasks. On security and defense issues, including Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, etc., there is not much difference between Likud and Labor. Both also agree that drastic action is needed on social and economic problems such as the cost of living, housing and the reform of the health system. A unity government will be able to carry out controversial and complicated reforms.
The peace process will again be an issue of contention. Shamir and Peres did not like each other any more than Netanyahu and Herzog do, but their joint government was stable.
The most severe problem they faced was the “London Agreement” signed by foreign minister Shimon Peres with King Hussein of Jordan in 1987.
Shamir believed that this agreement, which was supposed to solved the West Bank problems and bring about peace, was arranged behind his back and was able to do away with it. Nevertheless, the government continued its term and did not collapse.
Netanyahu and Herzog should also try to advance the peace process. It will be difficult, but the unity government will have a better chance to succeed than a right-wing cabinet, which will probably have no interest in any peace-process progress, or a left-wing cabinet, which will lack public consensus and face serious opposition from the Right.
The author served as diplomatic adviser to prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, Israel’s ambassador to Greece and as consul-general in New York. He is a former director-general of the State Television and Radio Authority and currently a senior research fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University.
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