Think About It: What are the chances of a national unity government?

National unity governments are established in parliamentary democracies under two separate circumstances, both of which are to be found in Israel today.

August 12, 2019 18:01
Think About It: What are the chances of a national unity government?

Tension was evident between Blue and White leader Benny Gantz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the opening of the Knesset’s new session on April 30. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Since the Knesset declared that early elections would be held for the 21st Knesset in April 2019, I have maintained that the outcome must be a national unity government made up of the two major parties: Blue and White, and the Likud – without Benjamin Netanyahu – together with two or three smaller parties. Now, as the elections to the 22nd Knesset in September are approaching, I still believe that this is the most desirable result – perhaps the only viable one.

National unity governments are established in parliamentary democracies under two separate circumstances, both of which are to be found in Israel today. The first is when election results preclude the establishment of a stable coalition – or even a narrow one – by any of the party leaders. That was the situation following the 1984 elections when Yitzhak Shamir from the Likud, and Shimon Peres from the Labor Alignment, each had the support of 60 MKs.

We do not know whether this was the situation following the April elections, since after he failed to form a government in the time allotted to him, Netanyahu didn’t enable President Reuven Rivlin to ask the head of Blue and White, Benny Gantz, to try to form a government.  It is quite possible that Gantz would have also failed to form a government, but Netanyahu made sure he didn’t get a chance to try.

The second circumstance where national unity governments are formed is during an emergency situation, such as that which occurred in Israel in the weeks preceding the Six Day War in 1967. That resulted in Levi Eshkol’s government bringing Gahal (the parliamentary group which combined the Herut Movement and the Liberal Party) into the government for the first time in the history of the State of Israel. There was also a state of emergency in 1984 – an economic one – as the annual rate of inflation reached a three-digit figure, threatening to turn into runaway inflation.

Today, due to the position adopted by Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman, even a narrow coalition seems unlikely. Back in April he received five seats in the 21st Knesset – without which Netanyahu had only 60 seats – and is predicted to receive around 10 seats in the 22nd Knesset, leaving Netanyahu with fewer than 60 seats. Now that Liberman says he will only join a national unity government that includes neither Netanyahu under threat of indictment nor the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties nor the messianic members of the Union of Right-Wing Parties, a national unity government seems the only solution.

However, it is not only because of the numbers and the political conundrum that a national unity government seems the only way out of the current deadlock. Though Netanyahu and his colleagues will have us believe that Israel “never had it so good,” Israel is in the midst of a major social crisis which is progressively unraveling all the knots that have kept our complicated society together until now. Meanwhile, the current government, and the one which Netanyahu is hoping to form (should he by some miracle manage to muster a majority in the Knesset) is threatening to tear down some of the pillars of Israel’s democratic system as well as the rule of law.

That Netanyahu, three of his ministers and another senior Likud MK are all at various stages of investigation on suspicion of bribery, fraud or breach of trust – and all of them are hoping to escape justice by getting the Knesset to apply their procedural immunity – only aggravates the crisis.

DESPITE ALL of this, national unity currently seems out of reach. First, the condition demanded by all of the opposition parties, including Yisrael Beytenu, to the establishment of such a government is that the Likud should replace Netanyahu as its candidate for prime minister. At the moment this has been rejected out of hand by the Likud.

Netanyahu’s reaction to Liberman’s statement that there are many potential candidates in the Likud to replace him, such as Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, was to ask or instruct MK David Bitan to get all 39 members of the Likud list to the 22nd Knesset to support him, and only him, to lead the next government. This was achieved rapidly and without any public objections by the said candidates. He also got an article published article in Israel Hayom on August 7, to the effect that he will establish a strong right-wing government after the elections, and that there would be no national unity government.

Left unmentioned is what Netanyahu and the rest of the Likud list might do should they fail to emerge from the elections with a bloc numbering at least 61 MKs. At the moment, the Likud’s goal is to maximize its own votes and try “to drink” Russian votes from Yisrael Beytenu. But if all this should fail, the options – short of calling a third round of elections – are for Liberman and the Center-Left parties to give up their demand that Netanyahu be replaced immediately, rather than after he is indicted and found guilty in a final court ruling. If that happens, a majority of the members of the Likud list will disregard their signature on Bitan’s pledge of allegiance.

It is known that at least some – including several ministers – believe that Netanyahu is rapidly turning into a liability and only signed in order to avoid rocking the boat five weeks before the elections. However, it is not clear what will happen should push comes to shove.

One of the unknowns is under what conditions the haredi parties might consider joining a government led by Gantz, and thus change the composition of the political blocs in Israel. Should this happen, members of the Likud might start considering the option of a national unity government.

Finally, it should be mentioned that recent polls indicate that well over half of the public does not support the establishment of a national unity government. This majority is made up mostly of voters who cannot imagine a situation in which Netanyahu could fail to establish a government. The question is what public opinion will have to say if there really won’t be any other alternative to a unity government.

Under such circumstances we will see whether common sense and moderation finally gain the upper hand, or whether the Likud under Netanyahu opts for some non-democratic solution, claiming that the majority wants Netanyahu to continue to rule, and that it is only opportunists like Liberman who are preventing this from materializing.

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