The unbelievable mess that the UK has got itself into over Brexit – with Parliament twice rejecting agreements Prime Minister Theresa May managed to work out with the EU over Britain’s departure from the union, and last Thursday voting in favor of Britain requesting another three months or more to work out its exit – resulted from a terrible miscalculation on the part of former Conservative prime minister David Cameron.
Cameron had decided to include a referendum on Britain’s departure from the European Union in his party’s manifesto toward the 2015 general elections, in response to pressure by Euroskeptics in his own party. Cameron apparently believed that in the final reckoning a referendum would not be held, and after it turned out that he was wrong on that count, he believed that a majority of the voters would reject Brexit.
Could such a major misjudgment, with such far-reaching ramifications, occur in Israel?
Making promises just for tactical reasons before elections is not uncommon in Israel, but one just had to listen to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cautious response to the challenge that Moshe Feiglin hurled in his direction, when he turned the legalization of cannabis into the main issue on which his Zehut Party is running, to realize that even he – whose record of broken promises is unprecedented – is careful when it comes to promises on issues that are as highly controversial as the legalization of cannabis, and that could cause much more damage than good.
In fact, what Netanyahu did in this case was to promise careful consideration of the issue. The main challenge facing Netanyahu in this case is not to try to reduce the chances of Zehut passing the qualifying threshold by jumping himself on the cannabis bandwagon, but the fact that Feiglin has announced that he will join only a government that promises the legalization of cannabis, and it is not to be completely ruled out that he might join a government led by Benny Gantz, if the latter will accept his precondition and Netanyahu will not.
But to return to Brexit, that Cameron didn’t seriously consider the ramifications of his promise to hold a referendum is particularly curious, in that he apparently didn’t even consider holding public opinion polls on the issue of Brexit to get a general idea of how the public felt about it. In Israel no party would commit itself on an issue unless it had a clear idea of how the public feels about it.
And what surprised me most about the miscalculation over Brexit was that even though the majority of MPs in the previous parliaments, from both sides of the House, were opposed to Brexit, they apparently didn’t have the faintest idea of what their constituents felt on the issue, despite the fact that most British MPs are well known to spend more time in their constituencies than in Westminster, and concentrate a lot of energy on close contacts with their constituents in general and their voters in particular.
How Britain is going to get itself out of the mess it finds itself in is not clear at this stage. The two most likely scenarios, in my opinion, are: Britain will leave the EU without an agreement; or a new referendum, which might well end with a result different from the first one in June 2016.
If Britain should leave the EU without an agreement, the British economy will go through a very difficult period, until it will manage to reposition itself in the world economy, including the signing of new trade and financial agreements, and structural adjustments within the country.
How the EU would react to a second referendum, one that ends with a British decision to remain in the union, is not at all clear. The general impression is that the members of the EU are a little fed up with Britain’s indecisiveness and vacillations.
Is the current crisis likely to lead to a national unity government in the United Kingdom? Since both major parties – the Conservative Party and the Labour Party – include members who do not wish to see the UK outside the EU and others who are Euroskeptics, and since the current leaders of the two parties do not see eye to eye on what ought to be done, I believe there isn’t much chance of a unity government being established. New elections are also unlikely to mend the current schism; they might actually intensify it.
ISRAEL, OF course, does not face a problem as acute and urgent as Brexit. In fact, on the most fundamental issues facing Israel at the moment (such as Iran or Gaza), there is quite a bit of agreement between the central figures in the two main parties – the Likud and Blue and White.
The problem in Israel is that the elections are primarily about the fact that for the last four years it has had a prime minister who is concerned mostly with his own political survival, doesn’t believe that there is anyone within his own party or in any of the other parties who is worthy of replacing him, and is willing to use “fake news” (the new term for lies), the besmirching of his real and imaginary political rivals, and political manipulations to remain in power.
Since neither candidate for the premiership is likely to obtain more than a marginal advantage over his rival, Israel’s main problem is that it is unlikely to get a stable government after the elections.
Should Netanyahu win (as he might well do), the period after the new government is formed will be spent by the prime minister trying to amend the law so that it will be impossible to indict him as long as he remains in office (the so called “French Law”), and to further weaken the gatekeepers and law-enforcement institutions. Healing the schisms in the society and stopping the extremists from pushing the country to unprecedented political and religious extremes are completely unlikely to be on the government’s agenda.
Should Gantz be in a position to form a narrow government, what I fear most is the reaction of more extreme right-wing and religious groups and individuals, who will refuse to accept a predominantly center-left government, and might not shirk from the use of violence. Netanyahu has been doing a very thorough job of delegitimizing such a government, even if it will include three former chiefs of staff among its ministers.
So while a national unity government is unlikely in the present situation to help Britain out of its current predicament, in Israel only a national unity government can get the country back on track. Establishing such a government at the moment will not be simple, because it will require the Likud to change course, and it is yet to be seen whether on the sidelines there are any senior Likud politicians who will have the guts to act.
Under the circumstances, I would avoid wishing ourselves “the best of British luck.” Britain seems to be short of luck at the moment.
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