Israel’s upcoming elections – the view of the Israel Democracy Institute

“This is a consequential election,” warns Plesner. “Some outcomes might lead to damage that would be difficult to fix.”

YOHANAN PLESNER, president of the Israel Democracy Institute. (photo credit: Courtesy)
YOHANAN PLESNER, president of the Israel Democracy Institute.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Is there anything different about Israel’s upcoming elections, or are they destined to become a tired repeat of April’s electoral debacle? Are the issues the same, or have they changed?
 Yohanan Plesner, President of the Jerusalem-based Israel Democracy Institute, says that in one respect, the elections are similar, but in two ways, they are much different – and very crucial.
“In terms of who will run the country and who will oversee Israel’s defense and economic policy, things haven’t changed. Israelis are voting on questions of leadership, competence, and trust.” What has changed in the interim, says Plesner, is that while in April, Israelis voted on the questions of leadership and competence, the coalition negotiations conducted after the elections centered around significant changes that the Prime Minister wanted to initiate vis-à-vis the judiciary and law enforcement institutions.
“It was both a demand to support immunity from prosecution for Knesset members,” explains Plesner, “and an extensive override clause that would dramatically limit the scope of oversight performed by the Supreme Court in order to allow politicians alone to decide questions of immunity without exposing their decisions to judicial review.”
In addition, Plesner adds, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put forth a comprehensive program that would fully politicize the appointment of judges, change the appointment of legal advisers for government ministries into political appointments, and dramatically cut down the scope of judicial review over decisions of governing institutions, in order to prevent the court from intervening in Knesset decisions. “These proposals,” says Plesner, “would generate irreversible damage to our judiciary and law enforcement system.”
Plesner explains that had these proposals been approved, an unprecedented concentration of power would have been placed in the hands of a political majority that would have removed the one constraint on absolute power, which is an independent judiciary, and other checks and balances, such as professional civil service and civil servants. He warns that the outcome of applying this combined set of initiatives would be a destruction of the judiciary and its independence. “We are not against a genuine, professional, even-handed discussion on how to strike the right balance between different authorities of government,” he says. “Israel does not have a constitution. In a sense, we are a democracy in formation, and there is room for discussion on how to strike this balance. However, we are against destroying one branch, which is the only branch that constrains the absolute power of the political majority.”
The second issue that has come into play since the April elections is the dominance of ultra-Orthodox parties in matters of religion and state. “At the end of the coalition negotiations, that’s what led Avigdor Lieberman, head of Yisrael Beitenu, to draw away from a potential coalition,” says Plesner. Had Lieberman agreed, according to Plesner, “We would have had a situation with a weak prime minister who needed the support of his partners for his personal affairs, and the ultra-Orthodox parties would have become unprecedentedly powerful and gained a complete monopoly over questions of religion.”
Looking back at the politicians’ inability to form a government after the April elections, Plesner notes that the outcome was a reflection not only of the unique political circumstances and the Prime Minister’s situation, but also of Israel’s electoral system. “Given an alternative electoral system, we wouldn’t have been in this situation. If we had a system whereby the leader of the largest party automatically becomes prime minister,  then whoever would have been the largest party would have formed the government, even without requiring a Knesset majority.”
THE ISRAEL Democracy Institute, which is an independent, non-partisan think tank, has proposed that after a general election, the head of the largest Knesset faction would automatically become the Prime Minister. IDI reasons that if voters know in advance that the leader of the largest Knesset faction will become prime minister, they will be have a greater incentive to vote for larger parties and, in turn, encourage politicians to form larger alliances.
Of course, explains Plesner, the very limited degrees of freedom that Prime Minister Netanyahu had in negotiating, played a major part in the failure to form a coalition after the last elections. “In the past,” says Plesner, “he could maneuver between the centrist members of his coalition, and the natural alliance among ultra-Orthodox and right-wing parties. This time, he had no degree of freedom because of his legal woes, which dictated that only potential parties from the right wing and ultra-Orthodox parties would join his coalition.”
Plesner doesn’t think there will be a need for a third round of elections, but he says wryly, “I never thought there would be a second round.” As thing look right now, Plesner thinks that there is still a fair chance of Netanyahu forming a coalition of at least 61 members made up of his traditional allies of right wing and religious parties. Still, it is very likely that this alliance will not gain a majority of the seats in the Knesset.  Nor, on the other hand, will the Center-Left parties succeed in forging a coalition on their own. Forming a government, he says, “will require political maneuvering and creativity.” He explains that Avigdor Lieberman, who refused to enter Prime Minister Netanyahu’s coalition, represents a deep-seated, strong aspiration of a majority of Israelis, who prefer a national unity government, and who want a government that will reflect and represent a broad spectrum of the public.
“This is a consequential election,” warns Plesner. “Some outcomes might lead to damage that would be difficult to fix. We have to remember that while we are proud of our democracy, it is still very fragile. Israel is the only functioning democracy, with the exception of the United Kingdom, that does not have a constitution.”   
Plesner hopes that the government formed after the September election will not legislate basic laws that would “change the fundamentals of our democracy.” A truly responsible government, in his view, should create and agree on passing fundamental changes by consensus, only after broad debate, in partnership with civil society organizations, experts, and politicians from across the political spectrum. In his view, a national unity government would have the best chance of promoting a balanced discussion on constitutional matters and electoral reform, based on agreement of two major parties. “Out of all the possible outcomes, most Israelis prefer a unity government, with 35% saying this is their first choice as opposed to 27% who would want a right-wing government led by Netanyahu and 19% who said they want a Gantz-led center-left government,” says Plesner citing IDI’s latest Israeli Voice Index that was published this month.  “If there is a national unity government, these two agendas could be promoted and based on a broad moderate consensus.” Smiling, he says, “We are allowed to dream.”
This article was written in cooperation with the Israel Democracy Institute.