Israel’s democracy is under a debilitating attack. The only democracy in the Middle East is going to the ballots in November for the fifth time in three and a half years because, under its broken electoral system, the person Israelis prefer as their leader more than anyone else was unable, time and again, to form a functioning government. In previous rounds, the Likud, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, received the most votes but was boycotted by other (small) political parties, thwarting a coherent coalition and resulting in political deadlock.
The political boycott brought Israelis to the polls in April 2019, September 2019 and March 2020, before Netanyahu was able to form a government in May 2020.
With 36 seats (out of the total 120 parliamentary seats), Netanyahu formed a government with Benny Gantz, his party’s 15 seats and a number of smaller parties. But the coalition agreement that gave Gantz veto power turned out to be crippling and another election was soon to follow in March 2021.
In those most recent elections, Likud won 30 seats, almost twice as many as the runner-up left-wing party led by Prime Minister Yair Lapid, which received 17 seats. Nevertheless, by means of a well-planned political ploy that exploited a lacuna in Israel’s unwritten constitution, Lapid formed a hodgepodge coalition with Alternate Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, whose party received a scanty six seats, and appointed the latter prime minister of Israel.
The ploy placed a politician with no material achievement and less than 5% popularity as prime minister and enabled the ousting of Netanyahu from office – which seems to have been the overriding and perhaps only objective of the outgoing government.
A couple of weeks ago, after serving as a one year political stepping stone, Bennett resigned, went into political exile and enabled Lapid, the mastermind of the 17-seat stunt, to serve as an interim prime minister for four months until the upcoming November 1 elections.
Since its demise, the outgoing government has been showered with praise and shielded from criticism by an agenda-driven, local and international press corps that turned information into disinformation and deception. The Lapid-Bennett government, which boycotted elected officials, incited against almost anyone who didn’t vote for it, and lacked a parliamentary majority from its inception, is described by Thomas Friedman as “a national unity government” that saved Israel’s democracy. The celebrated New York Times columnist, who was regularly briefed by Bennett, acknowledged that the six-seated prime minister broke almost every promise made to his constituency, but labeled such betrayal of voters as “leadership.”
Nothing can be further from the truth
Lies are lies, leadership is leadership, and over time voters can tell the difference.
That might be the reason that a majority of voters in Israel and a large majority of Jewish voters consider Netanyahu the most fitting candidate to lead the lone Jewish state. His popularity may stems from his long-standing economic, security and diplomatic achievements, including forging four historic Middle East peace-for-peace agreements with the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan – an achievement that peace-seeking journalists like Friedman should surely applaud. Netanyahu pledged that, if elected, the Abraham Accords process will be kick-started and additional peace agreements will follow.
A number of parties in Israel, such as those led by Yair Lapid and Avigdor Liberman, are undemocratic in nature. They have an unelected party leader and refrain from holding primaries to enable party members to choose their representatives. Instead, the party’s representatives in parliament are appointed in accordance with the party leader’s preference, and are subordinate to him and his prerogatives.
Liberman recently made known that he is willing to sit in the same coalition with the Likud, Israel’s largest party, under the condition that Netanyahu - the most popular leader in Israel - resigns, and that Liberman who has less than 5% of the votes, serves as prime minister. Otherwise, Liberman prefers to sit in a coalition composed of post-Zionist left-wing parties and anti-Zionist Islamist parties, or drag the nation to another round of voting.
Clearly, the electoral system in Israel needs reform
Immediately after the 2009 elections when the Likud, led by Netanyahu, received 28 seats and Kadima, led by Tzipi Livni, received 29 seats, a left-wing NGO named the “Democracy Institute for Israel” carried out a wide-range study and emphasized that the head of the largest party must form the government and serve as its prime minister. Anything less, they insisted, could compromise Israel’s democracy.
The Democracy Institute’s conclusions may have been exaggerated because Netanyahu managed to build a strong majority coalition that supported his key policies. Moreover, the Institute’s silence regarding a six-seated prime minister-led government is peculiar.
One of the major reasons for the endless rounds of elections over the past three years is what many perceive to be a politically motivated legal witch hunt against Netanyahu. A hunt that included the filing of an indictment on the eve of elections. But over the past year, the half-baked allegations (that have been revised four times since being filed) have been crushed in court. State witnesses have back peddled and with prosecution competence being scrutinized, recent polls show that voters want Netanyahu to return to office alongside a strong majority in parliament in the upcoming elections. This could save Israel’s democracy.
Ideally, once the dust of the November election settles, Israel should fix its unhinged electoral system by enabling Israelis to elect the leader of their choice and subsequently, after let’s say two years, vote for representatives in parliament who can complement or balance the power of the elected prime minister. This could turn Israel into a durable democracy.
The writer is the CEO of Acumen Risk Ltd. and the author, most recently, of Targeted Killings, Law and Counter-Terrorism Effectiveness: Does Fair Play Pay Off? The opinions expressed here are his own.