The result of Israel’s fourth election in two years clearly points to the dysfunction of its political system and the many fault lines of its democracy. Sadly, personal rivalries rather than political platforms that address foreign and domestic policies rule the day.
Last month, voters went to the polls for the fourth time in two years. Not surprisingly, like all three previous elections, the result of the fourth one provided no clear winner. The political system is effectively broken. Thirteen of the nearly 40 political parties that ran managed to cross the threshold and earn seats in the new Knesset. Ironically, hardly any of the parties ran on specific foreign and domestic policies that would advance the greater interest of the nation. Instead, what looms larger than their socioeconomic and national security policies is the personal ambition of the parties’ leaders who, almost with no exception, feel they are the most qualified to become prime minister.
Following intense horse-trading, regardless of whomever ends up forming the next new coalition government – whether it be the camp that wants to unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or if Netanyahu himself manages to establish the next right-wing government – the prospect that the new government will last the full four years is practically nonexistent.
Any future government will be composed of several parties who do not see eye to eye on many of the pressing issue facing the country. As a result, the government more often than not settles on the lowest denominators as each coalition partner must compromise on critical issues, which often leads to paralysis both on foreign and domestic policies. One example: the three preceding governments led by Netanyahu failed to pass even a national budget, as no member of the coalition could agree on the appropriation of funds deemed necessary to run his or her ministry.
The sadder part is that if you were to ask any of the aspirants for the position of prime minister – be that Naftali Bennett, the leader of Yamina; Yair Lapid, the leader of Yesh Atid; Netanyahu or any other party leader what their vision of Israel is 10 or 15 years down the line – I do not believe that any of them can articulate such a vision.
Now that Netanyahu has been given the mandate to form the next government, as in the past, the discussion between the various parties will be limited almost exclusively to what ministry each of the coalition partners can control, how much money will be appropriated to the ministry in question, and the prerogatives that each minister can exercise. The past three Netanyahu-led governments made no progress on any single issue of critical importance to the future of the country.
To begin with, there is no discussion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as if by ignoring it, the issue would simply disappear. The fact remains that every day that passes without a solution the conflict becomes ever more intractable. Now that there is a new US administration, the new Israeli government should be prepared to deal with US President Joe Biden, who differs dramatically from his predecessor in that he believes in a two-state solution and opposes any further annexation of Palestinian territory.
The second disastrous problem Israel faces is the horrifying socioeconomic gap. It is hard to imagine that in a country with a thriving economy, the poor are becoming poorer and the rich richer. What is astounding is that even pre-pandemic, more than 21% of the Israeli population is under the poverty line (it has skyrocketed to 29.3% this year). The majority of those affected are the elderly (including one-in-four Holocaust survivors), ultra-Orthodox, Arabs and single parents; many Middle Eastern Jews still bear the brunt of historic poverty and continuing economic and social inequality. Billions are spent on settlement construction and security while scores of neighborhoods of poor Israelis are left to rot.
The third problem Israelis refuse to acknowledge is that the Arab-Israeli parties, which represent more than 20% of the population, have never been invited to join a coalition government, as they are assumed to be untrustworthy and should be politically marginalized. It is hard to fathom how the majority of Israeli Jews expects the Arab-Israelis to be loyal citizens when they are systematically discriminated against at every turn. It is time for Israel to think of the future – and the future does not bode well for Israel as long as such a huge minority is not integrated into Israel’s socioeconomic and political streams.
There are several other major problems that none of the Israeli parties are discussing, let alone finding a long-term solution for: what to do with Iran and for how much longer the quiet war between the two countries will go on before it explodes into an all-out war. For how much longer the state of no war and no peace can be sustained with Hezbollah. What to do with Hamas, and if Israel can maintain the blockade for another decade before a new deadly explosion occurs. The fact that Israel normalized relations with several Gulf Arab states offers no solution to these and other challenges.
Four elections in two years, and possibly heading for a fifth one, offers no way out of the acute challenges the country is facing. The Israeli public and their leaders are basking in the illusion that the country is economically prosperous, militarily powerful, and technologically dominant, and that these should sustain it indefinitely.
This is all an illusion. What sustains Israel is social cohesiveness, which is wanting peace with the Palestinians – becoming ever more farfetched – equality among the citizenry – which is lacking – and finally, enlightened and visionary leadership – which is tragically absent.
Indeed, Israel is in desperate need of another David Ben-Gurion or Yitzhak Rabin – a morally imbued leader with a vision who will fight for Israel’s future well-being and its very soul. It is the hour of need that produces such a visionary new leader to rise. The time is now.
The writer is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.