Five elections in three years: Israel's political instability

Five elections in three years: Israel's political chaos
5 min read
30 June, 2022
Analysis: Israel's patchwork coalition government has collapsed after a year, with political paralysis and the potential return of Netanyahu on the horizon.

Israel is once again heading for new elections. Choosing a new government, however, is unlikely to solve the country's much more profound and plentiful political dysfunctions.

The country has been virtually ungovernable since 2018. At that time, then Israeli defence minister Avigdor Lieberman quit Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, a decision that initiated a virtually non-stop election campaign in Israel.

Last week, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who had led a coalition of eight parties, announced he would step down. On Thursday, the Knesset voted to dissolve itself, triggering new elections.

Yair Lapid will become the government's caretaker prime minister until Israelis go to the polls for the fifth time in the last three years, most likely in October. Bennett has said he will not run in the upcoming vote.

"Israel is once again heading for new elections. Choosing a new government, however, is unlikely to solve the country's much more profound and plentiful political dysfunctions"

The far-right politician’s resignation is more than a political defeat. It also marks the end of an attempt to manage a patchwork coalition that included the far-right, the left, and, for the first time, a party representing Palestinian citizens of Israel - Ra’am.

Ideologically, they could not have been further apart but were united in their goal of preventing Benjamin Netanyahu from being re-elected.

Considering these circumstances, the coalition lasted longer than most experts had anticipated. It also did little to dent Israel’s political status quo.

Israel has continued its rapprochement with regional countries and improved ties with Egypt, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, among others. The economy has also improved.

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While Ra’am had joined the coalition to improve the lives of Palestinian citizens - securing some additional funds, added police presence, and political attention - progress was slow on other key issues for the party.

Indeed, the past year was one of political stagnation in terms of addressing Israel’s decades-long military occupation of the Palestinian territories.

The coalition – which included pro- and anti-settlement parties – chose to manage the occupation rather than resolve it, much in the same way as Netanyahu. Yet in the end, these unresolved issues played a pivotal role in the coalition’s demise.

Tensions in occupied East Jerusalem flared earlier this year following Israeli restrictions on access to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, Israeli security raids, and increasing visits by Israeli extremists.

In April, Mansour Abbas’ Ra’am party temporarily suspended its participation in the coalition as a result.

Five elections in three years: Israel's political chaos
Yair Lapid will become the government's caretaker prime minister until Israelis go to the polls for the fifth time. [Getty]

Political tensions further escalated in early June after the coalition failed to renew a bill to uphold civilian legal rights for Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank, where 500,000 live illegally according to international law.

While settlers enjoy the benefits of Israeli law, three million Palestinians live under Israeli military rule in a status quo of two separate legal systems described as apartheid by leading human rights groups.

The vote also once again displayed how paralysed and divided Israeli coalition politics are. The opposition under Netanyahu voted unanimously against an extension of the law - and thus against their own pro-settler electorate  – solely to deliver a defeat to the government.

Moreover, Bennett, who is tenaciously pro-settlement, found himself in a position of trying to strike a balance between left and right. Unsurprisingly, he was accused of not doing enough for his own pro-settler base, and other parties felt the same pressure over their willingness to compromise.

"The failure of Israel's fragile coalition government could pave the way for a return to politics for current opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu"

Polls show that both Yamina, Bennett’s party, and Ra’am lost support, indicating apathy towards an approach of political pragmatism and compromise. Moreover, defections from Yamina caused Bennett to lose his majority and hence the ability to act. 

The coalition whip Idit Silman had resigned in April after a Supreme Court decision to allow patients to bring leavened bread into hospitals during the Passover holiday was upheld, saying she could not take part “in harming the Jewish identity of Israel”.

In the end, the failure of Israel’s fragile coalition government could pave the way for a return to politics for current opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who has announced he wants to form a broad government.

However, polls suggest that neither the right nor the left can currently obtain a majority of 61 seats.

What is likely to follow is a populist campaign. For months, Netanyahu has been agitating against Palestinian parties in the Knesset, calling them supporters of terrorism and saying a coalition which includes them threatens Israel’s Jewish character.

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On Twitter, he called the government "the biggest failure" in the country's history and blamed the coalition partnership with Ra’am. The government is "dependent on terrorist supporters" and has "neglected the personal safety of Israeli citizens," he said.

With Netanyahu’s trial for bribery and fraud set to resume in September, when election campaigning will be in full flow, the Likud leader will be the centre of attention.

Elections are likely to be decided by emotive populism and Israeli nationalism rather than substantive policies, exactly what Netanyahu thrives on.

But there is no certainty that the next election will change anything in Israeli politics - quite the contrary. Once again, a majority will be hard to come by, and any kind of coalition will be shaky at best.

As long as ideological differences, unstable coalitional politics, and personal acrimony remain, Israel will face continued political turbulence.

Thomas O. Falk is a journalist and political commentator. He has covered politics for Al Jazeera, The Diplomat, The Spectator, Haaretz, GB News, South China Morning Post, and others

Follow him on Twitter: @topfalk