Israelis recently woke up to the news that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was bringing his longtime adversary, Avigdor Liberman, back into the government, this time as defence minister. Although once close partners, the two alpha males had become bitter rivals, slinging insults at each other, and Netanyahu was courting Labor Leader Isaac Herzog as a potential partner to fill the gap in his governing coalition. But that effort, which would have weakened the right and moved Israel’s government toward the centre, with Herzog as foreign minister, failed, and Liberman and Netanyahu suddenly became best friends again, or at least political allies.
These machinations reflect the state of perpetual political crisis in Israel, which extends to issues far beyond borders, relations with the Palestinians, religious conflicts and economic issues. This crisis is the result of a dysfunctional political system, sharp internal divisions and an ongoing leadership drought.
To begin with, the Israeli political system, in which voters select national parties rather than candidates from smaller constituencies, is a remnant of the Zionist movement in early 20th-century Europe. Under Theodor Herzl and his followers, Jewish communities chose delegates from ideological factions, providing representation for each. In 1948, when the State of Israel achieved independence, this system was simply continued, and voters still choose from among party lists, not candidates.
This system leads to a lack of political accountability and coalitions that depend on small parties, each with its own narrow agenda – a proven recipe for instability. The government formed by Netanyahu after the 2015 elections had 61 MKs out of a total of 120 – the narrowest of majorities – divided among five parties with very different priorities. In order to bring stability, Netanyahu held long negotiations with Herzog and his divided Labor Party, plus the remnants of Tzipi Livni’s party. But Herzog was unable to bring over the necessary Knesset members, and Netanyahu refused to put commitments such as a West Bank construction freeze in writing. This stalemate opened the door for Liberman.
Part of the problem is Netanyahu himself, or rather the fact that he has been prime minister three times, covering 10 years, which is a long time in any democracy. Long periods in office tend to result in leaders who are burned-out, cut off from the rest of society and lacking in creativity. The same result in election after election leads to societal alienation, as voters seek alternatives and are frustrated by their absence.
But even now, Netanyahu has few potential rivals. Some possible competitors in Likud, such as Gideon Saar, were frozen out a few years ago, and the latest option – former IDF chief of staff and defence minister Moshe Ya’alon – was removed to make way for Liberman. Similarly, the Labor opposition is hopelessly divided and pushing imaginary peace plans that the majority of Israeli citizens see as dangerous.
The dearth of qualified candidates is not a uniquely Israeli problem, as demonstrated by the Donald Trump phenomenon, as well as by Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn in the United Kingdom. In the age of social media and instant journalism, the relentless pursuit and harassment that accompanies political activity is, for “normal people” with families, a fundamental deterrent. And the aggressive Israeli media are among the worst.
As a result, Israeli commentators and political observers often return to scenarios in which popular former military leaders suddenly leap to the top of a major party, followed by a quick electoral triumph. In addition to Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak took this route as the head of Labor in 1998, although his brief run as prime minister was not particularly successful. But enough time has passed, and a number of ex-generals are viewed as potential successors to Netanyahu, allied with Likud exiles or a centrist party pulling in alienated voters from the two ideological poles.
But unless or until this happens, and probably for long afterward, Israel’s political roller-coaster is likely to continue.