Israel is headed for another parliamentary election in October this year. This will be the Jewish country’s fifth election in under four years. Statistically, Israelis have been having 1.25 elections every year, for the past four years. The previous election, which saw the defeat of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had paved the way for a rainbow coalition of orthodox, liberal, leftist as well as Islamist parties to join hands to make Naftali Bennett the Prime Minister. Now, this coalition has lost its majority in the Knesset, which is Israel’s parliament.
Naftali Bennett has decided to put in his papers and dissolve the parliament. The once confident coalition that vowed to make Benjamin Netanyahu pay for his alleged crimes has been reduced to shambles. Once the parliament is dissolved, Yair Lapid – who for the past year has served as Foreign Minister, will take over the reins of the country as its caretaker Prime Minister.
For many, these repeated bouts of electoral contests in Israel raise some questions. First, why are Israelis practically being forced to vote every year? Second, how are the results of all recent elections nearly similar? Third, why do Israelis not vote for one party in a decisive manner? Finally, has Israeli democracy saturated itself due to the demographics of the country no longer favouring the inherent Jewish nature of the country?
Israel and Fickle Mandates
Israel is united in its conviction of surviving as a Jewish state. Jews of all strands in Israel believe that their survival as a civilisation and as a people is contingent on Israel surviving as a Jewish nation-state. That pretty much sums up everything that unites Jews as a people in Israel. Politically, Jews are as divided as a people can get. On policy decisions of any given government, there will be several strands of public opinion – liberal, conservative and ultra-orthodox, to name a few.
An even more important factor than policy differences is the incessant want of Israeli lawmakers to either side with Benjamin Netanyahu or against him. In recent years, Netanyahu has taken centre stage in Israeli politics. So, there are either parties that want to support him, or dislodge him. Based on the mood of these parties, Israel witnesses a repetitive fall of coalitions meant to govern the country for five years.
For a small country that is divided into proper Israel and the West Bank, the Jewish nation has too many political parties. At a time when Israel faces an imminent threat from Iran and its proxies surrounding it in countries like Lebanon, Syria and in the Gaza strip, a strong government in Tel Aviv is the need of the hour.
Yet, Israelis do not seem to be getting the government that they need and deserve. An experiment to oust Benjamin Netanyahu from power after 12 years has now called the utility of Israeli democracy into question. An expression of anti-incumbency against Benjamin Netanyahu has deprived Israel of crucial years of focussed growth and capacity building to counter the many existential threats it faces.
The coalition which Naftali Bennet was heading consisted of no less than eight parties. Added to the mix was the Arab party of Mansour Abbas as well, which has many a time been accused of harbouring Islamist proclivities. For the sole purpose of keeping Benjamin Netanyahu out of power, these parties decided to set aside their differences and work together.
This pilot project, as is now evident, has fallen flat on its face. The biggest indicator of the coalition’s failure came when a Knesset vote earlier this month failed to uphold the application of Israeli criminal and civil law to Israelis in the West Bank. This legislation gives Israeli settlers in the West Bank the same rights as citizens in Israel. For Conservatives, the failure of this legislation meant the coalition had collapsed already.
The Mechanism to Win Seats in the Knesset
Israel has never had a single-party government that has served its tenure for five years with an absolute majority. Governments have always been formed with the help of coalitions. The Knesset is elected through a nationwide proportional-representation system with a relatively low electoral threshold for parties to win seats. This helps just about any serious contender to win a seat.
So, it is incredibly difficult for any one party to win an absolute majority in the Israeli parliament. This is what forces coalitions to come about and political compromises to become the foundation of any government in the country. Eventually, differences become too hard for coalition partners to ignore, and Israel is forced into fresh rounds of elections – all to throw up similar results once again.
The Jewish nation of Israel is composed of roughly 21 per cent Arabs, who follow Islam. Close to 1.9 million Arabs live in Israel. In the past, the overall fertility rate among Arab women in Israel was almost twice as high as that among Jewish women. Now, this differential has seemingly stabilised – but not without costing Israel a lot.
When compared to the Jewish population of Israel, the Arab population is relatively young. Children and youth under the age of 18 constitute 38.6% of the population, compared with 32% in Jewish society. The higher fertility rates among Arabs led to the rapid growth of Arab youths, who are beginning to avail voting rights now, and impact the country’s elections.
In a small country like Israel, 21 per cent of the population is effectively that which sympathises with the Palestinian cause, putting it at direct odds with all non-Islamist parties of the country. Mind you, Arab voters have been able to cause significant harm to ‘Jewish’ parties despite their relatively low turnouts on election days compared to Jews.
In 2021, for example, the national voter turnout of Israel was 67.2 per cent; while that of Arabs was only 44.6 per cent. The Arab population of Israel is heavily concentrated in the North, the Triangle region and Negev. This makes Arab voters a very influential and consequential lot. Previously, they did not have representation or a strong voice. With Mansour Abbas’ Ra’am party, however, that void has been filled to a great extent.
What Does the Next Election Hold?
Recent opinion polls have enthused former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his cadre. His popularity is on the rise, yet still not enough to allow him to form a government with a comfortable majority. However, Netanyahu has time till October to make up that distance. The chances of him making a comeback are strong.
Naftali Bennet, meanwhile, is considering retirement from politics. If four elections have not been able to throw up decisive mandates, chances of a fifth doing so are not much. However, if the people of Israel were to make up their mind and decide that the country deserves a stable government with an absolute majority, the scenario could change.
In the absence of such a popular consensus, Israeli democracy will keep wobbling. That should worry Jews. If the Jewish state of Israel is to survive the next 50 years, it must undertake structural changes that prevent indecisive mandates. Otherwise, Israel too will become one of those Jewish kingdoms that failed to complete 100 years of existence.