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Israel’s Governing Coalition Is In A Permanent State Of Crisis – OpEd

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By Yossi Mekelberg*

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For a country with an intense and exhausting agenda, a stable and functioning political system and government is a must. But Israel is moving from one political crisis to another with a government that hangs on to power by the skin of its teeth, while its domestic and international agendas require the exact opposite: Stability and a sense of genuine purpose.

Many of these crises derive from a wobbly governing alliance that is constantly under fire from its opponents’ attempts to embarrass, undermine and destabilize it. In the latest installment of this coalition cliff-hanger, it was the turn of MK Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi of the left-leaning Meretz party to throw her toys out of the pram and, for a brief moment — a full weekend to be precise — quit the coalition, before returning to the fold and thereby give the government the support of exactly half of the Knesset, allowing it to live for another day… or maybe week or month.

When this so-called change government was formed, no one expected it to sail to a full term without facing some rough seas, but what we are witnessing now is a farce. And I hasten to say this is not necessarily caused by those who head this impossible alliance, but more by junior politicians and advisers who are either putting their egos before the interests of their country, do not have the capacity to understand the opportunities offered by such a broad coalition, lack stamina in the face of adversity, or are just too afraid of what they perceive as their natural constituencies.

Consequently, they tend to perform the rather unconvincing last-stand gesture of quitting the coalition, or at least threatening to do so, in the hope that this will eventually be rewarded at the ballot box. What they miss in the course of such petulant behavior is that this was, from the outset, no-one’s dream government, but one forced into existence by the indecisiveness of the electorate in the course of four national elections in the space of two years, as well as the toxicity of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his close circle of near-sighted followers.

That situation led to a coalition government with a marked asymmetry of right and left, in which the latter has less power to influence the government’s output, as it has less of an opportunity to form a government after its own heart. While for those on the right, it is Netanyahu’s refusal to leave the political scene that prevents them from joining a full-fledged right-wing government with Likud and the ultra-Orthodox.

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Rather than being a government of change, this is a hybrid administration with too many members who are confused about what fuels it, in which direction it is steering and how far it can travel. From its inception, it was capable of either being an alliance whose sum is greater than its parts or one whose parts are endlessly squabbling among themselves and thus offsetting each other and leading to paralysis and chaos. We have the latter scenario.

To begin with, the only practical and ideological glue that brought this unlikely eight-party coalition together was a desire to end Netanyahu’s 12 years in office, and in doing so heal the divisions he sowed between all segments of Israeli society. However, Netanyahu still maintains, as leader of the biggest faction in the Knesset and head of the opposition, and through his boundlessly unscrupulous and manipulative nature, a huge influence on Israeli politics that is casting a long shadow on the current government and society generally.

One of the main impediments affecting this government is that there is little trust between its different components; it also has an unusual structure, being led by a prime minister, Naftali Bennett, and an “alternate” prime minister (and foreign minister), Yair Lapid. These two hold very different ideological dispositions. In addition, it relies for its survival on some members of the Knesset who are distinguished mainly by their political ambitions and little else, let alone promoting policies of any meaning for a country that is saturated with acute challenges. Although the coalition is supposedly supported by 60 of the Knesset’s 120 members, several are not committed to backing it on every single vote, while others constantly threaten to leave if their demands are not met and regularly flirt with the opposition benches.

As a sociopolitical experiment, the current Israeli government will no doubt be a source of great interest to political scientists for years to come, especially if it survives long enough to leave some kind of legacy, even if it is only that of preventing Netanyahu from ever returning to power. However, Israel can hardly afford to be governed by an experiment of this kind, especially if it should fail completely. The complexity of issues faced by the country requires a stable and functioning leadership and governance with a clear direction.

We are presently witnessing a marked increase in the level of violence between Israel and the Palestinians, with every day bringing with it another trigger for escalation. In the absence of any notable peace process — and none is on the horizon — the next flashpoint is sadly never too far away. Moreover, US President Joe Biden is expected to visit Israel and Palestine later this month, but any preparations for discussing the array of issues of common interest to both countries, such as the revival of the nuclear deal and other challenges posed by Iran or Israel’s position on the war in Ukraine, let alone stabilizing relations with the Palestinians, cannot be explored to the full with an Israeli government that is in constant existential turmoil.

This coalition is held together by fear: Of Netanyahu and of yet another election with further baffling results. Yet, more than ever, Israel needs a government capable of representing a wide range of opinions and interests; a government capable of thinking strategically and long-term about its domestic and foreign affairs. The current “government of change” daily demonstrates that it can survive only as long as it provides more of the same old style over substance and offers no new policies that might ring in the necessary changes.

  • Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg

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