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Farewell to an Israeli government of discord

Israel is entering a lengthy, exhausting and worst of all a damaging election campaign

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

There was nothing surprising about Prime Minister Netanyahu’s sacking of two of his senior government coalition partners last week. It is the clinical and brutal manner in which it was executed that caught everyone somewhat off guard. The discord, even the open hostility, between ministers and the parties comprising this coalition started almost from the first day of this government back in March 2013. By the time a new Israeli government is installed sometime in the late spring of next year, the third Netanyahu government will not be able to boast a single achievement to its name. Its legacy will be a sad one of leaving the peace process in ruins and straining relationships with a large part of the international community. Domestically, under this government, social injustices have been exacerbated and the economy is contracting for the first time in five years. This does not provide a glowing end of term record, to support their bid among Israeli voters for another term in office.

Israel is entering a lengthy, exhausting and worst of all a damaging election campaign

Yossi Mekelberg

Israel is entering a lengthy, exhausting and worst of all a damaging election campaign, followed by the customary horse-trading negotiations of forming a government. Until then the Israeli society is likely to endure an unsettling political limbo at a time that it faces challenges that require clear direction from its leadership. According to the constitutional arrangements in Israel, Netanyahu will lead an interim government until a new one is formed following the forthcoming elections. For a rather lengthy time the prime minister will prevail over a government that, despite enjoying the support of only a minority Knesset members, will possess all the powers of an elected government. This means considerable power with very little accountability. Hence, considering the election season and Netanyahu’s leadership style, we can expect decisions and policies which will appeal to potential Likud voters and the party’s main remaining partner in the coalition the H’Bait Hayeudi (Jewish Home). One can expect that the country will face months of extreme right wing agenda and discourse, accompanied by freezing of much needed economic reforms.

A government of convenience

Commentary during the past week largely concentrated on the fact that this coalition government lasted only 20 months. I think it can be regarded as a miracle that it lasted that long. It was a government of convenience, and therefore, uncomfortable for almost all of its partners from the get-go. There was no glue to keep this government together beyond the will to be in government and in power. There was no personal trust between the senior members of the government, and in the end Netanyahu accused, rather unconvincingly, his Finance Minister Yair Lapid and his Justice Minister Tzipi Livni of plotting a putsch against him with the center-left parties. Most observers of Israeli politics actually doubt whether any such conspiracy to replace Netanyahu with another coalition took place. However, considering the impotence of the current government in running the country’s affairs, it would have been rather startling had malaise not spread among some of its key partners.

The seeds of the fall of this government were sown from its very first day. The agreements signed between the main partner of this coalition, the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu alliance, and the other partner parties, were over time unsustainable. Before long, the partnership between the Likud party and Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu came to an end, and it became obvious that the different factions within the government had very little in common. The beginning of the end of this government was on the 29th of April this year, when the U.S.-sponsored peace process between Israel and the Palestinians officially collapsed. Tzipi Livni, who was ostensibly the chief negotiator, had to fight a rear-guard battle with Netanyahu and his right wing allies to keep peace flame partially burning. Leading figures in the government such as Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennet, in addition to the prime minister himself, had no intention of making the necessary compromises needed for John Kerry’s peace initiative to be successful.

Historical compromise

What place was there in this government for those who believe that Israeli security and well-being requires a historical compromise with the Palestinians? As the likelihood of an independent Palestinian state disappears under the construction of new Jewish settlement houses in the occupied West Bank, neither Livni nor Lapid could justify participating in this government. Regrettably, they preferred staying in government supporting Netanyahu’s peace charade, knowing that he neither wanted it nor was brave enough to deliver it. They stuck to their ministerial armchairs despite witnessing the government harming the chances of genuine peace fatally, during negotiations with the Palestinian leadership, through settlements, expansion and intransigence. The brutality of the conflict in Gaza should have made it even clearer to them that the majority in this government would rather resort to aggression than explore new diplomatic horizons.

In the aftermath of the bloody summer the different coalition parties positioned and prepared themselves for the inevitable internal political crisis. There were too many issues upon which they could not agree, even beyond the peace process, including deepening disagreements on economic and social issues. The fact that the prime minister and the finance minister were leading two different rival parties, left the economy hostage to their political ambitions.

The Jewish Nation-State bill was probably the last nail in the coffin of this government. It was not only a vile attempt to discriminate minorities within the state of Israel but also a blatant attempt to entice the voters on Israel’s political right at the expense of the soul of the country. The rest was a pitiful and overdramatic attempt by Netanyahu to demonstrate leadership by showing the exit door to two of his main partners in the coalition and score some cheap political points at the same time. Israel was thrown, consequently, into a prolonged political turmoil. There is no guarantee that the elections will yield a more stable, let alone better, government. Public opinion polls are not flattering for any of the parties, neither for those in government nor those in opposition. They reflect a real division in opinion among the public on an array of issues, combined with basic skepticism directed at the political process as a whole. The latter is even more dangerous to the well-being of the Jewish state than the former. It undermines the adhesive that keeps the society together.

In the next few weeks primaries and alliance building will occupy the Israeli political system. Very few would like to see Netanyahu back at the helm but despite his dwindling popularity, he is tipped to form the next government. If only half of what Netanyahu’s rivals said about his leadership this week after they were fired is true, the Israeli public should be extremely wary whether they would like him as their prime minister for a fourth term. Unfortunately, there is hardly an available attractive alternative. With further fragmentation expected in the next Knesset after the elections, Israel is running the risk of becoming almost impossible to govern.

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Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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