There are three realistic scenarios for what will happen as a result of this historic vote: a third round of elections in 2019-2020; a narrow coalition made up of the right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties; or a unity government. The question is – which option would be most beneficial to Israel’s long-term stability and well-being.
While a third round of elections seems to be quite unreasonable to most Israelis, the possibility of such a scenario could materialize. The damage to the country as a result of repeated elections – for a third time – would be immense. The direct cost alone would be approximately 700 million shekels, a sum that equals the entire annual budget of the Science Ministry. The indirect price tag for going back to the polls again would cost the Israeli economy more than 2 billion shekels.
But this is only part of the price we have to pay for our current political impasse. For nearly a year now Israel has been a country frozen in time. When you meet senior officials in the various ministries what you always hear from them is, “we’re treading water.” New programs cannot be approved, serious processes cannot be conducted and long-term plans cannot be adopted. The Ministry of the Economy cannot progress with reforms to lower the cost of living. The Interior Ministry is holding back major projects needed by local authorities, and this in the very significant first year of mayors’ terms. The appointments of senior officials, too – judges, the police chief – are frozen. Everything is on hold until further notice. This stagnation has both economic and national implications. Diplomatic processes with a direct impact on Israeli security, such as President Trump’s peace plan, are deferred and going nowhere for the moment.
This means that above all that, once the new coalition negotiations get underway, it is important that all the politicians climb down from their figurative trees in sufficient time to allow us to have a break from all the politicking and to return to the normal running of the country’s affairs.
The second scenario, a narrow right-wing and ultra-Orthodox coalition has its benefits. Such a government would be able to speak in one voice and pursue a coherent foreign and defense policy. But the bill for the junior partners’ sectoral and political demands in such a government would amount to billions and this at a time when Israel already has to deal with a budget deficit of more than 50 billion shekels. A narrow government that can be brought down by any recalcitrant Knesset member will also be prey to constant extortion, making the prospect of another election only months away at any given point.
To make matters worse, if such a government would adopt ideas that were already on the table during the coalition negotiations in April and May, the damage to Israel’s judicial system and law-enforcement agencies might be irreversible. These proposals compromised a series of reforms that would have included limiting the independence and nonpartisan nature of the judiciary.
The third possibility is some sort of unity government. In the past, unity governments have been derided as “governments of national paralysis,” mainly on the diplomatic front. Precisely now, however, when we are divided as never before, it is possible that a unity government could calm the waters and prove that we do know how to come together and achieve broad agreement on constitutional issues, as well as in the area of religion and state. If to date we have managed to unite in the face of outside threats to our security, the time has come to rise above the divisions in our society when the threat is of internal nature too.
There have been unity governments in the past. For example, the ideological gulf between the historic Mapai and Herut parties – forerunners of today’s Likud and Labor – were long considered unbridgeable. This, however, did not deter Levi Eshkol from announcing the formation of a national unity government in which Menachem Begin served as a cabinet minister on the eve of the Six-Day War. Another example is the rotation government of Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir in the mid-1980s, which chalked up impressive achievements, including stamping out rapidly-rising inflation and withdrawing the IDF from Lebanon. The same can be said of Ariel Sharon’s unity government early in the early 2000s, which was credited with effectively ending the Second Intifada.
The stakes we are facing are just as significant. As Israelis, we have shown that we can join forces only when facing an external enemy. The next round of fighting against Hezbollah may have been postponed and we seemed to have managed to get through the summer without launching a ground operation in Gaza, yet now our democracy itself is at stake. This is a battle for the stability of our system of government, for social solidarity, and for the fabric of our democratic institutions.
This is a battle in which we must prevail.
Yohanan Plesner is president of the Israel Democracy Institute.