The Israelis have held another election and the outcome is what is expected. No one has the ability to form a government without building a coalition, any coalition will require the inclusion of some parties opposed to the core policies of the main winner, and therefore the prime activity of the Israeli prime minister will be to pamper his coalition partners, the smallest parties as much as the biggest. The Israelis have created the situation that the French had before and after World War II. It was called “immobilisme”: systemic paralysis.
There is no doubt that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu believes in his policies, but if he did not, or if he wanted to modify them, it would be difficult to maintain his coalition. Similarly, were his challenger, Isaac Herzog, able to form a government, he would be as dependent on smaller parties, and to appease them all he would have to limit his space for maneuver to a very small arc. If he went beyond it, the coalition would shatter. The French had an analogous problem that made it impossible to align policy with reality. Instead, they sought to evade decisions to hold governments together. It worked fine until the gulf between reality and politics became overwhelming.
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Israel is deeply divided. It was founded by a coalition of European Jews who were either centrist liberals or socialists. Their vision of Israel was that of a secular state, and one whose primary goal was to provide Jews a state, making them a nation like any other nation — and a liberal democracy. After the founding, there were two waves of immigrants: refugees from Muslim countries and from Russia. In addition, a religious political movement grew up that posed an alternative vision of Israel to that of the Europeans. Secularism was a European concept. It was not nearly as valued by the Jews from Muslim countries or the religious Jews. Liberal democracy was not a primary concern for some of the Russian immigrants. As waves of immigrants came, fragmentation increased.
More important, the issue for the Europeans was to have a homeland, and the borders were flexible. For the religious and others, Israel was not merely the Jewish nation-state, but a religious reality, and the extent of the borders became a matter of faith and obligation. These factions are sufficiently large that no one can form a coalition without them, and therefore they can immobilize governments.
The reason for this is another problem. The founders of Israel were ideologues, and they built an ideologically focused political system in which voters selected parties, not leaders, and in which relatively small ideological tendencies were able to gain seats in the Knesset. It was the party that mattered, and voters selected parties on a national basis. There are no districts or provinces. That means that the elected do not serve a district, but the party. It also means that you do not need to carry a district to get a seat in Knesset — you just need a little more than 3 percent of the vote to be there. In a country built on small ideological distinctions, that creates a proliferation of parties.
The question in Israeli politics is not who got the most votes, but who is best positioned to form a coalition. And the even more important question is what the new prime minister had to promise his coalition partners to induce them to enter the coalition. Given the fragmentation of the vote — Netanyahu’s Likud and Herzog’s Zionist Union parties each got less than half of the amount needed to govern — building a coalition and limiting a government’s room for maneuver are the same thing. The Israeli president has proposed a unity government in which the major parties would rule together. Since the two major parties disagree, that is attractive but doesn’t solve the problem.
As with the French, none of this mattered until it did. Then what was merely politics, to be ignored with amused condescension, became history, and the issues became life or death. Israel is now in a position like the French were, where the consequences of immobilism are minimal. Netanyahu, who appears the strong man of Israel, actually sits on top of a rickety coalition that he is constantly tending to. If he wanted to shift positions, he couldn’t. Nor will his successor.
The historical, social and ideological divisions in Israel make it difficult for Israel to operate with subtlety in its most important dimension: foreign policy. Regardless of personality, its political reality locks it into place. The outcome of this election simply reinforces it.