By Ilan Fuchs, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, Legal Studies
As a law professor, my favorite courses are those in which I can draw comparisons between the American legal system and foreign systems. My APUS students always have a similar reaction when presented with constitutional doctrines that do not conform with American constitutional law.
At first they are amazed, then they question the logic of the foreign system. In the end they gain a new appreciation of the inherent logic of the U.S. Constitution and the historical context that brought about the evolution of American constitutional law.
In the context of Israeli politics there is much to compare. This week saw the expiration of the mandate that Israeli President Reuven Rivlin gave Benjamin Netanyahu to form a new government. It was the fourth time the longest-serving prime minister failed to establish a coalition government under his leadership.
The Israeli President Asked Yair Lapid, the Leader of Yesh Atid, to Form a New Government
As a result, the Israeli president asked Yair Lapid, the leader of Yesh Atid (There Is a Future), to form a new government.
Lapid started his career as a journalist. He joined the profession of his father, a Holocaust survivor and eminent Israeli journalist, Yosef Tommy Lapid. Later in life Lapid senior became a politician and was elected to the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, where he became a minister leading the Shinui (Change) party.
Lapid senior had a clear platform: The Israeli secular society was spending too much money on the unproductive Haredi population, one of the Orthodox Jewish sects characterized by strict adherence to traditional Jewish law and a rejection of modern secular culture.
Haredi men, many of whom do not recognize the modern state of Israel as a spiritual authority, can study in religious seminaries (yeshivot) and are supported with welfare payments. Unlike the rest of the population, Haredi men do not serve in the army. The Haredi hold about 17 seats in the Knesset, but Lapid Junior has bigger goals.
Lapid’s Political Agenda Goes Beyond Attacking the Haredi Population
His political agenda goes beyond attacking the Haredi population. He wants to be prime minister. The finer points of his agenda are not really clear; he does not seem to have a concise political ideology beyond removing Netanyahu. But then again, he will not be the first politician who talks constantly and says absolutely nothing.
Lapid has 17 seats in the parliament, but he can only form a government if two right-wing parties, Yamina (To the Right) and Tikvah Hadasha (New Hope), join him along with Yisrael Beytenu (Israel Our Home), another right-wing party identified with the Russian-speaking community. If they all come together with the left-wing parties, then Israel will have a government without Netanyahu’s Likud party.
The key to this national unity government is the leader of Yamina, Naftali Bennett. Bennett, a former officer in an Israeli elite commando unit and successful high-tech entrepreneur, wanted the prime minister’s job as an alternative to Netanyahu. Yamina won just seven seats, but with the support of the other two right-wing parties, Bennett is willing to enter this coalition if he is promised a rotating prime ministership.
Rotation Means the Coalition Will Be Led by One Prime Minister for Half a Term and by Another for the Rest of the Term
This rotation idea, created in Israel in the 1980s, means that the coalition will be led for half the normally four-year term by one prime minister and by another in the second half. This is an unusual solution to deadlocks, but this is the great thing about the comparative study of politics, it makes you think in new and unusual ways.
Bennett Is facing a big decision. He is seen as the leader of the right-wing parties, but Yisrael Beytenu is a one-man show led by Avigdor Lieberman. He and his constituents have no problem joining a left-wing government as long as it is committed to the separation of church and state.
Gideon Sa’ar left Likud in December 2020 to form his own right-wing party called New Hope. But Sa’ar opposes the two-state solution, calling it “a mistake to return to the idea of establishing a Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria as a solution to the conflict.”
Sa’ar has no clear anti-left base. Bennett has an ideological base that has a real issue with joining a government that will have left-wing parties pushing a political agenda that includes resuming peace talks with the Palestinians, LGBTQ rights, separation of church and state, among other contentious issues.
Bennett might be prime minister for only two years. He is taking a chance that this could end his political career. His base might not forgive him if the right-wing coalition cannot stop left-wing initiatives to change the reality created by the many years of Netanyahu’s leadership with a staunch right-wing government supported by the Haredi parties.
What does that mean for U.S.-Israel relations? Not too much. The relationship between Israel and the U.S. is not an issue based on one person. Will a Lapid-Bennett government be more open to initiatives from the White House? It seems the Biden administration has more pressing matters than the current Middle East situation.
It Is a Safe Bet that Israel Will Not Have a Very Stable Government
Beyond that, it is a safe bet that Israel will not have a very stable government. There is little that these parties have in common beyond being anti-Netanyahu. On the left of this potential government are the Labor and Meretz parties that want to promote talks with the Palestinians and maintain separation of church and state. In the middle is the centrist party Yesh Atid, which has no clear ideology beyond attacking the Haredi population. On the right, you have parties that oppose peace talks with the Palestinians and have a considerable base among traditional and religions voters. Suffice it to say, many pundits predict that if such a government is established it will be short lived.
Are we going to see a fifth election cycle in Israel? Perhaps. It is also possible that we will see a unity government established on the basis of its anti-Netanyahu rhetoric, but which will have little to stand on and might collapse in a few months giving way to another election cycle.
The only clear thing is that the Israeli electorate is very much divided on key issues. In the United States, by contrast, the Constitution that gives the nation common ground on so many civic issues does not exist in Israel.