Opinion

Early Elections Are Dumb, Not Dangerous, for Israel

All the fuss about the government seizing up while ministers hit the campaign trail is overwrought.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walks with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang during a welcome ceremony in Beijing, March 20, 2017.
Andy Wong/AP

You can’t help thinking that while Bibi was in China this week, his mind was on things other than touting Israeli high technology. If he didn’t dare broach the subject when he and Xi Jinping got together, Benjamin Netanyahu must have had nothing but envy for a leader who’s guaranteed two five-year terms without any bothersome coalition partners or pesky elections. 

If someone in your government misbehaves, you launch an anti-corruption investigation and he’s gone. No one leaks embarrassing stories to the press, and the government officially speaks with one voice. Here in Israel, with its annoying separation of powers, it’s the police and prosecution who decide whether to probe corruption and, damn it, now they have the prime minister in their sights.

It’s anyone’s guess whether his Beijing jaunt made Bibi even more determined to call early elections, or to think twice. Apart from the prime minister himself and perhaps his small circle of advisers, no one knows what’s on his mind. But there’s nearly a wall-to-wall consensus we don’t need elections and that they can only serve as a distraction at a time when the government needs to focus on the economy and the security situation.

Insane threats

President Ruby Rivlin this week labeled the prime minister’s threat, to dismantle the government over the “completely artificial” crisis cooked up over the fate of public broadcasting, “insane.”

“The State of Israel is facing far-reaching decisions on security, political and economic issues,” the president said.

Rivlin is certainly right about the insanity and artificiality bits. You don’t call elections over fantasies of turning public broadcasting into a Chinese-style propaganda outlet (the ostensible reason for the crisis Bibi has made), nor in order to undermine a legitimate police investigation (which is believed to be the real reason).

But Rivlin is mistaken about the nature of the “far-reaching decisions” the country needs the current government to take.

Israel’s security situation is about as good as it gets right now. Yes, someone needs to deal with the insanity of the Trump White House, which can’t seem to make up its mind where it stands on the Palestinian issues, or anything else in the Middle East. Syria is entering a new era now that the civil war is sort of over, and Israel has to be there making sure Tehran and Moscow don’t collude against us. There’s also always the imminent threat of war, if not from Hezbollah, then from Hamas.

But if we were to hold off on elections for things like a possible war, we’d be holding them as often as China does. In any case, as Ehud Olmert proved during the 2009 elections, you can fight a small war as a caretaker prime minister and run for office at the same time.  

Revolving ministers

But surely the economy needs the guiding hand of the government? I don’t think so. Israel runs through finance ministers at a rapid clip; over the last two decades, the average one stays on office for less than two years, compared with five for Britain, four for Ireland and three-and-a-half for Denmark, according to a study by the Israel Democracy Institute.

Yet after 20 years of revolving-door finance ministers we’re in better shape than any of those countries economically.  The economy is growing quickly, unemployment is at a record low, the high-tech sector is booming and we’re being flooded by foreign investment. How much credit for all of this can the finance ministers Israel has had - Moshe Kahlon, Yair Lapid, Yuval Steinitz, Roni Bar-On, Ehud Olmert, Avraham Hirschson, Benjamin Netanyahu, Silvan Shalom, Avraham Shohat, Meir Sheetrit, Yaakov Neeman, Dan Meridor, Yitzhak Moda'i and Yitzhak Shamir take?

Not much. For every good decision they made as finance minister of the day, each made at least one bad one. They dedicated a lot of their time to learning the job and then undoing what their predecessor had done.

The government’s main accomplishments occurred 20 or so years ago when it deregulated large parts of the economy, and the government finally got its act together about containing budget deficits. About half of the Israeli economic success story is due to that, and the other half to high-tech, where the government played a role only at the dawn of Startup Nation in the 1990s.

With a two-year budget in place, there’s no opening for the budget-busting election economics anymore, and the fate of Israel’s high-tech industry lies with the state of the global economy, something Israeli finance ministers have no ability to influence.

That said, there are certainly things the government could be doing – something about the housing crisis, for one. But here the odds are as good that a finance minister will do something useless (like Lapid’s Zero-VAT plan to lower housing prices) as something good (such as Kahlon’s Mechir L’Mishtaken affordable housing program).

There are long-term issues like Israel’s low productivity and poor schools, but letting the current government stay in power isn’t likely to see anyone addressing these issues in any more serious way than they have so far.

Hope against hope, elections could just lead to a coalition without the Haredi parties, that would reinstitute the reforms aimed at bringing the ultra-Orthodox into the job market and teaching them basic skills. With Lapid’s Yesh Atid running neck in neck with the Likud, it’s a long shot, but not impossible. It might even be worth the cost of Lapid dusting off his Zero-VAT plan.