Israel Is Politically Unstable – and That Threatens Its National Security

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Workers remove a Likud campaign billboard in Ramat Gan the day after Israelis went to the polls on March 17, 2015, just two years after the previous election.Credit: AP

Iran is nuclearizing. Hamas fires rockets. Hezbollah waits at our northern door. There is no doubt that Israel faces many external national security threats, but one of its greatest national security challenges actually comes from within: Israel is politically feeble.

Though the law mandates that Israel go to general elections every four years, over the past decade Israel has had four elections.

Academics determine political stability by the frequency of elections and changes of government. By these measures, though Israel has a stable regime, it is not politically stable. Worldwide, Israel comes in 17th place in terms of government duration, with an average turnover rate of 2.35 years over the past two decades. One of the factors impeding stability is that many of the leading figures of the Labor and Likud parties, past and present, have broken off to form their own political parties or join others, and those two major parties have been winning fewer votes.

Israel’s political instability is a national security threat because it undermines Israel’s ability to govern and hurts its economy, both of which are central to security. The country must recover from the political illness of instability by refashioning its political institutions and political culture.

That instability undercuts the strength of the government by bringing new ministers, new employees and new agendas to the government ministries. On average, over one-third of government ministers change in every election. This hinders the ministries’ ability to carry out short-term and long-term policies. Knowing full well they do not have long in office, ministers may be discouraged from formulating new policies they may not have the time to implement. Moreover, the lack of organizational stability impedes the ministries’ ability to carry out all their existing policies and provide the basic services within their mandates.

The effect on national security is clearest when it comes to organizational incompetence in the Defense Ministry, but that’s not the only reason weak government is bad for security. Political scientists see weak government and failing political institutions as the root cause of conflict, for various reasons. It could be that a weak government doesn’t have the strong system of checks and balances that can help avoid bloody conflict, or that involvement or threat of conflict costs leaders votes in strong democracies. By this logic, as Israel’s political system grows weaker, it becomes more vulnerable to conflict.

In addition, political impotence damages the economy. A 2013 study conducted by Eyal Robinson at the Citizens’ Empowerment Center in Israel, an advocacy group focusing on electoral reform and increased civic involvement, shows that Israel’s political instability (measured as duration of government and the number of parties in parliament) is correlated with poor performance on economic indicators including economic freedom, competitiveness and international access.

And a weak economy detracts from the hard power and soft power that are both essential components of national security. Without a healthy economy, countries are less capable of covering the military expenditures that provide hard power and are less capable of providing their citizens with a feeling of financial security and bolstering positive relationships with other countries through trade.

How, then, can Israel enhance its political stability?

Israel can solve this problem by working simultaneously on the grassroots and policy level. On the grassroots level, parties can improve membership outreach, strengthen their internal organizational procedures and encourage participation by those previously left out, in an effort to build the next generation of leaders and strengthen public support – thus helping more established parties regain dominance in the Knesset in an organic way. Restoring a system whereby two large parties dominate would bring less frequent changes in government.

On a policy level, the solution is more complex. One way to bolster stability is by raising the electoral threshold further to cut down the number of parties. But after the threshold was raised to from 2 percent in the 2013 election to 3.25 percent in the March election, it did not result in any party winning more than 30 seats. Other suggestions include an amendment to the election law whereby the leader of the largest party automatically becomes prime minister or an amendment declaring that failure to pass a budget does not necessarily cause the government to fall. There are many possible solutions. For this reason, the government should put together a committee to analyze multiple policy options. Policy must go hand in hand with grassroots work to strengthen established political parties from within.

Israel is a cancer patient going to war against enemy armies. It must fight for its life on the battlefield even as political cancer weakens the country from within. Enfeebled, it lacks the strength to defeat its opponents. The country must first fight the disease of political instability before its stands a chance of victory against Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah and all its other external enemies.

Maya Kornberg is a researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies and a graduate student at Columbia University. Her work focuses on Israeli politics and society, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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