Israel is caught in the grip of two difficult problems, but there is a way to solve both of them, which I shall propose here. I will also say what is unlikely to be resolved (spoiler alert: Israel’s main problems).
One problem is the decline of the political system, and at its heart is the phenomenon called Benjamin Netanyahu. The problem manifests in an unstable parliamentary regime, with frequent changes of government (four in the past decade) and short-lived parliaments (six in the past decade). At the same time, strong forces are working to undermine the infrastructure of Israeli democracy.
Who are Israel's Mizrahi voters and why can't the left win their votes? LISTEN to Election Overdose
At the heart of the problem is the Netanyahu phenomenon. Israel is in a situation where one person – intelligent and talented but highly problematic – is manipulating the entire political system. He is a populist leader, with no constructive vision, bent on destroying Israel’s social capital and focused exclusively on his own personal gain. This is a particularly strange development in a country where everyone has firm opinions about, and an “understanding” of, every issue. The explanation is that there is a receptive public, including the political class. Netanyahu is perceived as a father figure, as a responsible adult. Therefore, in opinion polls he is always judged the most suitable candidate for the job of prime minister. Even his rivals enhance his image (calling him “a magician”). It is a collective infantilism that suggests the perpetuation of the personality cult in Israeli politics.
The second problem is the coronavirus crisis. True, governments around the world struggle with a pandemic that is beyond their capabilities. But the Israeli government has turned in a particularly poor performance. Despite several advantages, including a relatively young population and a single main entrance, in the form of Ben-Gurion International Airport, the government has managed to score every possible own goal: zigzagging crisis management, failing to control entry into the country and a lack of enforcement.
What is the solution? Political cooperation could coalesce around replacing the prime minister and on drafting an exit strategy from the crisis. It is very important to formulate a realistic, feasible plan that offers a responsible alternative to the current erratic policy. Slogans and demonstrations are not enough; a concrete program must be finalized before the March 23 election.
The politically feasible option now (hardly a good one, though) is to form a coalition based on the parties of Gideon Sa’ar, Yair Lapid, Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman. The latest opinion polls give them about 50 Knesset seats combined.
After the election this nascent coalition would proceed in stages: In the first, the bloc would seek the 11 to 13 additional seats it needs to obtain at least half of the legislature’s 120 members from left-wing and centrist parties. The critical, and weakest link here is Bennett, who has not parted ways with Netanyahu but might do so.
- Netanyahu took a gamble on reopening, and the cost of his COVID policy will only be clear after election
- Netanyahu chose to depend on the ultra-Orthodox parties
- Netanyahu's Likud worried supporters won’t bother to vote in Israeli election
In the second stage, as soon as the Haredi parties (with their 15 predicted Knesset seats) realize that a government is being formed without them and they could lost their funding, they will run to join the coalition. Anyone who expects to get them out of the picture deceives himself.
In the third stage, if it turns out that Netanyahu is on his way to prison, part or all of his Likud party would also join the new coalition.
The Netanyahu phenomenon will be solved if his corruption trial proceeds normally and he can no longer conduct his manipulations from the seat of power. That is what happened in the criminal cases of Ehud Olmert, Abraham Hirchson, Arye Dery and other former senior politicians. For this purpose, the new coalition must ensure appropriate appointments to the position of justice minister and to head important Knesset committees.
Less clear is how to reinforce the democratic system and governmental stability. To a large extent, this depends on who will set the tone in the new government.
Exit from the COVID-19 crisis can and should be done by formulating a plan that is constructive and inspiring, something practical that the public can connect with. If the parties bring this positive message to their election campaigns and then base their coalition agreement on it, they will win widespread public support.
A first step, both symbolic and concrete, is to form a 15-member cabinet – slightly over half the current number – together with the elimination of a few ministries and the consolidation of several. The four main positions – prime minister and the ministers of foreign affairs, defense and education – will be divided among the four main partners in the coalition. An economist will be appointed to a two-year term as finance minister: No politician could do this thankless job well at this point in time.
The second step will be a significant strengthening of the health care system, in terms of both personnel – including doctors and nurses – and physical infrastructure. Both are half the size of such systems in countries like Germany, France, or the Scandinavian countries in per capita terms.
The third step is to resolve the significant mismatch created in the labor market. Unemployed workers will be looking for jobs, which nature has changed. Firms in many sectors will be behaving differently now. The matching of workers and jobs is no easy task, and Israel has been weak at it. Countries like the Netherlands, Germany and Sweden can serve as role models on this subject.
The fourth step is passing an updated national budget and rebuilding the Finance Ministry’s budget division, which has recently been crippled. Much of the needed funding for fiscal expenditures will be generated by issuing long-term bonds, taking advantage of the current low interest rate environment.
Will all of these things happen? Probably not, on account of the extreme fragmentation of the Israeli political system and a lack of vision among the leading political figures. Policy requires planning, knowledge and patience, all of which are in short supply.
Likewise, the main problems of Israel – relations with the Palestinians and the deep problems of the country’s Arab and Haredi communities – are likely to remain unresolved.
Eran Yashiv is a professor of economics at Tel Aviv University and a research fellow at the Centre for Macroeconomics of the London School of Economics.