Israel’s new government, which was officially formed yesterday, is getting a lot of attention, mostly for one reason: It marks the end of the more than a dozen years of Benjamin Netanyahu’s premiership. But this new government is potentially just as significant for another reason: It is the beginning of an era in which Israel no longer truly has a prime minister.
Nominally, Israel’s new prime minister is Naftali Bennett. But since his small right-wing party, Yamina, controls only six of the Knesset’s 120 seats, it needed partners to form a government. The coalition now includes seven additional parties from across the ideological spectrum, and they agree on very little.
What they do agree on is that Bennett should not represent them for the duration of the term. Instead, in two years, he is supposed to relinquish control of the prime minister’s office to Yair Lapid, the leader of Yesh Atid, a centre-left party.
A constitutional revolution
And herein lies the constitutional revolution.
Bennett is a partial prime minister now; Lapid will be a partial prime minister in two years. In reality, neither can do anything without the consent of the other because of a law that in practice gives each veto power. So the result is something more like the ancient Roman system of two consuls and less like traditional Israeli system of one prime minister.
A unity government with a rotating prime minister is not an original idea. In the 1980s, Israel was ruled by a highly successful unity government under Yitzhak Shamir of the Likud party and Shimon Peres of Labor. But at that time, there was no alternate prime minister, as there is in the Bennett-Lapid government.
Shamir and Peres had to navigate their partnership without a legal arrangement that diminished the power of the prime minister to make his own decisions. When Peres ended his term as prime minister, he resigned, and Shamir was appointed.
A year ago, Netanyahu formed a government with his rival Benny Gantz by promising him that after two years, Gantz would replace him. But because of mistrust between them, a change in the constitutional structure was made. Gantz was made alternate prime minister.
This, of course, did not much help because Netanyahu never truly intended to see his rival replace him. And so the arrangement dissolved fairly quickly, and the government was, predictably, deadlocked.
Bennett and Lapid begin their partnership much more amiably, and they seem intent on making it work. Still, they have decided to keep the power-sharing system developed by their predecessors.
They need to: With so few parliamentarians to support him, Bennett’s veto power is his assurance against being outmanoeuvred by his partners. For his part, Lapid needs his veto as an assurance that he hasn’t just handed complete power to his rival. Moreover, it was only a broad coalition that could achieve the goal that they shared: unseating Netanyahu.
So there were good reasons for returning to what was supposed to be a one-time arrangement. The problem is that it is now hard to see a future coalition that does not employ the same arrangement.
Israel, which has held four elections in two years because of an inability to form a government, is a fractious and polarised country. There is no natural governing majority, and it seems that complex coalitions will be necessary to form a government in years to come.
In such a situation, there will always be a party that can make or break a coalition. The leader of such a party will always want more power. If Gantz, with half the seats of Netanyahu’s Likud, could make such demand — and for that matter, if Bennett, with a third of Yesh Atid’s, could make such a demand — then power-sharing agreements are what our future holds. Rather than have one powerful prime minister, as was Israel’s political tradition, we will now have two.
Permanent state of deadlock
Will this not lead to a permanent state of deadlock in which no leader is able to make bold, and necessary, decisions? Perhaps sometimes. Take the controversial issue of Israel’s control over the West Bank. In a power-sharing government, those who believe that Israel must evacuate its colonies there will not get their way; those who believe that Israel must annex parts of the territory will also not get theirs.
Or take the issue of civil marriage, which is also controversial in Israel. Proponents of allowing such marriages will not be able to pass legislation, even if they have the votes, because in this government they have no more power than the power of the smaller factions — namely religious parties — that oppose civil marriage.
Clearly, indecision and gridlock are real risks for Israel’s political power-sharing future. But there are also potential benefits.
While major contentious issues like the fate of the West Bank and the role of religion in society may be hard to settle under these conditions, it may finally be possible to resolve others — including obvious ones, such as passing a budget after two years without one, to allowing for some public transportation on the Sabbath to finally dedicating the necessary resources to deal with the surge of crime.
At a time when polarisation is such a grave social and political threat, Israel might have awkwardly stumbled into a remedy: an enforced regime of compromise. If this government is a success, the result may be consensus Israel has been waiting for.
Shmuel Rosner is a columnist and commentator who writes about Israeli politics.
© 2021 The New York Times