For the second time in five months, Israeli voters last week reached the end of a hard-fought election campaign and went to the polls to choose a new government. And for the second time in five months, nobody knows what the new government will look like.
The complexity of Israeli elections can make even hardcore political junkies whimper. Since there are 120 seats in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, a government must have the support of at least 61 members. But no Israeli party has ever won an outright majority: After last week’s election, the Blue & White party, headed by former general Benny Gantz, had 33 seats, edging Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party with 31.
Which means that Gantz or Netanyahu must assemble a coalition with smaller parties — or form a unity government and take turns as prime minister. So far, the obstacles to either path are formidable. Blue & White has vowed not to share power with Netanyahu as long as he faces potential corruption charges. Netanyahu has promised to keep the religious in any coalition he joins. Gantz says he will only a join a “secular” unity government that excludes religious parties. Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, is pushing the two men to find a way to break the stalemate. And if they can’t? Well, there are already rumblings about a third election.
What should Americans make of all this? What are the most important takeaways from the election? Here are four:
1. There are worse things than a two-party system.
With rare exceptions, every US election campaign is contested by Republicans and Democrats. The two parties have dominated American public life for more than 150 years, and the shortcomings of our system are well known — from the polarizing of political debate to the stifling of independent voices.
Yet for all its flaws, our two-party structure means that minor parties can never thwart the will of the electorate. In Israel, mainstream parties with broad public support are routinely held hostage by tiny parties more committed to their ideological purity and narrow parochial concerns. Indeed, it was the intransigence of just such a minor faction — Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party, which prevented the formation of a coalition after the April election — that forced Israel to hold a second election.
2. Prime ministers, like presidents, should be term-limited.
No American president can run for a third term — period. Even presidents who believe themselves indispensable must leave office after a few years. But there is no time limitation on Israeli prime ministers, and it was never Netanyahu’s intention to step down voluntarily.
In many ways, “King Bibi” has been a first-rate leader. But his determination to stay in power led him to the belief, in the words of Israeli analyst Yossi Klein Halevy, “that his personal interests and the interests of the state converged.” Instead of grooming potential successors, he repeatedly undercut anyone who seemed to be a rising Likud star. That kept Netanyahu unchallenged at the helm of the party. But it ensured that once his appeal faded, the party would pay the price. Which is just what happened: Likud effectively lost eight seats between the April election and last week’s do-over.
3. On the biggest issue — security — Israelis aren’t divided.
The media have been describing Blue & White, which is now the Knesset’s largest party, as “center-left.” That is true in some areas, especially when it comes to the influence that religious authorities and Orthodox Jewish rules should have on Israeli life. But Blue & White is led by three former Israel army chiefs of staff: Gantz, Moshe Ya’alon, and Gabi Ashkenazi. They are not starry-eyed peaceniks prepared to squander the country’s security.“Netanyahu’s remarkable staying power,” writes Halevy, “comes from one source: his ability to project power, to embody the Jewish will to survive.” Many voters felt comfortable making the switch to Blue & White because they think Israeli safety and deterrence, so effectively tended to by Netanyahu, will be just as well maintained under new management.
4. A vibrant Middle East democracy? Only in Israel.
No other country in Israel’s neighborhood has anything like the Jewish state’s boisterous and entrenched democratic tradition. There are no competitive elections in Egypt and Syria. Voters have no influence in Lebanon and Jordan. Dictatorial regimes, not the people, control Iran and the Palestinian Authority. Only in Israel do the people go to the polls to chart their nation’s course, in elections that are heatedly contested and democratic to the core. That core includes Israel’s Arab citizens, who turned out in near-record numbers to vote, and won 13 seats — more than a tenth of the Knesset.
Americans stand with Israel because in it they recognize a liberal democracy much like their own. Last week’s election leaves Israelis trying to figure out their immediate political future. But about their enduring commitment to liberty and self-government, there is no doubt at all.