With one day remaining before Israel’s Knesset elections, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party appears poised to fall at least four seats short of its principal rival, the Zionist Camp (an amalgam of the Labor Party led by Yitzhak Herzog, and the remains of the Kadimah party led by Tzipi Livni), presently polling at about 25 seats. Many pundits are now daring to suggest that a stable Left/Center coalition – unthinkable for well over a decade – may now be in the offing.
The truth is quite different. Unless a real upset occurs, the brute mathematics of Israeli politics suggest that it will be nearly impossible for anyone to build a stable coalition that can also govern the country. The President of Israel, Re’uven Rivlin, understands this well. Last week he summoned Netanyahu and Herzog to his residence in order to deliver a caution: when the election results are posted, instead of charging one of them to try to form a coalition, he may call on the two rivals to form a national unity government simply for the purpose of revising the electoral system. His well-founded fear is that the Israeli electoral system can’t produce stable coalition blocks and is lapsing into something resembling Italian-style paralysis.
Few American observers understand the extent of the Israeli political stalemate, even though it threatens to boomerang on US foreign policy in the region – again. Despite news flashes that Netanyahu’s political end may be near, he still faces a much shorter path to a forming a parliamentary majority. That holds, even if the Likud party – now polling at about 21 seats – garners fewer votes than the Zionist Camp. In tandem with its right wing allies (the 17-odd seats of the ‘Jewish Home’ and ‘Israel is Our Home’ parties), Likud has a clear path to what Bibi calls a ‘natural’ coalition with the ultra-orthodox factions (another 17-odd seats). Netanyahu can fatten those margins by extorting the participation of centrist parties whose leaders genuinely fear the social and economic costs of the same ‘natural’ coalition’s rule. Coalitional stability will be achieved at the expense of governance. This is not a new story. Since the 1990s, the two logics – getting to a 61-seat majority in Israel’s Parliament on the one hand, and actually forming a coherent sensus communis out of an increasingly fragmented electorate on the other – have been growing ever more orthogonal.
Conversely, if present polling figures hold, Herzog’s and Livni’s Zionist Camp cannot make its way to a stable governing coalition very easily. To arrive at suitable numbers, the Zionist Camp would have to break an established taboo and form a coalition with what is expected to be the Knesset’s third-largest block, and its newest – the Joint List, a coalition of Arab parties now polling at about 13 seats. The Zionist Camp would then have to persuade its other would-be coalition partners to do the same. The pressure on those parties to defect would be enormous, and would only grow, if serious peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority were to resume. The Zionist Camp’s only other option is an assortment of Orthodox parties, which would have, somehow, to be persuaded to sit in tandem with the same centrist parties that are intent upon checking their power.
Whether from the left or the right, then, the essential crisis of Israeli parliamentary democracy remains the same: there is an irreducible gap between coalitional stability and political legitimacy.
This situation explains the current rise of Israel’s centrist parties, which together account for a block of approximately 20 Knesset seats. Popular support for them has been fueled by the electorate’s prioritization of social and economic justice concerns in a country that now boasts the largest gap on the planet between rich and poor. As we’ve argued elsewhere, however, the turn to ‘social issues’ – housing, health, and education – is actually an evasion. That is, it is a means to avoid a direct confrontation between average citizens and those extorting, through coalitional blackmail and the implicit threat of extra-judicial violence, the ongoing maintenance of two overlapping para-states: one in the occupied territories, and one in ‘Israel proper’. The former boasts an enormous, state-supported public housing project and an equally large, and equally expensive, mechanism for systematically containing and dispossessing Palestinians. The latter is rigorously committed to a constant, moralizing rhetoric of free-market capitalism and public-sector belt-tightening – except when coalition obligations demand monumental ‘side payments’ to clerical parties for parallel and separate infrastructures in housing, education, and more.
The unspoken convention – and this is why talk of ‘social issues’ is actually an evasion – is to deny that these ‘para-states’ even exist, or that their constituents’ support of Israel is anything but conditional.
According to this ‘public secret,’ the separate infrastructures of the occupation and of the clerics can’t be challenged seriously, and the State is expected to survive on what remains. If the public sector in ‘Israel proper’ is starved of funds, it is because of greedy plutocrats and inter-ethnic and secular-religious rivalries among Israeli Jews, rather than because of the enormous costs of occupation and settlement building. While it should, theoretically, be possible to confront this convention, doing so cuts across the map of electoral politics as presently constituted. No matter how many times one plays the ‘fantasy coalition’ generators like the on Israel TV’s Channel 2, all Israeli elections result in a de facto preferential democracy.
The math is clear. There is no viable coalition that can govern Israel, except by renouncing governance in favor of an intolerable status quo and by periodic turns to military unilateralism. Israel’s democracy cannot function except in dysfunction, as the centrifugal forces of income inequality, territorial para-politics, and sectarian kleptocracy continue to fragment the polity and the state even further. The question is, for how long?