TEL AVIV – Israel’s new government, which was officially formed yesterday, is getting a lot of attention, mainly for one reason: it marks the end of more than a dozen years as Prime Minister of Benjamin Netanyahu. But this new government is potentially just as important for another reason: it is the start of an era in which Israel no longer really has a prime minister.
Nominally, the new Prime Minister of Israel is Naftali Bennett. But since his small right-wing party, Yamina, controls only six of the 120 seats in the Knesset, he needed partners to form a government. The coalition now includes seven more parties from all ideological backgrounds, and they agree on very few. What they agree on is that Mr. Bennett should not represent them during the term of office. Instead, in two years he is supposed to cede control of the prime minister’s office to Yair Lapid, the leader of Yesh Atid, a center-left party.
And this is where the constitutional revolution lies.
Mr. Bennett is a partial prime minister now; Mr 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 effectively gives each a veto. Thus, the result is more like the old Roman system of two consuls and less like the traditional Israeli system of a prime minister.
A unity government with a rotating prime minister is not an original idea. In the 1980s, Israel was ruled by a very successful unity government led by Yitzhak Shamir of Likud and Shimon Peres of Labor. But at that time, there was no acting prime minister, as there is in the Bennett-Lapid government. Mr Shamir and Mr Peres had to navigate their partnership without a legal arrangement that diminished the prime minister’s power to make his own decisions. When Mr. Peres finished his tenure as Prime Minister, he resigned and Mr. Shamir was appointed.
A year ago, Mr. Netanyahu formed a government with his rival Benny Gantz by promising him that after two years Mr. Gantz would replace him. But because of the mistrust between them, a change in the constitutional structure was made. Mr Gantz has been appointed Deputy Prime Minister. That, of course, didn’t help much as Mr. Netanyahu never really intended to see his rival replace him. And so the deal dissolved pretty quickly, and the government was, as you might expect, at an impasse.
Mr. Bennett and Mr. Lapid start their partnership much more amicably, and they seem determined to make it work. However, they decided to keep the power-sharing system developed by their predecessors. They must: With so few parliamentarians to back him, Mr. Bennett’s veto is his insurance against the maneuvers of his partners. For his part, Mr Lapid needs his veto to ensure that he does not just cede all power to his rival. Moreover, only a broad coalition could achieve the goal they shared: to overthrow Mr. Netanyahu.
So there were good reasons to go back to what was supposed to be a one-off arrangement. The problem is that it is now difficult to envisage a future coalition that does not use the same device.
Israel, which has held four elections in two years due to its inability to form a government, is a restless and polarized country. There is no natural majority in power and it looks like complex coalitions will be needed to form a government in the 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 Mr. Gantz, with half of Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud seats, could make such a request – and for that matter, if Mr. Bennett, with one-third of Yesh Atid, could make such a request – then the power sharing are what it takes. our future holds. Rather than having one powerful prime minister, as was Israel’s political tradition, we will now have two.
Will this not lead to a permanent state of stalemate in which no leader is able to make bold and necessary decisions? Maybe 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 settlements will not get what they want; those who believe that Israel must annex parts of the territory will not get theirs either. Or take the issue of civil marriage, which is also controversial in Israel. Supporters of allowing such marriages will not be able to pass a law, even if they have the votes, because in this government they have no more power than the power of the smaller factions – namely the religious parties. – who oppose civil marriage.
Clearly, indecision and deadlock are real risks to our future of sharing political power. But there are also potential benefits. While big, controversial issues like the fate of the West Bank and the role of religion in society may be difficult to resolve under these conditions, it may finally be possible to resolve others, including obvious ones, like the adoption of a budget after two years without, to authorize certain public transport on the Sabbath day to finally devote the necessary resources to deal with the upsurge in crime in the Arab community of Israel.
At a time when polarization is such a serious social and political threat, Israel could have awkwardly come across a cure: a regime forced into compromise. If this government is successful – as any Israeli would hope – the result could be the civility and consensus we expected.
Shmuel Rosner (@rosnersdomain) is a Tel Aviv-based columnist and senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute and co-founder of the datajournalism project TheMadad.com.
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