As the saying goes, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting a different result. If that’s the case, then Israelis are surely considering institutionalizing themselves, or at least their politicians. After an unprecedented fourth election in only two years, the political situation is again deadlocked. There is no indication that any party or leader can form a stable coalition government.
So why are we here, with Israel in political turmoil and no clarity in sight? The reason is not ideological fracturing. Israeli politics is actually quite stable from election to election. As is the case this year, the parties of the right tend to get about 65 seats, the parties of the left about 45 seats, and the parties of the Arab community about 10 seats. As Americans we look at lots of small parties and think they are the cause of instability, but long-term coalitions among multiple factions are common in Israeli history.
Certainly there have been divisive splits within these ideological groupings. On the right there are secular parties that oppose the influence of the ultra-Orthodox, for example, but it should be possible to create a coalition if the deciding factor was ideology alone.
The dividing line in Israeli politics today, and the reason there is no stability, is simply the presence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In fact, Israeli media groups the two blocs of parties in the vote as “Pro-Netanyahu” and “Anti-Netanyahu”. Despite his impressive success in vaccinating the country, bringing the coronavirus outbreak under control, and securing historic normalization agreements with Arab nations, he was unable to win a decisive victory in the election.
Netanyahu does not have enough votes in the upcoming Knesset to be the next prime minister, but while his opponents do have more than the 61 needed, they are too divided. There is little confidence that right-wing former Likudniks could sit together in a coalition with members of the Arab Joint List or the left-wing Meretz party.
For Israel to go forward with a coalition government, something dramatic will be necessary. Netanyahu reminds me a bit of Margaret Thatcher, who also dominated her country’s politics for over a decade, but in the end whose domineering style instigated a revolt in her party. She was forced to give up the premiership not because she lost an election, but because she lost the confidence of her party. Perhaps Netanyahu is somehow pushed out in the next few weeks.
One other intriguing possibility is that Netanyahu does what was once unthinkable and rely on the support of an Arab party in order to hold on to leadership of the country. There is a small conservative Islamic party that could give him a possible pathway to a government. In the past, it was unthinkable (by both Jews and Arabs) for an Arab faction to join a coalition, but in reality, the Islamic party shares ideology with the right in Israel, particularly Orthodox parties.
There are significant obstacles to a Netanyahu-led right-wing and Islamic government, but the prospect of yet another snap election might change some minds. An Arab party joining, or at least supporting, a coalition, would be a game-changer for Israeli politics and a real positive step forward for the country truly becoming a multiethnic democracy. And it might save the nation from the insane asylum.