The Jerusalem Post
Every politician is a king?
The ongoing political crisis is creating a new normal in which anyone can reach the top
From the day that the president tasks someone with the chore of setting up a government, until that person either fails or succeeds 28 days later, one need not pay too much attention to what the parties and their leaders are saying.
One could actually go to sleep, Rip Van Winkle-style, the day after the mandate was given, and wake up on the day of the deadline for forming a government, and not miss all that much politically.
Sure, there would have been a lot of talk and promises and threats and speculation, but it all wouldn’t have meant that much. It is all posturing and spinning; all efforts to place pressure on one party or manipulate another.
We are currently in that odd period in the calendar when– at least regarding politics – it is nearly impossible to tell truth from fiction, figure out what is real and what is false, and separate the wheat from the chaff. Because there is no period in the calendar, Jewish or Gregorian, when politicians spin more untruths than during that month of coalition negotiations.
On Monday Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will have used up two of his four allotted weeks – he may get a two-week extension if he asks – in trying to form a coalition.
Though the media are full of political stories, of the Likud spokesman saying “x,” sources close to Yamina head Naftali Bennett saying “y,” and officials in Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope Party saying “z,” few really know what is going on, and what deals are being discussed or made behind closed doors. The public has no real way of differentiating a trial balloon meant to test the waters, from a concrete proposal that is real.
But what the public does know and can feel after four inconclusive elections in two years is that certain elements of Israeli politics are changing, certain norms of how things are being done, or what to expect, are being altered as the country’s politicians search for a way to scratch their way out of the current political mess.
Here are three ways the ongoing coalition crisis is changing Israeli political norms... and not necessarily for the better.
Every bastard a king
The above, a title of a 1968 Uri Zohar film, could very well be the name of a future documentary on the aftermath of the March 2021 Israeli elections
There once was a time, not long ago, when a party that won seven seats in the elections would set its sights on one midsize ministry and one smaller one.
Like in 1996, when Natan Sharansky’s Yisrael B’Aliya party won seven seats and joined Netanyahu’s first government after receiving the Immigrant and Absorption Ministry for Yuli Edelstein, and the Industry and Trade ministry for Sharansky.
Or in 2006, when the Gil Pensioners party of Rafi Eitan joined Ehud Olmert’s government after receiving the Pensioner Affairs Ministry for Eitan, and the Health Ministry for Ya’akov Ben-Yezri.
Nine years later Shas, which won seven seats in the 2015 elections, demanded from Netanyahu – and received – the Interior Ministry for Arye Deri and the Religious Affairs Ministry for Yitzhak Vaknin.
But none of the above – neither Sharansky nor Eitan nor Deri – would have dreamed then that their seven-seat show in the elections would have allowed them to stake a claim to the Prime Minister’s Office.
But that was then, when politicians had more humble ambitions, or before there was hyper ministerial inflation as a result of never-ending elections. Now Bennett is eyeing at least part of the premiership – either in rotation with Netanyahu or with Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid – having won just seven seats in the election.
Forget about the question of what legitimacy a man who won just 273,836 votes out of more than 4.4 million cast has to stake a claim on being prime minister. That is an entirely different question. But the very claim itself, and the fact that it is being entertained seriously, has opened a Pandora’s box.
If Bennett is claiming a piece of the prime ministerial pie in negotiations with Netanyahu while weighing in with all of seven seats, then why should Shas, which won nine seats, not do the same? If Netanyahu, with 30 seats, has to split time with Bennett, then why should he not also have to do the same with Deri?
There were reports this week that Deri would indeed demand to be part of a rotation agreement if Netanyahu agreed to rotate jobs with Bennett. At the same time, Deri admitted in an interview with the haredi Kol Hai radio station that this situation is absurd. “It is not natural, democratic or right for a party that got seven seats, or nine seats, to ask to be prime minister,” he said.
Now that Bennett is making this claim, expect similar demands to be put forward by small parties key to the formation of future governments as well. Why should any party with seven seats in the future suffice with a demand for the Tourism Ministry, when it can now legitimately ask for half a term as prime minister?
Get used to hearing about “parity” governments
Following the second election in the current cycle in September 2019, President Reuven Rivlin gathered together Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz and urged them to form what he called a “paritetic,” or parity, government, where the government would be made up of two equal blocs. The idea never took off, until Israel held yet another round of inconclusive elections the following March, and the nation was battered by the coronavirus.
Then, what looked like a bad idea in September suddenly seemed like a bright one in April, and a Likud-Blue and White parity government was set up, with Netanyahu and Gantz agreeing to rotate positions, and with the government evenly split between ministers identifying with each bloc.
At first it seemed like a wonderfully clever and creative idea, one that worked when
Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir, each unable to form a government on his own, set one up in 1984. It was a throwback, in fact, to some local governments in medieval Germany where public offices were split equally in half between Catholics and Protestants.
But it didn’t work, or as Deri – who was part of the Netanyahu bloc in his government with Gantz – put it in his Kol Hai interview: “I was there, and I know that with parity it is impossible to do anything.”
With a government split 50-50 between two blocs, with the prime minister unable to fire one of the ministers in the other bloc, with each bloc having veto power over the other, with an alternate prime minister waiting in the wings for his shot, nothing moves. Parity is a recipe for political paralysis.
While in theory such a government should be able to deal with immediate issues over which there is no great ideological debate – such as COVID-19 – even that became difficult under the previous government.
Even though the last government
fell within months of being set up, even though parity proved a failure, it is very much being discussed again now in the event that Netanyahu is unable to form a government, and Lapid will get a shot and try to cobble together a coalition including Yamina and Sa’ar’s party on the Right, and Meretz and Labor on the Left, in a parity government.
But governments need a leader who can make decisions, set the tone, and fire recalcitrant ministers. If the parity government did not work just a few months ago, why would one think it would work now? Discussing the idea in earnest reveals an inability to learn from failure.
The presidency as cheap political currency
Stuck in a political logjam, various creative solutions are being discussed to set the country free – and many of them involve the President’s Office.
With Rivlin’s tenure due to expire in July, and the Knesset set to elect his successor next month, all of a sudden the role of the president is not being viewed as some lofty position for a unifier of the nation, but, rather, as a bone to be thrown at a politician to get him out of the way.
For weeks there has been talk of the following scenario to end the enduring political crisis: Netanyahu would be voted in as president by a simple majority of 61 MKs, someone else would take over the head of the Likud and, within a couple of days, be able to put together a government.
Another scenario bandied about this week is that Sa’ar, and not Netanyahu, would be elected as the country’s president, which would then enable his New Hope Party to enter a government led by Netanyahu.
Why would this be necessary? Because Sa’ar said repeatedly during the campaign that he would not serve under Netanyahu – a man who he said is not fit to rule. But if Sa’ar became president, he would not have to go back on his word, and his political career would be saved. Moving to the President’s Residence would pave the way for someone else to lead the party who might have fewer compunctions about breaking a campaign promise and joining a Netanyahu-led coalition.
Though there is something attractive in both of these proposals – in that they would free up the bottleneck – there is also something disturbing in the President’s Office becoming nothing less than
cheap political currency.
The role of the president in this country has always been a bit unusual. The presidency is a mostly ceremonial position, with the president holding very little real power, outside of the ability to grant pardons. He is akin to a king-lite, but without a long history or any deep-seated respect for the institution among the people.
Over the years various presidents have tried to serve as a unifying force for the country, and the job has been given to personalities of long accomplishments. But Netanyahu is currently the most polarizing figure in the country, and Sa’ar – even though he served as a cabinet secretary and held two ministerial posts – would not at this time bring any great gravitas to the position.
Over the years there has been some talk, though it never gained a great deal of traction, about doing away with the institution of the presidency. Now, if that position is seen by the public as nothing more than a place to move politicians to get them out of the way, don’t be surprised if in the near future questions will be asked again about whether Israel really needs this ceremonial – and not inexpen