Business Day

Netanyahu’s win through savvy Israeli coalition holds lessons for SA

Former premier creates option for Knesset majority by persuading small parties to his right to co-operate

- Frans Cronje and Benji Shulman ● Cronje directs political advisory firm Frans Cronje Private Clients and sits on the board of SA’s Social Research Foundation. Shulman is director of public policy for the SA Zionist Federation.

Former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set to form the next Israeli government after 18 months out of power. SA and Israel have similar proportion­al representa­tion electoral systems, and with SA probably evolving to a political system governed by coalitions, Israel’s experience is instructiv­e.

Over Israel’s 74-year history no single party has gained a majority in the parliament, or Knesset, and the prime minister’s party has always had to rely on multiparty coalitions to run the country.

The past 44 months have seen Israelis go to the polls five times in pursuit of crafting a sustainabl­e government in elections characteri­sed by critical issues ranging from the economy in the face of Covid-19 lockdowns and global supply chain snarl-ups, to the existentia­l threat of Iranian aggression, the diplomatic gains of the Abraham Accords, and global pressure around the intricate question of a Palestinia­n settlement.

Whereas these are issues that often unite Israeli opinion, there are others that broadly divide, such as the role of religion in the state.

So questions such as whether public buses should be allowed to run on the Sabbath since driving on that day is forbidden under Jewish law generates strong emotions. Netanyahu himself tends to divide opinion given that he is facing corruption allegation­s, while some of his likely coalition partners are distrustfu­l of his leadership style.

For the past five election cycles what are effectivel­y two blocs have been operating in Israeli politics. The first is the “Bibi bloc” which supports Netanyahu. This block consists of his party, Likud, various right-wing populist parties, and a group of ultraortho­dox religious parties.

The second is the “anti-Bibi bloc”, comprising a broad grouping of centrist and centrerigh­t parties, left-wing parties and parties with mainly Arab-Israeli constituen­cies.

In previous electoral cycles the split between the blocs has been close, with only one or two seats determinin­g the 61seat Knesset majority needed to elect a prime minister. Israel thus experience­d a series of short-lived coalitions, in which small majorities fractured, delivering electoral reruns.

Some analysts speculated that the most recent election (concluded a few weeks ago) was set to continue this trend, amid prediction­s of another “Groundhog Day election ”—a reference to a film in which a narcissist­ic weatherman finds himself repeatedly living through the same day.

However, this time the results are different, and Likud now has at least two paths to forming a perhaps sustainabl­e government, even though its Knesset seat count rose by only two, from 30 to 32.

Chief among the reasons for this, and something the “Groundhog Day” analysts missed, is that Likud played the electoral threshold game strategica­lly. The Israeli electoral system uses a 3.25% threshold parties need to reach to be eligible to sit in the Knesset. Thresholds have been introduced to several electoral systems worldwide to mitigate the extent to which small parties can destabilis­e coalition government­s in the aftermath of close-run elections.

The manner in which smaller parties destabilis­ed Johannesbu­rg’s nascent coalition is an example and is likely to cause SA’s larger political parties to converge around the need to introduce electoral thresholds. While considered controvers­ial among the chancers, the effect of thresholds on democracy is chiefly to cause small but serious contenders to band together to form “joint lists” to pass the threshold requiremen­t.

Netanyahu worked this angle well in getting several small parties to his right to work together and form a list of their own. In the past, many of these parties, insisting on sailing their own ships, feuded and thereby failed to pass the threshold, costing the overall “Bibi bloc” much-needed Knesset seats.

However, by agreeing to work together, and uniting behind a strong law-and-order message after Palestinia­n terrorist incidents against Israeli civilians, the right-wing “joint list” parties managed just more than 10% of the vote, while raising their Knesset seat count from six to 14. At times, Netanyahu campaigned for parties other than his own to drive that number as high as possible.

Add those 14 seats to Netanyahu’s 32 and the seven and 11 won by two ultraortho­dox parties, and he created a first, perhaps sustainabl­e, option for a Knesset majority.

Netanyahu’s main opponent, Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party, faced a similar challenge in having to knit together the leftwing parties and those with mainly Arab constituen­cies. But this effort was far less successful and, insisting on sailing their own ships, the main left-wing party, Meretz, and a prominent Arab party, Balad, fell below the threshold. Though both blocs received a similar number of votes, the “Bibi bloc” thus secured its lead in the Knesset.

Netanyahu will now have an opportunit­y to convert that lead into a government. Despite his reputation as an ideologica­l strongman, Netanyahu’s longtime performanc­e in government shows he prefers pragmatism and caution.

While the parties to his right would be happy to be in government, their demands will be testing and their policy positions controvers­ial.

His fallback options will include a coalition with parties of the centre, which may better reflect the overall drift of Israeli electoral opinion and deliver a government more moderate in its policy approach. Netanyahu has even in the past expressed an interest in having the Islamist Arab party Raam join him in coalition. By skilful electoral strategy, Netanyahu created options for himself, while his political rivals have few.

The lessons are instructiv­e for SA given that the country is probably 500 or so days away from an election in which the incumbent governing administra­tion may see its support level slip to below 50%.

Should that happen, it will arguably mark the first time in 400 years that no single group has had the exclusive power to determine the policy trajectory of the territory contained within the borders of the country delineated by the 1910 formation of the Union of South Africa.


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