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TEL AVIV – Israel’s new government, formally formed yesterday, is attracting a lot of attention, largely for one reason: It marks the end of Benjamin Netanyahu’s more than twelve-year term. But this new government may be just as important for another reason: it marks the beginning of an era in which Israel no longer has a real prime minister.
In nominal terms, Israel’s new Prime Minister is Naftali Bennett. But since his small right-wing Yamina party controls only six of the Knesset’s 120 seats, it needed partners to form a government. The coalition now includes seven other parties from across the ideological spectrum, and they agree on very little. They agree that Mr. Bennett should not represent them for the duration of the term. Instead, in two years’ time, he is slated to hand over control of the Prime Minister’s office to Yair Lapid, leader of the center-left Yesh Atid.
And therein lies the constitutional revolution.
Mr. Bennett is now a partial Prime Minister; Mr. Lapid will become partial prime minister in two years. In reality, no one can do anything without the consent of the other, since a law gives practically everyone a veto. So the result is more like the old Roman system with 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 hugely successful unity government led by Yitzhak Shamir of the Likud Party and Shimon Peres of the Labor Party. But there was no deputy prime minister back then as in the Bennett-Lapid administration. Mr Shamir and Mr Peres had to master their partnership without a legal arrangement that restricted the prime minister’s power to make his own decisions. When Mr Peres ended his term as Prime Minister, he resigned and Mr Shamir was appointed.
A year ago, Mr Netanyahu formed a government with rival Benny Gantz by promising him that Mr Gantz would replace him after two years. However, due to the distrust between them, a change was made to the constitutional structure. Mr. Gantz has been appointed Deputy Prime Minister. This didn’t help much, of course, as Mr. Netanyahu never really intended for his rival to replace him. And so the deal broke up pretty quickly and, predictably, the government was bogged down.
Mr. Bennett and Mr. Lapid start their partnership much nicer, and they seem intent on making it work. Nevertheless, they decided to keep the power sharing system developed by their predecessors. You have to: With so few MPs to support him, Mr. Bennett’s veto is his assurance that his partners will outmaneuver. For his part, Mr. Lapid needs his veto to make sure that he has not only given his rival full power. Moreover, it was only a broad coalition that could achieve the common goal: the ousting of Mr. Netanyahu.
So there were good reasons to revert to a supposedly one-off rule. The problem is that it is hard now to see a future coalition that does not pursue the same arrangement.
Israel, which held four elections in two years because it was unable to form a government, is a divided and polarized country. There is no natural majority in government, and it seems that complex coalitions will be necessary to form a government in the years to come. In such a situation there will always be a party that can form or break a coalition. The leader of such a party will always want more power. If Mr Gantz, with half the seats of Mr Netanyahu’s Likud, could make such a request – and if Mr Bennett could make such a request with a third of Yesh Atids – then power-sharing agreements are the right thing to hold our future. Instead of having one powerful prime minister, as was the political tradition of Israel, we will now have two.
Doesn’t this lead to a permanent deadlock where no leader is able to make bold and necessary decisions? Maybe sometimes. Take the controversial issue of Israeli control of the West Bank. In a power-sharing government, those who believe Israel must evacuate their settlements there will not get through; 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. Proponents of such marriages will not be able to pass laws, even if they have the votes, because they have no more power in this government than the power of the smaller factions – namely the religious parties – that oppose civil marriage.
Indecision and standstill are clearly real risks to our future of political power-sharing. But there are also potential benefits. While key contentious issues like the fate of the West Bank and the role of religion in society may be difficult to resolve in these conditions, it may finally be possible to resolve others – including more obvious ones – like passing a household after two years without one to allow some public transport on the Sabbath to finally provide the necessary resources to deal with the increase in crime in the Arab community of Israel.
At a time when polarization poses such a grave social and political threat, Israel might have fallen awkwardly into a cure: a forced compromise regime. If this government is a success – as any Israeli would hope – the result could be the courtesy and consensus we have been waiting for.
Schmuel Rosner (@rosnersdomain) is a Tel Aviv columnist, Senior Fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute, and co-founder of the data journalism project TheMadad.com.
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