January 28, 2020

A Year Without a Government

An Israeli voter casts a ballot at an election polling station. Photo by Reuters

I’m sorry, but I can’t write a column this week about Israel’s politics. I can’t write on a Tuesday (my deadline) and be certain that on Thursday (when the newspaper comes out), the column will still be relevant. 

I can’t. 

Yet I must. 

David Suissa, the Journal’s editor-in-chief, wouldn’t let me not touch the subject. So I’m trying to write even though it’s impossible to know where Israel is going in the coming days. My intent was to write about the attempt to form a new government, without any discussion of the unknown outcome. In fact, this might not be a bad idea, as the process reveals a few interesting things about Israel today. 

The public can live without a government: Wrong: The public needs a government and has one (it’s not stable or ordinary but it’s still a government). Also, there’s damage in the absence of a functioning government. Deficit deepens, decisions aren’t made, positions aren’t filled. These things will have long-term impacts, and primarily not positive ones. Yet there are no demonstrations, no outrage, no unrest, no sense of urgency or desperation. People pretty much got used to having this background noise. Most often, it’s ignored.

The right-Orthodox alliance is very strong: In the year since the last functioning government collapsed, Likud (the main party of the right) and the Charedi parties had opportunities to join coalitions without each other. For a long time, they resisted the temptation and stuck together. They should be credited for taking the long view rather than opting for short-term gains. If the right-wingers and the Orthodox remain a bloc, they seem invincible. They can always win, but no else can win without them either. 

There is no vacuum: When the government doesn’t function, it creates an opportunity for other actors to assert themselves. In the past year, municipalities changed Israel in various ways. For instance, starting this weekend, there will be public transportation on Shabbat in the Tel Aviv area, funded by city hall, supported by the public. The old state-religion status quo is dead. By the time Israel has a new government, facts on the ground will create a new baseline for discussion. 

Many seats can have little use: The political gain isn’t based just on numbers. It’s also based on legitimacy. To be a player, one has to be able to join a group but the Arabs don’t have a group. The Zionist Camp accepts them as partners, maybe the Labor Party, too. But the coaches of the major teams, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud) and Benny Gantz (Blue and White) still consider their recruitment problematic. We often see it in sports: outstanding players who can’t contribute to a team. The Arab Party can’t. 

Arab Israelis leaped into political existence: Arabs suddenly are taking part in the political conversation. Some of their political representatives are problematic but the public realizes that Israeli Arabs want and deserve to have a voice. In fact, the last rounds of party negotiations made the political partnership with Israeli Arabs more appealing than ever. Part of it is out of  spite: If Netanyahu is so opposed to them being part of the coalition, then “we” must embrace such an option. But it’s not just that. It’s also the realization among many Israelis that most Arabs want to be productive and successful citizens in their state. Are they always pleased with this state? No. Do they fully and unquestionably identify with its Zionist ethos? No. But on both these questions, they are not the only ones who take no for an answer.