Israel’s democracy is facing a stress test

Societal fissures and ideological and cultural divisions have resulted in an offensive and antagonistic politics

Published - March 27, 2021 12:02 am IST

Israel is past its fourth election in less than two years, is in search of political stability and, once again, faces the crisis of not having a leader who can form a coalition government and survive a full term. The election results now have highlighted a fractured mandate where there are 13 parties, most with single digit seats; it is only the Likud party (right-wing, nationalist and neo-liberal) led by Benjamin Netanyahu that has 30 seats out of 120 seats of Parliament. Mr. Netanyahu has lost his political magic but Israel is unable to go beyond him.

Coalitions are the reality

The Likud party could very well be in a position to get to 61 seats with its meagre 30 seats by forming a coalition with other smaller parties that share the same ideological leanings and have the usual partners such as Shas (Haredi religious party with nine seats), Yamina, the new right with seven seats, Religious Zionist Party with its six seats, and United Torah Judaism with its seven seats. Single party majority is a mirage in Israel, while a coalition government is the reality. Yet, the Likud plus these do not ensure that the figure of 61 can be reached and this is where Mr. Netanyahu is an issue. Parties led by second-rank leaders such as Yair Lapid, Benny Gantz or Gideon Sa’ar are opposed to him as he is the first Israeli Prime Minister on trial for three criminal cases — bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Benny Gantz formed a coalition with Mr. Netanyahu in the last election, in 2020, even when he campaigned on a single agenda, which was ‘No Netanyahu’. It was a political calculation that affected his seat tally. In the last three elections, he got seats in the order of 35-33-33, respectively.

Weak spots in the system

The Prime Minister in Israel does not have to resign when charged and indicted in court — any other Minister or the President of state has to step down. This strange legal loophole has given a very long rope to Mr. Netanyahu who not only is in office but could contest election after election. Israel does not have a full drawn Constitution; it does not have an institutional mechanism therefore to uphold public trust and the legal dignity of the highest political office.

For a decade it has been Mr. Netanyahu who could form multiple alliances and coopt smaller parties (ultra-religious, economic liberals, nationalist, settlers, etc.) behind his strong leadership. Since 1996 (the year Mr. Netanyahu became Prime Minister for the first time), governments in Israel have lasted for an average 2.3 years. Once a unifier and a decisive leader, he has now become the dividing figure in Israeli domestic politics. The last four elections, (in April and September 2019, March 2020 and now on March 23, 2021) have pushed the limits of Israeli electoral politics to new levels. Israel is now a leading democracy in the world with the most frequent national elections, a phenomenon which has exposed its deep-seated internal weakness. Israel does not have a basic common agenda any more.

For a long time, the issue of its conflict with neighbours and the Palestinians has served as a catalyst for national politics. But now, societal cleavages and ideological and cultural divisions have resulted in an offensive and antagonistic politics. Israel stands deeply divided and exposed.

Disintegration of society

The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), a Tel Aviv-based think tank, published its annual as well as a decade-long forecast of Israel’s security at the end of 2020. The INSS is a highly ranked think tank that works very closely with the state. An inevitable war with the Hezbollah and Iran’s nuclearisation are the two top threats to Israel’s national security projected in 2021-2030. The third issue that has posed another existential threat is the internal disintegration of Israeli society, leading to the loss of its social cohesion and its identity as a Jewish and democratic state. The long phase of dysfunction in the Israeli government (during the last decade when Mr. Netanyahu has been leading the most number of governments), is one of the greatest threats. This is the first time that the INSS’s report points to internal domestic issues (not the conventional threats from outside) as being a major threat to the country’s strategic situation.

Israeli society was divided from the country’s inception, but Zionist labour was successful in working a common consensus. In-gathering of exiles, having the desert bloom and reviving the land of milk and honey were some of the threads used to weave a story that could unite culturally diverse and multiple ethnic groups among Jews.

After the rise of right-wing nationalist parties and a religious revival, post the 1967 war, there has been no common story to work with. Domestic schisms became aggravated and the multiple crises during COVID-19 did not help strengthen the fragile socio-economic fabric. All this affects the stability and the shared values that have characterised Israeli society and the way of life. Meanwhile, Israeli governments mirror the Indian phenomenon of the ‘ aaya ram, gaya ram ’ kind of coalition woes.

The President of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, has been expressing his anguish over this situation for a long time now. While the last government failed to complete even a year and collapsed, he said “there is a pressing need to revive the trust between the citizens of Israel and the state. That trust was damaged in the past year — seriously, maybe even critically”.

India must take note

The inner political crisis of Israel is a wake-up call for Indian democracy. There are many in India who look up to the Israeli model of a military-led national security, its abilities to retaliate and carry out surgical strikes as well as its aggressive pursuit of power. This model may not serve Indian national security in the long run as the Israeli story unfolds. Strong nations are often those with social cohesion, common values and an inner-capacity for dialogue and compromise. Many of my students are surprised that Israel is also a weak, vulnerable, deeply divided society — contrary to what they gather from stories of the Israeli Army, Mossad and television series such as Fauda . Israel may not have a new stable government soon and there is already a situation developing — of a deadlock that might push Israelis to a fifth election. It is indeed a defining moment for Israeli democracy.

Khinvraj Jangid is Associate Professor and Director, Jindal Centre for Israel Studies, Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat, Haryana

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.