Israel is heading for its third election in a year

Deadlocked by many of the same factors as Britain's, Israel's electoral system may offer a glimpse of our political future.

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If madness is doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results, Israel’s political system could perhaps be certified insane. After months of frustrated attempts to form a governing coalition, voters will head to the polls yet again on 2 March 2020, following elections in April and September this year.

Forming a government has become a Sisphean task for Israeli lawmakers. After April’s election, lawmakers voted to dissolve Knesset and call another election in September, after Netanyahu failed to form a coalition. At that time, rather than return his mandate to the president so his main rival, former Israeli army chief Benny Gantz, could have a go, a Netanyahu ally introduced a bill to dissolve Knesset and head for elections in September. Netanyahu is nothing if not a sore loser. But this, too, failed to provide a conclusive victory. President Reuven Rivlin urged the two main parties, Gantz's centrist Blue and White alliance and Netanyahu's right-wing Likud, to form a unity government. But with no member of the Knesset able to drum up sufficient support to lead, Israel now faces its third election in space of a year, a first in the country's short history.

There are a lot of historical firsts here. Israel’s political groundhog day is not in any way normal; it is indicative of a broken system.

Another historical first was reached in November, when it was revealed that Netanyahu was to face indictment on criminal charges, the first sitting prime minister to be in that position. As Yair Lapid, one of Blue and White’s leaders said on Wednesday, “there are only three reasons for this election — bribery, fraud and breach of trust."

Israel’s stalemate is proof that snap elections don't necessarily restart the system. This is something that British voters, who head to the polls today in their own snap election (and the second in a short period), are familiar with. Polling over the last few weeks shows the March 2020 election is unlikely to break the deadlock.

Israeli politics uses a system of proportional representation that yields a never-ending list of political permutations and marriages of convenience. This makes it, perhaps, more likely to struggle for conclusive results than the UK’s first-past-the-post system. But a number of contributing factors to Israel’s stalemate will sound familiar to British voters. The first is a divided electorate. The Israeli electorate leans right, with the right moving further towards the extreme of the spectrum, and the majority of voters on the left moving towards the centre in recent years. Voters are broadly split between a bloc of right-wing and religious parties, and a bloc of centrist, left-wing, and Arab majority parties. The country's politics are defined by deep disagreements over the future direction of the country, over which neither side will compromise – just as in the UK's Brexit division.

The added complication in Israel is that this lack of compromise is embodied in a political figure: Netanyahu. The loyalty of his party, and the bloc of 55 Knesset members from the right and religious parties that stuck with him through the most recent round of fruitless coalition negotiations despite the criminal charges he faces, highlight how loyal some Israelis seem to be to him. In polling published by the Walla news website on 10 December, while 38 per cent of voters said Gantz was more qualified to be prime minister, a sizeable and similar chunk — 37 per cent — still said Netanyahu was more suitable. This is despite the fact that his legal proceedings could drag on for the best part of next year, if not longer. When it came to right-wing voters, 58 per cent thought he was most suitable for the job.

When the criminal charges against him were announced last month, Netanyahu responded by playing the victim, calling it an attempted "coup", blaming political persecution by a left-wing establishment for a “tainted” investigation and urging the country to “investigate the investigators”. At a pro-Netanyahu rally in Tel Aviv last month, shunned by leading members of Netanyahu’s Likud, a few thousand supporters repeated these charges. Throughout, Netanyahu has been accusing the other side of collaboration with a “fifth column” of majority Arab parties, race-baiting and delegitimising 20 per cent of Israel’s voting citizens.

This disdain for elites, suspicion of the establishment and dog-whistle racism are all now grimly familiar to voters in Britain and beyond. The clash between populism and the democratic process is creating stalemates around the world.

The paralysis induced by this conflict is also recognisable. Israel has functioned with an interim government for the best part of a year. No budget has been approved for January, and this will not happen before the next election. In the UK, the false concept of “getting Brexit done” has overwhelmed policymaking on all the country’s other pressing issues, save for promises made over the past six weeks to win voters over at the ballot box.

At the same time, however, both the UK and Israel have talented politicians who are serious about helping citizens. Ayman Odeh, leader of the Arab majority Joint List – the third-largest party in all recent polls, with 13 seats – has shown dignity in the face of Netanyahu's racial taunting. When the PM warned of the existential threat posed by Arab majority parties, Odeh tweeted a picture of himself reading a bedtime story to his children – or as he referred to them in the tweet, his "existential threats".

Pragmatism, vision and compromise have not disappeared. Perhaps it will be third time lucky for Israel, although there clearly are areas where compromise seems impossible. Many Israeli lawmakers, for example, do not want the country to be led by a PM under indictment. There are other ideological and political positions, too, that seem immovable, from the moribund peace process with the Palestinians to the separation (or not) of religion and state. Either way, Israel’s experience shows where polarisation and entrenchment take democracy – into a bitter argument, with no end in sight. 

Alona Ferber is Special Projects Editor at the New Statesman.