The portion of the Jewish Bible that was read in all synagogues last Saturday had to do among other things with God’s punishment of those who speak ill of others (lashon hara), namely a skin disease commonly believed to refer to leprosy. On April 9, the Israeli electorate had gone to the polls to elect a new parliament (the Knesset). Israel can now expect to suffer an outbreak of leprosy of Biblical proportions, since the election campaign consisted primarily of scurrilous personal attacks by the various political leaders contending for the Knesset.
The campaign was almost devoid of policy content and revolved around support of or opposition to longtime Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (“Bibi”), who in July will surpass the time in office of the until now longest-serving prime minister, the George Washington of Israel, David Ben-Gurion.
The main factor in the election was the formation of a new party, led by a trio of former armed-forces chiefs of staff. The party chairman, retired Lieutenant-General Benny Gantz, gathered the “anyone but Bibi” vote, and on that basis, despite the fact that it was impossible to discern any significant difference between him and Bibi on policy grounds, harvested a very respectable crop of parliamentary seats, 35 out of 120, only one fewer than Netanyahu’s Likud party. The rest of the of the Knesset seats were shared by the two ultra-religious Jewish parties, the two Arab coalitions and other smaller groups.
Netanyahu is putting together his coalition and will undoubtedly be asked by President Reuven Rivlin to form a government, which he will have no difficulty doing. That will be the easy part. The harder part will come afterwards.
Israel is a scientific, technological and military powerhouse, but is saddled with a seriously dysfunctional political system and serious social, economic and international problems, as well as opportunities. The economy, after several good years, is beginning to slow down and the modest budget deficit is beginning to grow. Shortages of skilled and semi-skilled labor continue to evade solution.
Integration of the ultra-Orthodox population and the Muslim Arab population, together representing more than 30% of the population, into the greater Israeli society continues to be a problem, and the new Nation-State Law, which proclaims Israel to be the nation-state of the Jewish people, emphasized by Netanyahu during the campaign is not helping, despite signs that integration of both sectors is increasing slowly. Religious and class differences fester, partially due to the lack of effective policies to address them.
This promising development was not helped at all by Netanyahu’s full-throated support of the Nation-State Law, nor by his last-minute declaration that if returned to office he would annex the Jewish settlements on the West Bank
Internationally, Netanyahu’s reign has led to a very substantial increase In the acceptance of Israel around the world, particularly in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Even in the Middle East, great progress was being made in strengthening ties with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Oman through defense and intelligence cooperation directed against the threat to all those countries and Israel by Iran, as well as the push on the part of the Arab Gulf states to diversify their economies, in which Israel could be a very useful partner.
This promising development was not helped at all by Netanyahu’s full-throated support of the Nation-State Law, as noted above, nor by his last-minute declaration that if returned to office he would annex the Jewish settlements on the West Bank.
Most significant, however, are the negative effects of the Israeli political system, which suffers from three serious maladies. First, the members of the Knesset represent no one in particular and thus are answerable to no one, since the voters vote for party and coalition lists, not individual Knesset members from electoral districts. Second, the low minimum number of votes required to enter the Knesset, 3.25% of the total vote, encourages the proliferation of parties. Finally, the system of checks and balances is rudimentary, consisting entirely on the ability of the Supreme Court to overrule legislation on the basis of its being contrary to a set of “Basic Laws” (Israel has no constitution).
To address these deficiencies several things need to be done, among them raising the minimum number of votes required to enter the Knesset and establishing a system of electoral districts to encourage accountability. Another thing needs to be avoided. The ability of the Supreme Court to override legislation is under severe attack and should be defended. Luckily, one of its most dangerous opponents was not re-elected, so for the time being the court should be safe.
However, the new government’s duration is questionable. Netanyahu will likely be indicted for corruption and may have to resign. If that is the case, the best outcome would be a government of national unity made up of the new Blue and White Party of Gantz and the Likud under new leadership. The two parties together, without the fringe parties, would have a very healthy majority and for the most part, policies to be adopted would not be a problem. If Bibi refuses to resign, however, his fate will be determined by the Supreme Court, and whatever the court decides will be highly controversial and every fissure in the political and social structure of Israeli society will be strained, perhaps to the breaking point.
Conclusion: The next year or so will be crucial for the future of the Jewish state, and thus for the Middle East. Its repercussions will be felt around the world.