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Professor Friedberg discusses unseating Netanyahu

WVU Law Jim Friedberg

Jim Friedberg, the Hale J. and Roscoe P. Poston Professor of Law at WVU, discusses the political situation in Israel that culminated on June 2, 2021, with the formation of an unlikely coalition to remove Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Friedberg's expertise includes international law.

Why was June 2, 2021, important in Israeli politics?

A coalition of parties from the political right, center and left, as well as an Arab-Israeli party, got together to form a coalition government probably to replace Benjamin Netanyahu after 12 years of his holding power as prime minister.

Why do you say “probably”?

Because a further step is necessary before a new government can be formed and a prime minister selected.

On the night of June 2, eight political parties agreed to form a coalition that theoretically would create a majority in the Israeli parliament – the Knesset – and enable that majority to select the next prime minister.

However, the required Knesset confirmation vote will not happen for another week or so. During that time, Netanyahu and his allies will try to get defections from the new majority that would defeat attempts to replace him.

Then what?

The vote of confidence for the proposed new government would fail and the Knesset would have a few weeks more to select a new prime minister.

If the vote of confidence fails, that seems unlikely, wouldn’t it?

Of course. And then the only alternative would be a new parliamentary election — the fifth in less than two years. Given the four previous deadlocks, the chances of a clear victory for anybody seems slim.

So, what happens in the meantime?

Netanyahu remains prime minister on a temporary basis until a permanent one is chosen.

Why does the Israeli election system seem so complicated?

Because it is. Any party with 3.5% of the vote gets into the Knesset. Seats are distributed by proportional representation.

That means, unlike the U.S., candidates are not running for a particular district but are running on party lists. A party with 30% of the vote would get 30% of the Knesset seats. A party with 15% of the vote would get 15% of the seats, and so on. Not all candidates are equal. The ones at the top of the party lists get their seats first until that party’s proportion is met.

In the most recent election in March, a couple of dozen parties fielded candidates, with 13 of them crossing the 3.5% threshold. Basic arithmetic tells us, in such a situation, no one is going to get an absolute majority, and a coalition among a number of parties with different ideological bents is necessary to reach the majority of seats (61) needed to appoint a prime minister.

The system exists this way because that is the way Israel’s Basic Law on Elections dictates it.

Why have there been four elections in less than two years?

Because of the very same proportional representation system described above. Elections have been held and each time, no one has been able to form a majority coalition.

Does Israel have a written constitution?

Not really. The original declaration of independence in 1948 set up the first Knesset, which was to function as a constitutional convention. It was unable to achieve that goal. Instead, over the decades, a handful of so-called Basic Laws have been passed to make the structures and procedures of democratic government possible.

As long as a Basic Law exists, other legislative and executive actions must be consistent with it. However, a Basic Law may be amended or repealed by parliament whenever it chooses. Generally speaking, the last act by parliament controls — sort of like Great Britain.

Since the parliament chooses the Prime minister, does that mean there is no separation of powers the way we have in the United States?

Yes, it means that to some degree. As in most parliamentary democracies, there is not the kind of separation between the legislative and executive branches that we have in the U.S. The legislative branch essentially chooses the executive. However, a strong prime minister might have much more control over government than a U.S. President when faced with a Congress of a different party.

On the other hand, Israel’s Supreme Court has been fairly independent and often a check on executive or legislative action that contradicted Basic Law or democratic principles. In fact, such independence of the judiciary is the focus of an ongoing struggle in Israelis politics and has been an element of the present coalition negotiations among the anti-Netanyahu parties. Both the left-wing Labor Party and the right-wing Yamina Party are seeking greater control on the judicial committee that appoints the Supreme Court.

Why would left-wing, moderate, right-wing, and Arab Israelis cooperate to form a government?

Because so many in Israel are tired of the government of Netanyahu because of corruption indictments against him and personal animosity. Moderates and liberals detest his policies. Even former right-wing allies view him as an obstacle to the country moving forward to address its problems.

So, we have Naftali Bennett, who is against an independent Arab state of Palestine, in coalition with the Labor Party and the Meretz Party, who are vehemently in favor of a two-state solution as the only way to end the conflict with the Palestinians. And we even have an Arab party joining in with right-wing Israelis who have been none too supportive of Arab interests. The one thing the eight parties in this new coalition have in common is their opposition to Netanyahu.

Is this the first time this has happened during Israel’s existence since 1948?

Yes. There has never before been this broad of a coalition of the hard right, the hard left and an Arab party.

Why did only one Arab party join the coalition?

Interestingly, it was an Islamist party. Right-wing on social issues, but more pragmatic than the more liberal or leftist Arab parties in regard to its willingness to join a coalition with perceived enemies like Bennett.

Mansour Abbas, the Islamist party’s leader, has been willing to settle for gains in living conditions for his constituents (a halt to housing demolitions and an increase in social benefits for Arab-Israelis) rather than dealing with issues of Palestinian sovereignty.

Is this a done deal — is Netanyahu now out of office?

No, as I mentioned, if he gets defections from the right-wing of the new coalition, the coalition will fail to win a vote of confidence in the Knesset and a replacement government will not be installed.

Why is Netanyahu such a lightning rod?

For the left and for many Arabs, he is an obstacle to peace. He has used the race card against Arabs to scare Israelis into voting for him. He has promoted creeping de facto annexation of Arab lands and threatened larger-scale official annexation, which would make a viable Palestinian state impossible. Many, perhaps most, Israelis feel this would make peace impossible.

To a number of right-wing leaders, he has been an untrue and disloyal ally. On occasion, he has been arbitrary and punitive toward those who disagree with him.

To Israelis across the spectrum, he has personified egotistical and corrupt governance. The ongoing criminal trials against him highlight this.

So how come it is so hard to unseat Netanyahu?

Because a sizable minority of Israelis idolize him and feel that he stands up effectively against Israel’s enemies. Additionally, religious parties have continued to back him because of his support for the special benefits given to fundamentalist Jews.

Beyond that, he has often played the race card effectively — evoking fear of the Arab population were it allowed to acquire power. He has also supported the settlement movement in conquered territory from the 1967 War, where hundreds of thousands of Jewish Israelis now live.

Where does the Palestinian conflict fit into this picture?

Probably most Israelis believe that a two-state solution would be the only way to settle the conflict with the Palestinians on a long-term basis. Netanyahu’s formula for power, a coalition of nationalists, settlers, and Jewish fundamentalists, not only would make a two-state solution unreachable but with further annexation of Arab lands could lead to the kind of apartheid state that does not yet exist but could become a reality. Such a reality could only mean heartbreak and bloodshed for Arabs and Jews in the future.

Do these complications relate at all to the recent war in Gaza?

Sure. For a couple of weeks, it seemed that Netanyahu had avoided his downfall because, during military conflict, Israelis tend to pull together. Coalition talks to replace him halted during that time period. Commentators speculated that, ironically, Netanyahu and Hamas both benefited from the conflict because it moved Israelis and Palestinians toward extremes.

It is impossible to read Netanyahu’s mind, but it is plausible that he welcomed the opportunity to play the role of heroic leader as Hamas rockets streamed towards Israel. Furthermore, the actions of his government, particularly heavy-handed policing of Arab protests in Jerusalem prior to this recent Gaza conflict, raise legitimate questions concerning provocation. Did he precipitate the crisis?

Your conclusion, if Netanyahu is unseated?

It will be a victory for democracy, clean government and peace if the anti-Netanyahu coalition succeeds in replacing him. But that is a big “if” given how the country and the Knesset are so evenly divided.



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