After the Elections: A National Unity Government?


After the Elections: A National Unity Government?

Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig

Schusterman Visiting Israeli Scholar, Brown University

The term “national unity government” in Israel is generally considered to be an oxymoron for two reasons: Israeli society itself is far from even being close to united on almost any important issue; the current two main parties’ antipathy for each other (Likud and Kadima) goes well beyond the mutual dislike one normally finds in politics. And yet, this time it may actually happen for several good reasons.

           First, the next government will have to deal in real, practical terms with what is arguably the greatest existential threat that Israel has ever faced since its war of Independence: nuclear Iran. This is not a problem that lends itself to ideological infighting but rather demands a rally-round-the-flag, all-hands-on-deck approach. Given the stakes (military and political) in case of success and especially failure, Netanyahu and Livni would most probably prefer to cover their back(side) on this critical issue (see what happened to Defense Minister Peretz and ultimately PM Olmert as a result of the Second Lebanon War debacle).

           Second, both Livni and Netanyahu – and indeed almost every large party for the past two decades – very much want to change the election system once and for all. True, direct election of the prime minister was tried in the 1990s and canceled a decade later but the problem then was that the Knesset election system stayed the same. By almost all accounts what is needed is a system that reduces the number of parties, provides territorial (“district”) representation, and in general enables Israeli coalitions to govern in stable fashion. By forming a national unity government between the Likud and Kadima, and perhaps even constituting a majority by themselves (the latest polls give both together a bit more than the required 61 seats), election system reform could finally come to pass. That would reduce political “blackmail” by the smaller parties – especially the ultra-Orthodox – and enable policy to be set by truly Zionist parties.

           Third and related to the last point, both Netanyahu and Livni have shown that they are willing to pay a steep political price for not succumbing to ultra-Orthodox demands to return the high Child Allowances that Netanyahu lowered several years ago. This is an issue that Livni too would not concede, and paid the price of failing to form a new government, thus necessitating the current election campaign. “Child Allowance” might seem to the outside observer to be a very “peripheral” issue, but it strikes at the very heart of the continued future of the State of Israel as a Zionist enterprise. I shall devote my next blog post to this issue, but for now suffice it to say that Kadima and the Likud see eye to eye on the critical necessity of maintaining the current policy.

           To be sure, there are several good reasons against the establishment of such a government, not least of which is the enmity of the Likud Party to former Likud “defectors” who helped form Kadima under Ariel Sharon’s leadership. But that’s the past – and this election is about Israel’s future.

           Speaking of the past, does Israeli history offer any perspective? Absolutely yes! In 1984 the Israeli economy was on the verge of complete collapse, with hyper-inflation running at 400% (yes, four hundred percent, i.e. 1% a day!). The election outcome between Labor and the Likud was a virtually tie and a National Unity government was set up between Shamir and Peres with a rotation agreement of two years apiece as prime minister. With PM Peres at the helm along with Likud Finance Minister Moda’i the economy was brought back from the brink and set on a stable course that has lasted until this very day. True, the national unity arrangement continued for 6 years and towards the end it turned into a National Paralysis government, but the two-headed political hydra had accomplished the main goal.

           Political prognostication is a dangerous exercise, especially when dealing with the future. But this time around, the logic for a national unity is stronger than it has been for decades. I wouldn’t bet my last shekel that it will happen – but I also won’t be very surprised if it does. It certainly should.

 Dec. 1, 2008

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