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Israel: Elections are a sideshow as army and settlers call the shots

The depressing truth about Israeli politics today is that the upcoming election may yield the same inconclusive outcome as the previous four
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid attend a session at the plenum at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem on 30 June 2022 (Reuters)

On Monday, Israel’s coalition government led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett dissolved itself after a year in office. Bennett’s party, Yamina, originally held a thin one-seat majority in the 120-member Knesset. 

But Bennett had successively lost MKs who abandoned the coalition. Most left because they felt Bennett’s unwieldy melding of parties from across the political spectrum, right to left, betrayed their nationalist values. 

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It didn’t help Bennett that Likud, the opposition party led by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, waged intense efforts from the day the new government took office to poach MKs and cause the government’s fall.

After intense deliberations with the defectors and further threats by others to bolt, Bennett realised that he no longer had a stable coalition, and that the only alternative was dissolution. He also wanted to pre-empt a no-confidence defeat, causing the electorate to perceive him as a loser. Going out on his own terms was far preferable.  

Among the blandishments Likud offered to MKs who defected was a safe Likud seat in the next election if they deserted. Therefore, it was bizarre to see the very opposition which sought to topple the coalition actually try to stall the final vote on dissolution.

The reason was simple: if they could peel off just a few MKs from the ruling coalition to switch to Likud, Netanyahu's camp could create its own "alternative government" and avoid elections. This ploy failed and the country will go to the fifth election in three years.

On Wednesday, Bennett announced that he would not be running in the upcoming elections.

Unprecedented stalemate

The past three years have offered an unprecedented stalemate in the history of Israeli politics. It has put the business of governing into limbo for long periods, as governments rose and fell in quick succession.

During that period, major policy issues could not be addressed for lack of consensus, and due to the refusal of key MKs to provide votes to pass legislation. Thus, a bill to preserve the legal status of settlers under Israeli law, rather than military courts, did not gain enough votes to pass.

This stagnation emphasises that real power in the country lies not with elected officials, but with the army, police and intelligence apparatus

Normally, everyone living in the West Bank - a territory under Israeli occupation - is ruled by military law. But historically, the Knesset offered legislation that exempted settlers.

It was the highest priority of the right-wing coalition to renew it. But it was adamantly opposed by the Arab parties. The result was that two Palestinian MKs refused to vote for the legislation and it failed.

The debate on the legislation featured the odd phenomenon of the leftist Meretz party, in the government coalition, supporting a bill that violated every principle it held dear, while Palestinian MKs in the coalition were excoriated for remaining true to their values and refusing to support it.

The reason for these odd bedfellows was that the only glue that held the disparate political factions together was their determination to prevent Netanyahu from returning to power. It was the Anything-But-Bibi government.

If the history of politics tells us anything, it is that a government built solely on opposition, and which cannot perform the elementary tasks of governing, will not survive.

More of the same

The depressing truth is that the upcoming Israeli election may offer more of the same: an outcome that offers a mandate to neither Likud nor its opponents. Polls of voter preferences for the coming election show the Likud winning the most seats, but its chances of forming a ruling coalition with other parties remain shaky.

That would mean yet another period of uncertainty, as the various parties jockey for power, while the country finds itself, once again, without a functioning government.

Israeli former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) speaks before the Knesset (parliament), in Jerusalem on 30 June 2022.

This stagnation further emphasises that real power in the country lies not with elected officials, but with the army, police and intelligence apparatus. That’s why Israel, during this period of instability, has continued land grabs against Palestinians, and continued its evictions of Palestinians from homes in Sheikh Jarrah. It’s why border police storm Muslim holy places.

It is also why settlers march through Palestinian neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem chanting genocidal slogans to terrorise the Palestinian residents - all of which goes unchallenged by the political class.

A garrison state

Politicians no longer set the agenda. This vacuum has permitted the only sector of Israeli society which is united in its determination to pursue its interests: settlers and their powerful lobby.

When a society that conceives of itself as a democracy cannot govern itself, and turns instead for stability to the army and intelligence services, it becomes a garrison state

Because they are unelected, the army, police and intelligence services remain stable. They can pursue their strategic goals relentlessly with little interference.

The political echelon cedes key decision-making to them and provides enormous budgets, permitting them to execute their plans.

They hardly even need to lobby the Knesset for huge funding increases. Their status is sacrosanct. They are unassailable. No "mere" politician dare cross them.

When a society that conceives of itself as a democracy cannot govern itself, and turns instead for stability to the army and intelligence services, it becomes a garrison state, rather than a democracy.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Richard Silverstein writes the Tikun Olam blog, devoted to exposing the excesses of the Israeli national security state. His work has appeared in Haaretz, the Forward, the Seattle Times and the Los Angeles Times. He contributed to the essay collection devoted to the 2006 Lebanon war, A Time to Speak Out (Verso) and has another essay in the collection, Israel and Palestine: Alternate Perspectives on Statehood (Rowman & Littlefield) Photo of RS by: (Erika Schultz/Seattle Times)
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