Can the new government confound the doomsayers?
[Please use the thread above for UK politics – many thanks.]
It goes without saying that the main international event this week has been the G20 summit, but important events were also occurring in the country whose nominal GDP is ranked at a lowly 42nd (or 43rd if you prefer the IMF list to the World Bank’s), as Israel finally managed to put together a new government, seven weeks after the February election.
One of the notable things about looking at politics from an international and comparative perspective is that it makes one realise that in many ways, the UK is not too badly run, regardless of who is in power – which is not to say that there are many governance issues, such as MPs expenses, that couldn’t and shouldn’t be improved upon. Indeed, the UK has on occasion been held up as a model of efficiency compared to the local experience, for example the time taken to form governments in Britain and Italy after elections just four days apart in April 1992.
The formation of Israel’s 32nd Cabinet since 1948 again provides a salutary compare-and-contrast with the British experience. Not only has the new government in Jerusalem taken almost two months to put together, which in itself is not exceptional (Austria, the Netherlands, and notably Belgium have all taken longer), and it has five parties (Italy’s Prodi government had nine), but the most worrying aspect from a stability and good governance aspect is that the controversial new Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman was interviewed by police for several hours on corruption allegations, almost as soon as he had taken office. Imagine what UK politics would feel like if we had no new government until two months after the election, with messy coalition negotiations, and then the new Foreign Secretary had their collar felt by the Met on their second day in office.
Israeli politics is so murky, with the recent experience of Olmert, former President Katsav (forced to resign after rape charges were brought against him), and Sharon also had some questions raised over property dealings, that no-one seems to have batted an eyelid that Lieberman has already been questioned by police – which must set some kind of unenviable international record for the fastest that a government minister has been visited in such a manner. Note that the Yisrael Beiteinu leader has already been under investigation for eight years without any charges being brought.
Israel also has the distinction of the party that won the election not being in government, which doesn’t happen too often anywhere, but now that Netanyahu has finally returned to the Prime Ministership thirteen years after his first arrival (and on that occasion he enjoyed a direct mandate, albeit a slim one), how does the Netanyahu II administration look? The new government is not Bibi’s first choice, as Livni’s pride wouldn’t let Kadima join the government (and how the West would prefer Livni to Lieberman at the Foreign Ministry!) but not quite the narrow right-wing coalition that he feared. Labor’s “hokey-cokey”, finally ending up in, has meant that Netanyahu has been able to avoid having the right-wing National Union in the government, while the traditional orthodox “coalition fillers” of United Torah Judaism have also missed the cut this time, although Shas (8.5% of the vote) take the Interior Ministry while Jewish Home (<3% vote!) also get a minister.
Labor joining the government, their disastrous election result notwithstanding (4th place and 10%) is a win-win for both Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, who go back a long way. Barak will remain at Defense – although at the possible cost of party unity within Labor (the party voted in rather underwhelming fashion to join the government). Barak very much wanted to remain in his ministerial post and bulldozed the party into joining Netanyahu II, with the immediate post-election party line being “going into opposition to regroup”, while Bibi will have Labor to be able to demonstrate to the rest of the world that the government is not an extremist one. Ironic indeed that Labor enters the government alongside YB, and initially criticised Kadima for talking to them in the election aftermath! So the personal goals of the major players have been key in this formation round – Netanyahu desperately needed either Kadima or Labor in, to avoid a government of the right, Livni wouldn’t serve under Bibi and went to the opposition benches, while Barak gets to stay at Defense and keep Labor, even as party unity creaks, in government.
Should Lieberman be indicted and be forced out of office, it remains to be seen whether the government can hold together (it has 69 votes in the Knesset, just 8 more than needed) – only Jewish Home are numerically surplus to requirements, so if YB were to drop out then it’s curtains for the government (unless say UTJ and National Union came in). Even if YB stayed in, it’s a moot point whether the party would survive his departure – the List Pim Fortuyn in the Netherlands didn’t last, but Haider’s BZÃ– scored very strongly in the recent Carinthia elections.
Netanyahu has hinted that Israel may have to deal with Iran alone if necessary, so any instability in the new government would be the last thing that the administration needs. No Israeli government this century has lasted its full term, so the longevity outlook for Netanyahu II was not great to start with, and the Lieberman situation adds more potential difficulties. It’s often the case that unstable institutional arrangements are found in trouble spots (the 2% threshold to win Knesset seats, or David Trimble’s annual re-election as Ulster Unionist leader) – and although Israel can perhaps be put slightly on the backburner as we look to upcoming elections in South Africa and India, and also the North Korean missile test, we are in for an interesting time, illustrated by Livni accusing Lieberman of undoing years of work in just 20 minutes with his early stance at the Foreign Ministry.