Israel’s March 2021 election (its fourth election within two years!) again failed to yield a clear result. There is a reasonable possibility of a fifth election this fall. Of course, the lingering political crisis has domestic repercussions. It also is impairing Israeli national security and eroding the country’s international standing.
The political system in Israel is failing to ensure the stability required for smooth functioning of the Israeli defense establishment. The most notable example of this is the absence of clear medium- and long-term budgetary decision making.
When he took office, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi sought to implement a multi-year military plan for the years 2020-2024, dubbed “Momentum.” Due to the political instability and the coronavirus crisis, the plan did not receive orderly approval from the political echelon and is not backed by multi-year budgetary authorization. Although the IDF is executing the plan to the extent possible with the resources currently allocated to it, there is considerable uncertainty about its full implementation.
Furthermore, decision-making process on key security issues has unquestionably been harmed. The political echelon is preoccupied with managing political crises and election campaigns. The time left over to think seriously about security challenges is limited. Although professional echelons of the defense establishment continue to work and make recommendations, they cannot take major decisions without the involvement of the senior political level.
The ongoing political crisis also undermines Israeli deterrence. Over recent years, Israel has been perceived around the world as a high-tech power and an economically and militarily strong country. To this can now be added Israel’s prowess in swiftly vaccinating its population against COVID-19. All this has strengthened Israel’s deterrence, only to then have it damaged by Israel’s inability to elect a stable government to deal effectively with security challenges.
The continuing political crisis also propagates a perception of Israel as a divided country that could crumble under pressure. While this is not an accurate reflection of the state of Israeli society, this perception is preferred by the political elites in Tehran, who long for the day that Israel collapses due to internal divisions. In fact, this view of Israel is common among those who still want to believe that the Jewish state is a temporary phenomenon. This view encourages the country’s enemies to continue their struggle against Israel’s existence.
The main issue in the election campaigns of the last two years has been Benjamin Netanyahu’s suitability to serve as prime minister. Serious disagreements about policy regarding the economy, the coronavirus pandemic, Iran and the Palestinian issue have been conspicuously absent, indicating a broad Israeli consensus on these issues. Nevertheless, the election campaigns have exacerbated social and political differences which erode Israeli social cohesion. The prolongation of political-electoral crisis deepens weaknesses in Israeli society and invites foreign aggression.
The complicated political situation also raises difficulties in Israel’s foreign relations, particularly with countries of the region with which Israel recently has reached peace agreements. These countries are unaccustomed to weaknesses of the democratic system and are unfamiliar with the vagaries of Israel’s political system. Instead, Arab countries have preferred to see Israel as a stable and strong country with which long-term enterprises can be comfortably concluded. But Israel’s lingering political crisis casts a shadow over this assumption and creates discomfort among Israel’s new partners. The gap between Netanyahu’s international image as a strong, extremely successful leader and his inability to win a series of election campaigns raises doubts regarding the credibility of Israel’s leader and its political system.
The political stalemate also invites the interference of foreign elements in Israeli politics. In past, American governments have been tempted to meddle in Israeli election campaigns. The Palestinian Authority also has not refrained from trying to manipulate the Arab public in Israel. Prolonging the electoral crisis creates additional opportunities for outside intervention in Israeli politics.
The most recent election result potentially has given the Islamist Israeli Arab party Ra’am (a somewhat moderate Israeli version of the Muslim Brotherhood) a key role in formation of the next government. Ra’am may be the deciding factor in determining who will serve as premier.
This may be an opportunity to enhance the integration of Israeli Arabs into Israel’s political system. It is also an opportunity to counter slanderous accusations that Israeli democracy is flawed because it excludes Israeli Arab citizens.
However, the matter is complex because those Arab countries with which Israel has diplomatic relations regard the Islamic identity of Ra’am in an extremely negative light. Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco are fiercely opposed to the religious extremism inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood, and are engaged with struggles again the Brotherhood in their own countries. If at the end of the day an Israeli government is formed the support of Ra’am, Israel will have some explaining to do.
Israel’s political leaders must come to their senses and form a stable and sane government. Continuation of the existing situation breeds national insecurity.
Professor Efraim Inbar is president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.
This article was first published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.