But in a country that has twice produced stalemates between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and Benny Gantz’s Blue and White alliance, the third election, scheduled for March 2, appears unlikely to yield the decisive result needed to form a government.
It is even unclear whether Netanyahu’s landslide victory in the Likud party leadership primary Thursday, in which he bested his first real challenger in more than a decade, will help break the deadlock or cement it further.
Now, senior officials, politicians, analysts and the public are worried about the toll a year of political limbo will exact from the country, its institutions and its people.
For the parliamentary democracy, the failure by political leaders to establish a government or select a prime minister has meant that important functions of the executive and the legislature have been almost nonexistent.
Senior appointments decided by the government are stalled. The Knesset has approved only six laws since mid-January — four pertaining to the elections. No state budget has been approved for the upcoming year.
Beginning Jan. 1, government offices, institutions and local authorities will be limited to spending based on this year’s budget. It’s unclear whether special projects, programs or outside contractors will be eligible to receive or even apply for government funding in 2020.
Even if the third election produces a clear winner in March, the lengthy process of coalition-building among the country’s fractious political parties means the earliest date for a new budget will probably be after the summer.
“It’s a political crisis that we have never gone through before or even anticipated,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute. “We have never been in a situation where a political candidate did not succeed in putting together a government, and that has happened now not only once, but twice.”
Plesner said the bind emanates from both “weaknesses in our system and the unique situation of a popular prime minister who is charged with severe crimes.”
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit indicted Netanyahu in November in three cases centered on bribery, fraud and breach of trust. A sitting prime minister is not required to stand down unless he is convicted and has exhausted all appeals. Netanyahu has claimed that the charges are part of a political witch hunt to force him from office.
Yet the question has now arisen of whether a prime ministerial candidate facing prosecution would be permitted to even form a government. Israel’s Supreme Court has requested that Mandelblit draft an opinion on this issue.
In the meantime, the country seems to be functioning fine, at least on the surface.
Netanyahu’s cabinet still meets weekly, and the military continues to train and conduct security operations. Hospitals are still operating, schools are still open, public transport still runs.
“We are kind of running on autopilot,” said Dan Ben-David, a professor of economics at the Shoresh Institution and Tel Aviv University. “But it means the government really has no flexibility in dealing with any crisis that might arise, there can’t be any changes in budgets, and it loses all degrees of freedom to run the country.”
The restrictions on what some Israelis are calling a “caretaker government” are evident. The selections of a chief of police and a head of prison services have been frozen for months. A program initiated a year ago to provide day care for schoolchildren during the Hanukkah vacation could not fully operate this year because funding was not initially approved as part of the 2019 Education Ministry budget.
The long-suffering Foreign Ministry, which had already seen cutbacks in recent years, has been unable to fill a handful of diplomatic postings. And the treasury has told government ministers to refrain from non-urgent international travel in 2020.
In a recent meeting of the Knesset’s finance committee, one of the few parliamentary panels that operated this past year, Accountant General Rony Hizkiyahu said the lack of a budget for 2020 poses “great challenges to the functioning of the government and its ministries.”
“Citizens will have to face a government with a limited budget, not only because of the same restrictions as the previous year but also because of the growing needs of the upcoming year,” said Hizkiyahu, who is responsible for implementing the state budget. “It will affect the entire economy.”
Possibly the greatest impact will be felt by the military. Chief of the General Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi, who took office last January, has been seeking approval for a five-year strategic plan to guide the army’s response to the growing regional security threats Israel faces. Such long-term planning, including budgeting for new advanced equipment and weapons, and long-term agreements with contractors, enables Israel to maintain its military edge.
“A transitional government cannot approve such a plan,” said Sason Hadad, head of the research project for economics and national security at the Institute for National Security Studies. “It will have to wait until there is a new government, and this could make things very difficult for the army.”
But Jonathan Rynhold, a professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv, said the importance Israel attaches to security matters means “the army will most likely get what it needs.”
Who will be affected most, he said, are those members of society “who might slip through the net.”
“In many cases, the third sector will have to step in and plug the gap,” Rynhold said. “Israel has an active civil society and the sense of social responsibility is quite high, but there will be people who are vulnerable, and they will suffer because of this political crisis.”
Tal Schneider, senior diplomatic and political correspondent for the Israeli business newspaper Globes, said the stalemate is affecting ordinary citizens.
“It is not a good situation when there is no government for a long period of time,” she said. “In the U.S., when you have a problem, you can call your representative in Congress. But here there is no one to represent you, no one to hold the administration accountable. We have completely forgotten how a functioning democracy works right.”