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An unrepresentative government is responsible for Israel’s crises

How has Israel, a liberal democracy where less than a quarter of the population considers themselves religious, ended up with a government beholden to extremists and unable to serve its own interests?  
Steve Holstein
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Man with flag, dissolving

Only 15% of Israelis still want Netanyahu as prime minister (Image: Illustration, TJI).

Published: 23 April 2024

Last updated: 23 April 2024

Leaders, political commentators, and newspaper editorialists world-wide have been calling for Israelis to ditch Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and change their government. Most Israelis agree.

According to a survey by the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) in January this year, 71% want early elections. This includes 57% of those from his right-wing camp, who believe that elections should be held within three months or as soon as the war is over.

The current government has been responsible for a cycle of crises including the biggest protests Israel has ever seen, the worst security failure in its history and a disastrous long-running war. The opposition has dubbed it, “the government of self-destruction”, a reference to the messianic prophecy of destruction and redemption that drives Netanyahu’s ultra-nationalist coalition partners. 

How has Israel, a liberal democracy where less than a quarter of the population considers themselves religious, ended up with a government beholden to extremists and unable to serve its own interests? A key reason is that five elections in less than four years produced a government that is not, and possibly has never been, representative of the majority of Israeli voters.

To understand why, it is important to recognise that, unlike Australians, Israelis never quite know what government they are voting for. The number of Knesset seats a party receives is proportional to its number of votes. Elections are held and seats are won, but rarely does that result in a governing majority. What follows is a complex process of negotiations and political alliances before a government can be formed.

Israel Democracy Institute polls consistently show the complete collapse of public confidence in Netanyahu, even among those who voted for him.

Often the result is a unity government with elements of both left and right, usually including the religious parties. After the 2021 election, the centre left Yesh Atid party was able to form a governing coalition that included, for the first time, an Arab party: the conservative Islamic Ra’am. It was a coalition with a very slim majority and was forced to election after less than 18 months in government.

The 2022 election was different. Netanyahu faced multiple, serious corruption charges and, following a series of past political betrayals, was widely mistrusted. The major opposition parties refused to form a coalition with him at the head of the Likud.

The proportion of votes cast in favour of the parties that would go on to form government was 50.5%, compared to 49.5% for the other parties. But the balance of seats did not truly reflect the closeness of the election. To win seats, a party needs to pass the 3.25% electoral threshold. The centre and left parties failed to get their acts together and form the necessary electoral alliances to prevent votes being wasted. Some parties, notably the once-significant dovish Meretz party, failed to meet the threshold so their votes were “lost”.

The largest single party was Netanyahu’s Likud, with just over 23% of the vote and Netanyahu was able to form an alliance with the ultra-Orthodox and Religious Zionists that gave the coalition 64 of the 120 Knesset seats, a significant balance of Knesset votes given the close election result.

That alliance, formed by a desperate Netanyahu, broke all norms in Israeli politics. It brought into government messianic religious settler parties led by two characters who had hitherto been kept to the Israeli fringe, regarded as too extreme to be taken seriously, Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich.

Surveys by the IDI in January 2023, just as the government was inaugurated, showed widespread disapproval of Netanyahu’s coalition negotiations. Of Netanyahu’s own Likud supporters, a massive 60% felt that the concessions he had made to his extreme right partners were excessive.

In the intensely competitive Israeli election landscape, marginal votes play a particularly significant role.  Knowing in advance that the extreme right would be included in the governing coalition would almost certainly have changed votes. With only 1% difference in support between the major camps, a change in vote from just one out of every ten coalition voters who disapprove of the negotiations, may have produced a very different election outcome. Arguably, this was an unrepresentative government from the very outset.

There is no mechanism for triggering an early election other than by parliamentary majority.

Netanyahu’s far-right allies were able to lead the government’s agenda attacking the court system and the media, while increasing funding to settlers and religious interests.

The rift that emerged in Israeli society was immense, leading to hundreds of thousands of citizens taking to the streets in protest, right up until the outbreak of war.

The October 7 massacres occurred barely nine months into this government, in the wake of warnings from senior defence and security heads, current and past, that the government’s actions were undermining national security.  

As the war progressed IDI polls consistently showed the complete collapse of public confidence in Netanyahu, even among those who had voted for him.

A poll as recently as 26 March this year showed support for Netanyahu as Prime Minister at just 15% overall. Even within his own coalition, only 29% of his coalition camp wanting him as prime minister when the war is over. 

The call for a change in government has never been louder. Unfortunately, a series of historical sectorial concessions, often along secular and religious lines, has prevented Israel from creating a constitution, despite a commitment to do so at its founding. There is no mechanism for triggering an early election other than by parliamentary majority. There is no senate, and the president is largely a ceremonial role and lacks the power to call a general election. 

The current government coalition members, sensing the fate that awaits them at the polls, have so far held firm against the popular call for an election. So, the cry for leadership of a truly representative government is falling on deaf ears.

Israelis know well that the sooner they remove Netanyahu, the sooner they can commence rebuilding Israeli society.

Regrettably, it seems that only steadfast protests and civil disruption will facilitate this change in a timely manner and enable Israelis to step back from the brink and towards a more hopeful future.

About the author

Steve Holstein

Steve Holstein has had a career working with actuarial statistics and has always sought out the stories that the numbers tell. He has lived in Tel Aviv where he worked with an Israeli audit firm and brings his perspective on factors contributing to the current crisis facing Israeli democracy. He is a volunteer with activist groups defending Israeli democracy, which further fuels his passion for understanding it's strengths and challenges.


  • Avatar of Carola Hume

    Carola Hume2 May at 10:42 pm

    Israelis are such innovative and inventive people, how come they couldn’t structure their governing laws better to represent their people in the first place❓

  • Avatar of Rachel Sussman

    Rachel Sussman26 April at 09:00 am

    Thank you for this spit on analysis if the current pilitical scene in Israel. It is very worrying and unsettling and it is hard to know if pushing for electiobs now when the country is still struggling can make things better or worse. One can only pray that the people are guided wisely

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