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How to understand Israel's 36th government: Israeli politics as a two-dimensional space

Guest Column

Photo for How to understand Israel

Israel's 36th government, headed by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. (Photo: Avi Ohayon, Israeli GPO) Prime Minister's Office/Facebook

As the new coalition government in Israel enters its first week, UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies Research Fellow Liron Lavi offers a perspective on what is keeping this coalition together – and what could ultimately tear it apart.

To understand what glues this coalition together, and what might tear it apart, we need to revisit one of the most basic theories in political science – the median voter theorem. This theory proclaims that policies and voters are organized along one political dimension.

By Dr. Liron Lavi

UCLA Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies, June 15, 2021 – Israel’s new government is an unholy union of parties that range from the far right to the far left of Israeli politics; an unlikely partnership between Jewish and Arab, religious and secular, right and left parties that are said to have just one thing in common – a will to oust Benjamin Netanyahu. On Sunday evening, they accomplished this goal. The government has been inaugurated, and Netanyahu literally moved to the opposition seats after 12 years in office. On Sunday night, thousands of left-wing, secular Israelis celebrated the inauguration of a religious, right-wing prime minister and one of the most right-wing governments Israel has ever seen.  

To understand what glues this coalition together, and what might tear it apart, we need to revisit one of the most basic theories in political science – the median voter theorem. This theory proclaims that policies and voters are organized along one political dimension. A candidate that positions herself where most voters are located (usually in the middle), will get elected. In the U.S., we would talk about Democrats and Republicans along a liberal-conservative dimension. In Israel, it has been the conflict with the Palestinians and Arab countries that historically defined ‘right’ and ‘left’ along a hawkish-dovish dimension.   

This dimension has started changing in the past decade, as Netanyahu fortified his dominance in Israeli politics. The 2019-21 four rounds of elections revolved around the question “Bibi- yes or no?” Data from the Israel National Election Study shows that for half of Israelis, these elections were mostly about Netanyahu, far beyond any policy issue, and more than ever before. Israeli politics has been on the verge of realignment, with Netanyahu becoming the defining dimension.

But old habits die hard, and so are political dimensions. Some politicians and voters – especially right-wing ones – refused to associate ‘right’ with ‘Bibi.’ And so, we saw an increased number of right-wing politicians deserting the Netanyahu bloc. First Avigdor Lieberman with his party Israel Beytenu, then Gideon Sa’ar, who left the Likud to form his own party, and now Naftali Bennet and his religious-Zionist party Yemina. These seasoned right-wing politicians joined forces with their bitter rivals – center, left, and Arab parties to form the government that was inaugurated on Sunday.

This unprecedented step can only be understood if we stop thinking about the Israeli political system as one-dimensional and start conceiving it as two-dimensional. A left-right dimension and an “only Bibi-Just not Bibi” dimension. These dimensions converge at some points (right-wing voters who support Netanyahu or left-wing voters who do not), but they diverge at others. This divergence opened a political space for the creation of the new government, as parties who hold exceedingly different positions on the left-right dimension found themselves on the same position on the “only Bibi-Just not Bibi” dimension. In their desire to go back to the one-dimensional left-right system, they acted based on their position on the Netanyahu dimension.

The two-dimensional system allowed for a government no one could ever dream of (or fear of) in a one-dimensional system. And the dynamic juxtaposition of these two dimensions will determine the fate of Israel’s 36th government. The puling factor of the Netanyahu dimension is expected to keep this government together, while the pushing factor of the left-right dimension will surface the conflicts between the parties. But as these parties are compelled to work together to keep this government afloat, the new common ground between traditionally opposing parties is likely to create new political alliances and cooperation on various domestic issues. If this government persists for a while, and Netanyahu’s political star dims, then we might witness the emergence of new issues, dimensions, and unexpected coalitions as the space of Israeli politics further expands.

Dr. Liron Lavi is a Research Fellow at the Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies at UCLA. She received her Ph.D. in Political Science in 2017 from Tel Aviv University, where she studied the role of time in elections and democracy in Israel. Dr. Lavi's research interests include Israeli politics; elections and democracy, representation, and national identity. Her current work focuses on the 2019-2021 Israeli elections and the 2016 U.S. elections as she studies how citizens perceive their political representation and its effect on democracy. Dr. Lavi is co-founder and managing editor of the Nazarian Center's flagship publication, Currents: Briefs on Contemporary Israel.