TEL AVIV — Israeli families know how to deal with rocket attacks from Gaza, so when on Monday morning the radio alerted us that Israel had assassinated an Islamic Jihad commander in Gaza, the rest of the day went according to script: Rockets flew, Iron Dome missiles intercepted them, schools were canceled, shelters opened, the cabinet assembled, politicians appeared in news conferences with grim faces to voice threats.
Amid all this, a naughty thought crept in: Should we — while, of course, bombing back — thank Islamic Jihad for the 400 rockets? Had the extremists in Gaza finally given Israel a much-needed way out of its crisis?
The crisis I am referring to here is a political one. For more than a year, Israel’s politics have been deadlocked and we are stuck without a functioning government. Despite two elections, no party appears able to form a government. We might even have to vote a third time — and the results could be the same once again. Could a dangerous security situation be what is needed to bring our politicians to their senses?
Thirty-five years ago, when Israel’s two main parties could not form a coalition, the president, whose role is mainly ceremonial, decided to take action. In 1984, President Chaim Herzog said: “There’s the feeling that we’re on the eve of a disaster and something must be done … it is easier to take the urgent steps required by a government as wide as possible.” His pleas — and cajoling — worked. The Likud and Labor parties worked together from 1984 to 1990.
“Disaster is coming.” That was the key then and, with a little help from Islamic Jihad, might be the key now. Israel, after a year of political disorder with no end in sight, may need a disaster, or at least the potential for one, to rejuvenate the drive for a stable government. It’s either that or more elections. God, have mercy on us.
How did we get here? The very short version is this: Israel’s parliamentary system requires a 61-member coalition to support a stable government. But no leader, neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud nor his main rival, Benny Gantz of Blue and White, can get the support of that number. The last functioning government was dissolved in December, an election was held in April, then again, in September, and still no change. A complicated web of political commitments, rivalries, boycotts and demands make forming a majority impossible. The talk about a looming third election has moved from a joke to a near certainty.
The obvious solution is a unity government led by the two main parties. President Reuven Rivlin attempted to prompt the leaders to take such a route: “We are facing a time of crisis,” he said in October, echoing President Herzog in 1984.
Apparently, the politicians were not convinced. Maybe “crisis” does not feel as urgent as “disaster” did in 1984. Or maybe this is not about words but rather about reality.
Israel had its share of unity governments, and generally they functioned better when there was indeed a crisis. The first unity government was formed on the eve of the 1967 war. It was necessary to calm an anxious public. When the war ended, a second unity government did not last. The crisis was over, and with it, the sense of urgency.
Mr. Herzog’s “disaster” was indeed a disaster. In 1984, Israel was at war in Lebanon and facing a severe economic crisis. Something had to be done. It was: The unity government got inflation under control, withdrew Israel from most of Lebanon and served until the 1988 election. When a unity government was formed again after that election, with the sense of crisis gone, it lasted only two years.
Unity worked again when a wave of Palestinian terrorism hit Israel in the early 2000s and when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon undertook his contentious pullout from Gaza in 2005. It was formed and worked when the politicians and the public had a sense of urgency and crisis.
Most observers would probably agree that Israel’s current political situation is worthy of the word “crisis.” And yet, politicians stubbornly refuse to acknowledge its severity and change course. One hopes we would not deteriorate as far as longing for more dire circumstances so that this country’s leaders see the light. Of course, if we do take that perverse route, possibilities are many: It could be an attack from Iran (a threat considered serious and about which the military keeps warning); it could be the alarming deficit turning into an economic calamity. Or it could be the recent-days collapse of a fragile cease-fire in Gaza.
The sad truth is that it is not just the politicians who do not acknowledge the severity of the political situation. It is also the public, which on the one hand says that it wants a unity coalition (a small majority of 53 percent), but at the same time makes it clear that by unity it means unity without compromise. The voters of Blue and White want unity without Mr. Netanyahu (which Likud will not agree to), while the voters of Likud want unity in which the ultra-Orthodox keep their power (which Blue and White will not agree to). That is to say: The small majority wants a unity it cannot have.
That is, unless something forces everyone to put their differences aside for the sake of the country. Will 400 rockets be enough?