Since the Israeli election in March, the BBC has not reported on the subsequent process of the formation of a new government. That however changed on May 6th and 7th with the appearance of two articles on the BBC News website’s Middle East page.
The second article includes the following analysis by the BBC Jerusalem Bureau’s Kevin Connolly.
“In the 67 years of its history, Israel has never known any form of government but multi-party coalition – no-one has ever won an outright parliamentary majority. But rarely can the process have come right down to the wire quite like this.
Benjamin Netanyahu was granted a total of seven weeks to build a new coalition and as the clock ticked towards midnight he had 53 of the 61 seats he needed.”
The seven week – 42 day – time-frame for the formation of a coalition is of course not exclusive to this particular government or the politician trying to assemble it: that time-frame is laid out along with the rest of the process in Israeli law.
“When a new government is to be constituted, the President of the State, after consulting with representatives of the parties elected to the Knesset, assigns the task of forming the government to a Knesset member. This Knesset member is usually the leader of the party with the largest Knesset representation or the head of the party that leads a coalition with more than 60 members.
Since a government requires the Knesset’s confidence to function, it must have a supporting coalition of at least 61 of the 120 Knesset members. To date, no party has received enough Knesset seats to be able to form a government by itself; thus all Israeli governments have been based on coalitions of several parties, with those remaining outside the government making up the opposition.
The Knesset member to whom the task is assigned has a period of 28 days to form a government. The President may extend the term by an additional period of time, not exceeding 14 days.
If this period (up to 42 days) has passed and the designated Knesset member has not succeeded in forming a government, the President may then assign the task of forming a government to another Knesset member. This Knesset member has a period of 28 days for the fulfillment of the task.
If a government still has not been formed, an absolute majority of Knesset members (61) has the option of applying in writing to the President, asking him to assign the task to a particular Knesset member. Such a precedent has yet to occur.
When a government has been formed, the designated prime minister presents it to the Knesset within 45 days of publication of election results in the official gazette. At this time, he announces its composition, the basic guideline of its policy, and the distribution of functions among its ministers. The prime minister then asks the Knesset for an expression of confidence. The government is installed when the Knesset has expressed confidence in it by a majority of 61 Knesset members, and the ministers thereupon assume office.”
And what of Connolly’s claim that “rarely can the process have come right down to the wire quite like this”? Well, history does not back up Connolly’s assertion that seldom has it taken 42 days to form a coalition after elections in Israel as the chart below from the Israel Democracy Institute shows.
“Historically, the length of time taken to form a government in Israel has ranged from 20 to 100 days. This is within the norms of time that it takes to form a government in other parliamentary democracies, where it has sometimes taken even longer. Belgium is actually the record holder in this area: no less than 541 days elapsed between the elections in June 2010 and the swearing in of the new government in December 2011. In Holland, 208 days elapsed from the general elections of 1977 to the swearing in of the new government. Similarly, in Austria, it took 123 days to form a government after the elections of 1999.
As can be seen from the figure above, the process of government formation generally took longer during the first two decades of Israel’s history than it does today. In 1955, no less than 100 days elapsed between the elections for Israel’s third Knesset and the swearing in of the new government. After the elections for the fifth Knesset (1961), it took 79 days until the new government was sworn in. During the last two decades, however, the process has taken a maximum of 50 days. (Note that these figures refer to the total number of days between Election Day and the day that the government is sworn in. If the time between Election Day and the day when the President of Israel assigns the formation of the government to one of the members of the Knesset were to be deducted, the amount of time required would be shorter.)”
The new government must be sworn in by next Wednesday – May 13th – at the latest (although it may take place before that) meaning that a maximum of 57 days will have passed between the election and the swearing-in. After elections took place on January 22nd 2013, fifty-five days went by until the government was sworn in.
In other words, the time-frame for the building of Israel’s latest government is nowhere near as ‘rare’ as Kevin Connolly would have BBC audiences believe.