What's a "unity government"?

Anonymous asked this question on 8/2/2000:

Today, MSN reported Levy as saying, "I am very, very afraid for the future. I really wish that there was the responsibility and the wisdom to form a national unity government,".

Can you explain what such a government would look like? I need a little bit of background, too. Thanks.

madpol gave this response on 8/2/2000:

"National Unity Governments," also known as "Governments of National Salvation," tend to be formed in times of Crisis or political turmoil--such as the aftermath of a Civil War.

Parties lay aside their differences and work for the common good. The advantage being that more things can be done, and done more quickly, if everybody is on the same page instead of posturing for Party advantage.

The term comes from nations who have a Parliamentary system of government. In Parliamentary Systems the Head of State is not a President(Elected directly by the people,) but a Prime Minister,(elected by the Parliament)who controls a majority of votes in that body. If your majority includes votes from legislators who would normally be part of the opposition, you have more freedom of action.

JesseGordon gave this response on 8/3/2000:

My colleague provided a fine general answer, but let me define things in terms of the Israeli Knesset, as you have framed the question.

A parliamentary system like Israel's does not work like the presidential system in the US.

In the US, the Congress has no say over the tenure of the president (except for impeachment). In Israel, the parliament can have a "no-confidence" vote at any time (as they did with Barak last week) and if the parliament says they have no confidence in the prime minister, he must call for new elections.

In an important sense the prime minister serves at the pleasure of the parliament, and therefore must maintain a majority there. (Actually, I think it takes a super-majority to force new elections in Israel, but the percentage differs from country to country).

"Maintaining a majority" is the key to the "unity government." If the Parliament wins an election with an absolute majority (over 50% of the members), then Israel gets a "majority government," where the ruling party need not take into account the views of any minority parties. That rarely happens because Israel has a number of strong third parties.

So in the absence of an absolute majority, the party which wins the election by a plurality (the most votes, even though it's under 50%) asks other smaller parties to join them in a "ruling coalition." The biggest party makes deals with the smaller parties until the sum of the votes in parliament exceeds 50%. That is then called a "coalition government" because it has a bunch of component parties.

In the US, the president picks his cabinet, usually consisting of all members of his own party. In Israel, the usual deal for a third party joining in the coalition government is a cabinet seat. So for example, the religious party might be given a cabinet seat relevant to religious issues in exchange for their participation in the governing coalition. That is the case in Israel's government right now.

The idea of a "coalition government" is that the main opposition party is excluded (the two biggest parties in Israel are Labor on the left and Likud on the right). So a "coalition government" means that when Labor is the ruling party, Likud is in opposition and hence not represented in the cabinet. And vice versa when the prime minister is from Likud -- then Labor isn't in the ruling coalition.

A "unity government" means that Labor makes a deal with Likud. As with third parties, the usual deal is to give some cabinet seats -- more than one in a "unity government" since the opposition party is larger. A unity government means that well over half of the parliament is represented in the cabinet, so it's considered a "unified" representation of the electorate (glossing over the fact that the third parties all get ignored in a "unity government.")

As pointed out, that happens in times of crises -- this month certainly qualifies for Israel, so it may happen soon. But Likud and Labor differ very strongly over the issue of Jerusalem's sovereignty, so it may be difficult for them to come to terms of a deal. That's what Levy was talking about with "responsibility and wisdom" -- Israel needs the "unity" to effectively negotiate with the Palestinians, but to do so means putting aside internal differences.

JesseGordon gave this follow-up answer on 8/3/2000:

P.S. You can follow the views of US politicians on issues relevant to Israel at

Anonymous rated this answer:

Wonderfully detailed explanation--bravo!!! Are you in Israel?

JesseGordon gave this follow-up answer on 8/3/2000:

No, I'm just a good ol' American Jewish boy. I follow Israeli politics because I lived there briefly as a child and have visited a few times since.

Return to index