Written by Vaidehi Meharia
St. Xavier's College, Kolkata
Disclaimer: Please note that the views expressed below represent the opinions of the article's author. The following does not necessarily represent the views of Law & Order.
At present, Israel finds itself in the feeble grasp of the most ideologically diverse coalition government in its history. United on the mutual objective of unseating both Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party from the seat of power in Israel, Naftali Bennet and his coalition partner, Yair Lapid are now situated in rotation agreement, wherein each expects to serve as the Prime Minister of Israel for two years. The coalition in question consists of eight parties — spanning the right, centre, and left and also includes within itself, an conservative Islamic Arab party.
The New Israeli Government
The current coalition, in spite of its very apparent rightist tendencies at the very outset, would be a stark contrast from erstwhile Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Cabinet which was considerably successful in using its populist appeal to drive the Israeli polity to the right (Indyk, 2021).
Unfortunately, the Israeli polity has spent the past two years in a state of paralysis, with four inconclusive elections and simultaneous failures to form stable governments (Plesner, 2021). Much of the Cabinet and civil service posts have been left unfilled, long-term planning and the formulation of a proper budget have all been put on hold, that too in the midst of one of the worst health and economic crises that Israel has ever experienced. As such, one of the primary objectives of the Bennet-led coalition is to focus their efforts narrowly on a modest, “technical” agenda by restoring effective governance and civil discourse to the country (Lipner, 2021).
With Netanyahu being put on trial for corruption, and the deepening of social divisions exposing the inadequacies of the country’s constitutional structure (Plesner, 2021), the need for a new government and centre of power in Israel has become the opposition's priority in the 2021 election.
One of the foremost issues of polarization is the legitimization of far-right Jewish extremists and fundamentalists. Another dimension to this has been the Netanyahu administration’s handling of the Palestine issue, which has been equally, if not more damaging than its destructive impulses to Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state (Indyk, 2021).
Since his return to the office of Israel’s prime minister, he pursues a divide-and-rule policy towards the Palestinians, aiding the rise of the Hamas in Gaza and subsequently weakening the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, while at the same time ensuring that Jewish settlers expanded their footprint in the West Bank (Indyk, 2021).
As a result, the Bennet led coalition fuelled primarily by goodwill and have been united almost exclusively in their successful quest to end Netanyahu’s twelve year-long rule in Israel since 2009 (Lipner, 2021). It offers a chance for a fresh start, with the coalition spanning the far left to the far right that includes an Arab Islamist party while excluding the Orthodox Jewish parties (Indyk, 2021). It intends to ensure that the nation emerges from the divisive rhetoric that the public sphere is currently grappling under.
With the Israelis being distinctly divided on their support for or against the coalition, their most likely goal will be to ‘calm things down’ and the two leaders will be keen demonstrate that they are in a position to deliver on the things the common public is concerned about - economic recovery in a pandemic stricken world, installation of better health care facilities, infrastructure, and education.
The Coalition and Its Problems
It is this premise of the formulation of the coalition and its very nature that may prove to be the roots of its demise in the future. Not only will the enterprise be faced with a very determined Netanyahu leading Israel’s largest, more coherent opposition party, but the confidence vote in the Knesset (the legislative wing of the Israeli government responsible for much of the law making and policy framing in the country, much like the House of Commons in the United Kingdom or the Lok Sabha in India) was also determined by a narrow margin of one vote (60-59) which emerges as clear indications that the present government may be living on borrowed time (Miller, 2021). Many issues such as those of the complete destruction of Israel’s constitutional structure, the lack of proper management of the COVID-19 pandemic, absence of a formal budget, remain unresolved and all will require elaborate, structural reforms (Plesner, 2021).
The government led by Prime Minister Bennet and Foreign Minister Lapid faces an unprecedented situation, especially with an opposition leader who, even during the last days in office, was bent upon clinging on to power at any cost to wage war on the justice system from the most powerful perch in the land (Plesner, 2021). This has gone on to polarise Israeli politics to such an extent that elections saw the complete realignment of candidates in ‘pro-Bibi’ and ‘anti-Bibi’ camps.
Political division in Israel has been a characteristic feature of its polity, and the sources of these divisions have varied and shifted over the decades (Plesner, 2021). Driven by the traditional, more common left-right divide came to an end when former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon left the Likud party to form the Kadima, who were estranged from both the right’s overarching ‘Greater Israel’ project and also the left’s utopian idealism (Plesner). These sentiments were also reflected in Netanyahu's speeches, and even his coalitions, which more often than not, included centrist elements. The nature of political divisions in Israel, however, have changed over the years, with issues of the country’s character and identity and the nation’s ‘Jewishness’ coming to the forefront. In this regard, the country has been divided into two distinct political camps - the first which believes that Israel is the world’s only democratic Jewish nation-state, and the second, which strives for Jewish sovereignty in the form of majority rule with next to no consideration for minority and civic rights (Plesner, 2021).
Bridging these gaps which was essentially inconceivable under the leadership of Netanyahu is emerging as one of the foremost goals of the Bennet government. In this regard, tying in the extreme clashes of personalities and ideologies within the coalition presents itself as the biggest challenge for the government. The issues that the newly elected administration must tackle are the annual budget, defections from Bennett’s incoming hard-line, pro-settlement party, moves by Hamas or Israeli extremists to test the new government, and the Israel-Palestinian conflict (Miller, 2021).
It is thus evident that the coalition finds its premise in a common discontentment and alienation towards the former prime minister and his government and little unity on their stance towards the issues that actually need solving urgently
There is also an overt acknowledgement of the fact that opening the Pandora's box of issues could hasten the demise of the entire unity project by bringing to the forefront, the matters which divide them (Lipner, 2021).
Currently, Israel is in desperate need of a distinct set of rules that govern the relations between the three branches of the government — legislative, executive, and the judiciary to counter its ineffective system of checks and balances (Plesner, 2021). As such, a number of new Basic Laws must be framed to redefine constitutional legislations and the relationship between the Knesset and the Supreme Court, which may prove to slow for the government currently includes many smaller parties from across the ideological spectrum, inviting multiple, extreme clashes of personalities and ideologies (Plesner, 2021).
The Glue Holding It All Together
In the face of these impending threats, the new government largely plans on avoiding sweeping moves on hot-button international issues such as policies towards the Palestinians (including the and focusing instead on domestic reforms) (Lubell, 2021). While it seems apparent that the present coalition government in Israel is destined for doom, there are certain factors that could potentially hold this government together, even when they are made to discuss and decide upon controversial issues of Palestine, their long-standing ideological debate, and the budget which had been brushed under the carpet at the time of the elections.
The first factor which could strengthen this government is in its unanimous unity against former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Miller, 2021). His behaviour towards each member of the coalition — whether it is the far left, the centre, or even the far right, has given the coalition massive incentives to keep him out of power. His determination to manipulate the media, the engineered ruin of Israel-US relations by abandoning the American Jewish community in light of the fact they are a mainstay of the Democratic Party, and the illusionary attitude towards Palestine in light of the ‘peace for peace’ deals signed with the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, has proved to be impetus enough for the Bennet-Lapid led coalition to rally for the anti-Bibi rhetoric among the masses. The idea is to ensure that the longer this government lasts, the further it will be able to distance itself from Netanyahu, decoupling the country’s fortunes from those of a man who has prioritised his well-being above that of the state (Daoud, 2021). This would thus usher the restoration of some inclusivity and stability in Israeli politics.
It is evident that it is difficult to describe this coalition as a unity government in any form beyond its main driver: unseating Netanyahu and avoiding a fifth election in two years. However, there are several reasons to believe that the Bennett-Lapid partnership might actually be here to stay. Both the leaders have been actively working against Netanyahu since 2013. Bennett, whose position is compromised due to the few number of seats in Knesset, has done well to closely cooperate and work with Lapid. The latter’s moderation, judgement, and restraint has come through, and citizens now see him as a potential leader of one of the strongest countries in the region (Miller, 2021).
This relatively mellowed political temperament is also rather conducive to the present political environment in the White House, where the Joe Biden administration might also prefer a subtle shift of the Israeli government’s focus on foreign policy issues to more domestic priorities, especially with regards to the Palestinian conflict (Sachs, 2021). Despite the fact the Naftali Bennett and his party is much more hard line and right-winged with respect to Palestine, its current dynamic with the rest of the coalition would likely compel him to control his pro-settlement convictions and avoid provocations in and around Jerusalem to hold the coalition together, and avoid an unnecessary conflict with the White House (Miller, 2021).
This also follows from the fact that the nature of the coalition would keep Bennett’s extremist, right wing instincts in check. In this regard, it is important to note that the government is striving to avoid a fifth election at all costs, and thus, these ideological fault lines would temper the worst of Bennett’s instincts (Daoud, 2021). It is in this context that Bennett had stated that “no one would be asked to give up their ideology, but everyone would have to postpone the realisation of some of their dreams” (Miller, 2021). With this mutual understanding, the government would finally be able to facilitate a post COVID-19 recovery programme, initiate infrastructural development, and ultimately, work towards a better interest of Israel’s national goals while at the same time, ensuring their survival in the government by pushing their ideological preferences aside.
The ‘change’ that the coalition promises is definitely something that the government may struggle to deliver. While it is not impossible, there is also a certain degree of fragility that comes with a coalition spanning across such a vast spectrum of ideologies. It proves that the purpose is more anti-incumbent than pro-Israel. With the very obvious, looming threat of dissent within the coalition due to opposing views, however, it is also characterised by a sense of staunch unity. The ideological disparities, if utilised tactfully, can in fact be used to curb the more conservative, right wing tendencies of the government, and bring forth more stability in the country.
Their ultimate goal is to calm things down (Indyk, 2021). They are expected to deliver on the things that actually matter — economic recovery from the pandemic, boosting healthcare facilities, infrastructure, education, and of course, coming up with a cohesive budget in the midst of complete breakdown of the economic and health forces.
While a government with such vast ideologies may be a sign of great instability, apprehension may not be the way forward. The gradual breakdown of all democratic structure in Israel has been swiftly countered with an extremely dynamic and well represented government which is a hallmark of any democracy. And it may be hoped that the government may as well be prevented from toeing the lines of extremism without meeting with swift objection from within.
Above all this unity government has been met with a collective sigh of relief, especially after the administrative disaster that the past two years have been. If the coalition manages to hold, which looks rather likely at this point, they would be “rewarded with the same technocratic tranquillity that has returned to Washington” (Arbit, 2021). With improved management and armed with a few crucial reforms, Israel would finally be able to make progress in the process of state building at home while playing an increasingly significant role in the region.
Arbit, C. (2021). Experts React: Israel Might Have A New Government. What's Next? Atlantic Council. Retrieved from https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/experts-react-israel-might-have-a-new-government-whats-next/
Daoud, D. (2021). Experts React: Israel Might Have A New Government. What's Next? Atlantic Council. Retrieved from https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/experts-react-israel-might-have-a-new-government-whats-next/
Indyk, M. (2021). The End of the Netanyahu Era. Foreign Affairs. Retrieved from https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/israel/2021-06-15/end-netanyahu-era
Lipner, S. (2021). Experts React: Israel Might Have A New Government. What's Next? Atlantic Council. Retrieved from https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/experts-react-israel-might-have-a-new-government-whats-next/
Lubell, J. H. (2021). Netanyahu Out, Bennett In, as Israel Marks End of an Era. Reuters. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/israels-knesset-vote-new-government-end-netanyahus-record-reign-2021-06-13/
Miller, A. D. (2021). Israel's New Coalition Government Is More Stable Than It Looks. Foreign Policy. Retrieved from https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/06/14/israel-bennett-coalition-government-stable/
Plesner, Y. (2021). Can Israel's New Center Hold? Foreign Affairs. Retrieved from https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/israel/2021-07-13/can-israels-new-center-hold
Sachs, N. (2021). Israel's New Government Agrees On Only One Thing: Booting Netanyahu. Brookings. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2021/06/23/israels-new-government-agrees-on-only-one-thing-booting-netanyahu/