Updated: June 13, 2021 12:29:50 pm
Written by Roger Cohen
A new Israeli government united in its determination to oust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but in agreement on little else, is set to take office Sunday under a right-wing leader whose eight-party coalition includes the left and, for the first time, an independent Arab party.
It looks like a recipe for chronic instability.
Even Sunday’s confidence vote in the Knesset, or parliament, that would usher in the first change in Israeli leadership in a dozen years is not a done deal, given the razor-thin majority of Naftali Bennett’s coalition with its 61 seats in the 120-member chamber. But every indication is that the votes to make Bennett prime minister are locked in, absent some eleventh-hour drama.
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A signed coalition agreement was formally presented to the Knesset secretariat Friday, the last step before a vote and the swearing-in of the new government.
Survival will then become the issue. Israel’s parliamentary democracy veered in a presidential direction under Netanyahu. In the end, his increasingly dismissive style had alienated too many people, especially among nominal allies on the right.
Agreement to return to democratic norms may be the underlying glue of the unlikely coalition.
“The parties are disparate, but they share a commitment to reconstitute Israel as a functioning liberal democracy,” said Shlomo Avineri, a prominent political scientist. “In recent years we saw Netanyahu begin to govern in a semi-authoritarian way.”
After agreement was reached Friday on the government program, Bennett said: “The government will work for all the Israeli public — religious, secular, ultra-Orthodox, Arab — without exception, as one. We will work together, out of partnership and national responsibility, and I believe we will succeed.”
Success will require constant compromise. “They will not deal with the highly contentious issues between left and right,” said Tamar Hermann, a professor of political science at Israel’s Open University.
In practice, that means a likely concentration on domestic rather than foreign affairs. Israel has not had a budget in more than two years of political turmoil and repetitive elections. Bennett, a self-made tech millionaire, is determined to deliver higher standards of living and prosperity to a population weary of such paralysis.
The delicate questions to be deferred or finessed would include any renewed peace negotiations with the Palestinians and any major settlement expansion in the West Bank.
Although Bennett was once a leader of the main settler movement in the West Bank and has called for the annexation of parts of the territory Israel captured in 1967, he seems certain to be constrained by centrist and left-wing members of the coalition and by the pragmatism that survival demands.
Establishing good relations with the Biden administration, a priority, and improving relations with America’s majority liberal Jewish community, another significant goal, will also require centrist restraint.
“Hard core people of the right, we have the evidence, become more centrist in office,” Hermann said. “Bennett was not prime minister when he made his pro-settlement statements.”
Bennett, 49, like other prominent members of the prospective Cabinet, has waited a long time to emerge from Netanyahu’s shadow. Yair Lapid, 57, the incoming foreign minister, and Gideon Saar, 54, who would become justice minister, are other prominent politicians of a generation weary of being sidelined by the man many Israelis had come to dub the King of Israel. They will not want to return to the shadows.
Lapid, a leading architect of the coalition, would become prime minister in two years under the deal that made an alternative to Netanyahu possible — another incentive for him to help make the government work.
Still, it may not. The parties, ranging from Bennett’s Yamina party on the right to Labor and Meretz on the left, disagree on everything from LGBTQ rights to public transportation on Shabbat.
They will come under withering, constant attack from Netanyahu’s center-right Likud party. It is conceivable that Netanyahu will be ousted from Likud at some point, whereupon the right-wing members of the coalition may return to their natural alliances.
“It’s not going to be easy,” said Avraham Diskin, a political scientist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “I really doubt that Lapid will become prime minister two years from now.”
Among measures the prospective government has agreed on is legislation that would set a two-term limit for prime ministers. In effect, this would preclude Netanyahu redux.
Four ministries will be shut down, including the digital and strategic affairs ministries. Netanyahu had a Cabinet so large and unwieldy he could argue that he had to make decisions himself.
The prospective government will also pursue legislation designed to make it more difficult to change Israel’s basic laws, which serve as the constitutional foundation of the country in the absence of a constitution. Netanyahu, who had been indicted on fraud and other charges, appeared to seek a curtailing of the powers of the Supreme Court and immunity from prosecution as prime minister.
The presence of Raam, an independent Arab party, in government, will impact policy to some degree.
The disparities — in living standards, education and access to land — between Israeli Jews and the Palestinian citizens of Israel, who account for about 20% of the population, has become a burning issue. Violent clashes between the communities last month were the worst in two decades. Tensions remain high.
The government looks set to allocate almost $10 billion to close gaps between the communities over the next several years, freeze demolitions of unlicensed homes in Arab areas, recognize three Bedouin villages in the Negev desert, improve public transportation, and increase policing in disadvantaged Arab communities suffering from drug dealing and violence.
The posts promised to Raam to secure its support include deputy minister in the prime minister’s office and chairman of the Knesset committee for Arab affairs.
But tensions could flare at any moment. Most immediately, a nationalist march through Muslim-majority areas of Jerusalem’s Old City has been rescheduled for Tuesday. The original Jerusalem Day march last month was canceled because of Hamas rocket fire and clashes between the police and Palestinian protesters.
The issue remains highly sensitive, charged with the same emotions that led to a short war last month, despite efforts to agree on a less sensitive route for the march. The political adroitness of Bennett and Lapid will be quickly tested.
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