June 21st, 2021
We have a new government in Israel. A bizarre rough slouching beast, at first appearance. Eight parties reflecting widely divergent political views have banded together with two aims in common: to deny long-serving Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu another term in office, and to put an end to the seemingly endless cycle of stalemated elections: four in the space of two years.
Will it survive? Three pointers to the future.
The new Prime Minister
The new Prime Minister, Naftali Bennet, is far from being the obvious choice to fill the post. He heads a six-person faction in the 120-seat Knesset, far behind Netanyahu’s Likud and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid. Further, he does not give off the sense of ease that one would expect from an experienced, confident politician.
Looking at the scenes in the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, during the decisive vote establishing the new government, it was Lapid, due to take over as prime minister in two years under the coalition agreement, who was cheerfully mingling with other lawmakers, radiating confidence and bonhomie; while Bennet sat, almost alone, tense, while the votes were being tallied. His nervousness was understandable, of course, bearing in mind what was at stake. But an observer would have thought that the gregarious Lapid was about to fill the top job. This augurs ill for Bennet’s ability to build alliances for an agenda of his own and to stamp his leadership on the coalition.
Lapid was the central figure in the coalition-building negotiations. His Yesh Atid party, the second largest in the Knesset, is well organized and entirely behind him. He may well also be at the real heart of cabinet discussions as ambitious and headstrong politicians pursue differing agendas. At the moment Bennet, by no means a fool or a political tyro, seems to lack the confidence and political power base to forge a common plan of action and hold his colleagues to it. While he previously tried to establish a right-wing party to rival the Likud, he met with only modest success, even failing to be reelected to the Knesset after one election. As opposed to Netanyahu, he has little popular support. However, he has tried to leverage the smarts he used to build a successful high-tech career before entering politics as proof of his managerial skills. His ability to land the top job despite his narrow political base was a considerable achievement. That said, he will be fully stretched to keep himself there for the appointed two years of his designated term.
Coalition is better than you think
The new government, though including many new faces, is more experienced than you would think. It boasts three politicians with key defense backgrounds. The current defense minister, Benny Gantz, is an Israeli armed forces’ former chief of staff, and has been in the job for over a year. Both Avigdor Liberman (the new finance minister) and Bennet himself have also occupied the post in the past, even though Netanyahu took most big decisions himself and kept everyone else out of the loop — one of the many traits that made him unloved by his colleagues. Little change is therefore expected in Israel’s policies on major issues such as Iran. In fact, there is widespread agreement on the need to contain the Islamic Republic’s efforts to build an atomic weapon and to spread its influence in the region. This should be an important stabilizing factor.
Huge challenges ahead
After two years of electoral uncertainty during which the Israel government has been operating without a budget, the new coalition will be aiming to pass a two-year budget as one of its first acts. Avigdor Liberman’s appointment as finance minister is intended to put to an end to the frequent clashes between politicians and treasury officials that marred the term of office of the previous minister Yisrael Katz and led to the high-profile resignations of civil servants. Requests for military spending are likely to be high on the agenda, as well as action to control the spiraling cost of housing. The presence of Mahmoud Abbas’s United Arab List in the coalition will ensure increased funding to support the burgeoning Israeli Arab community’s efforts to integrate further into the economy, as well as to tackle the gang-led crime wave currently rampant in Arab towns. At least the financial impact of Covid does not seem to have been as great as feared, so the new government should have some leeway on spending.
Netanyahu’s long shadow
And one glance back that may also be a pointer to the future. Binyamin Netanyahu is not going anywhere. He will do what he can to try and break the coalition that defeated him. He tried to form the new government and succeeded, sort of: the current coalition was formed in reaction to his actions over recent years and as a conscious attempt to remove him from office. Under no other conditions would it have successfully come to power. But their mutual antipathy to the former prime minister, and their ability to forge an agreed working agenda, may not be enough to keep them there for long.
The views and opinions expressed in this issue brief are those of the author.
|Ralph Amelan is a Global Policy Institute Fellow. He has contributed articles and book reviews to the Jerusalem Post and the Jerusalem Report fortnightly magazine and was the book review editor for the Report for over ten years. He holds a BA and MA in Jurisprudence from Oxford University. He worked as an information specialist for the U.S. Embassy in Israel for 25 years.