Israel’s government marks a year, but the future is uncertain

Jerusalem (AFP) – Even Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who leads an ideologically divided coalition that is constantly on the brink of collapse, has expressed doubts about the viability of his eight-party government.

“A year ago I wasn’t sure if that was feasible,” the religious-nationalist leader told AFP, 12 months after ending the lengthy tenure of right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

According to the deal he struck with the coalition’s architect, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, the two are to swap posts halfway through their four-year terms.

The first anniversary of their motley alliance falls next Monday, but some experts say a second is highly unlikely. Others doubt it will survive to the end of the month.

The looming demise is nothing new for a coalition that spans the political spectrum from far-right like Bennett to centrists, doves and Arab Islamists.

The resignation of a member of the prime minister’s Yamina alliance in April stripped them of their majority in Israel’s 120-seat parliament.

It even lasted as a minority government for several days after a left-wing Arab lawmaker left last month, but she then returned and the coalition now holds 60 seats.

After the deal Bennett (right) struck with the coalition’s architect, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (left), the two are set to swap posts GIL COHEN-MAGEN POOL/AFP/Files

However, the current crisis, which has its roots in one of Israel’s most sensitive fault lines, could prove fatal.

New threat

Lawmakers from two coalition supporters, the United Arab List (Raam) and the peaceful Meretz party, have refused to renew a measure ensuring Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank are subject to Israeli law.

Any concession to the idea that the settlers live outside of Israel is anathema to other coalition partners, notably Yamina and the militant New Hope party led by Justice Minister Gideon Saar.

One measure ensures that Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank are subject to Israeli law
One measure ensures that Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank are subject to Israeli law AHMAD GHARABLI AFP/FILE

It remains uncertain whether the government will survive this dispute or what the next crisis will entail.

But in written responses to AFP’s interview questions, Bennett argued that the alliance had already proven its worth and demonstrated the value of compromise between rivals.

“Having actually led this government for a year, my greatest realization is that Israel is at its best when we work together, overcome our differences, and focus on the good of this country,” he wrote.

“What started out as a political accident became a purpose. It’s working,” he added, noting the passage of a budget in November, Israel’s first in three years.

“A year ago, Israel was heading for its fifth election in two years and was paralyzed by polarization,” Bennett said, recalling the turmoil that had marked the last few years under Netanyahu.

“This government is the antidote to polarization.”

“No peace plan”

A hardliner in the Palestinian conflict, Bennett was not previously known for his commitment to political inclusivity.

When the former head of a settler lobby first ran for office in 2012-2013, he drew attention for conveying nationalist messages with a modern twist.

Bennett is opposed to Palestinian statehood and has assured that there will be no peace talks during his tenure
Bennett is opposed to Palestinian statehood and has assured that there will be no peace talks during his tenure JAAFAR ASHTIYEH AFP/FILE

“There are certain things that most of us understand will never happen,” one campaign said. “The Sopranos aren’t coming back for another season … and there will never be a peace plan with the Palestinians.”

Bennett has not changed ideologically: he is opposed to Palestinian statehood and has assured that there will be no peace talks during his tenure while his government has approved new settler homes in the West Bank.

Bennett said he instead wants to expand economic opportunity for Palestinians, including through access to higher-paying Israeli jobs.

However, some experts say Bennett’s first year in office has shown that he was partially miscast as an unwavering hardliner.

“He puts the interests of the state above the interests of the ideological camp he represents,” said Yedidia Stern, president of the Jewish People Policy Institute and law professor at Bar Ilan University.

“Protect Democracy”

Bennett’s coalition was forged by a shared antipathy to Netanyahu, who ruled from 1996 to 1999 and again from 2009 to last June.

While many of Bennett’s associates share Netanyahu’s combative views, they broke with him over fears he would undermine state institutions to serve his personal ambitions and survive a corruption-related trial, which he denies.

While many of Bennett's associates share Netanyahu's hawkish views, they broke with him, fearing he would undermine state institutions to further his own ambitions
While many of Bennett’s associates share Netanyahu’s hawkish views, they broke with him, fearing he would undermine state institutions to further his own ambitions Yonatan SINDEL POOL/AFP/FILE

Netanyahu, a close ally of former US President Donald Trump, was seen by many as fueling right-wing populism and spreading conspiracy theories about malicious judges, bureaucrats and journalists.

Ami Pedahzur, author of The Triumph of Israel’s Radical Right, argued that Bennett’s government was made up of “institutionalists” who opposed the narrative of a “cabal or deep state trying to wrest power from the people.”

Left-right divisions have been temporarily stifled by a shared desire to “defend the institutions for a while,” said Pedahzur, an Israeli-born professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

Bennett similarly commended his coalition for “preserving the integrity of Israeli democracy.”

“It’s not about making the left happy one day and the right another day,” he wrote. “It’s about listening to each other, hearing different perspectives and sometimes making compromises.”

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