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Israel swears in a new government

New Israeli Prime-Minister Naftali Bennett speaks with US President Joe Biden, credit: GPO/ Ariel Zandberg

After a protracted political crisis in Israel following the parliamentary elections on 23 March, the fourth in two years, a new government was sworn in yesterday evening with the smallest possible majority, 60 to 59, out of the 120 votes in the Knesset.

By this historic vote, Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12 yearlong rule as a Prime-Minister comes to an end although he promised in his speech that “We’ll be back soon”. A simple majority was enough to swear in the new government. A member of the United Arab List, an Islamist party which is the first Arab party to be included in an Israeli government, abstained in the last minute.

In the elections neither of the pro-Netanyahu and the anti-Netanyahu blocs received the required 61 mandates to form a new government. Netanyahu was tasked first by President Reuven Rivlin to form a new government. After he failed, the task was given to Yair Lapid, leader of the second-biggest party, the centre party Yesh Atid (“There is a future”).

After intensive discussions, the anti-Netanyahu parties managed to agree in the very last hour before the mid-night deadline on 2 June to rally the signatures of 61 Knesset members.

To enable the formation of a new government, Lapid offered Naftali Bennett, leader of the smaller rightist party Yamina, the post as Prime-Minister. Lapid himself will become minister of foreign affairs and replace Bennett as Prime-Minister after two years.

The deal was however not done until the swearing in of the government yesterday (13 June) as Netanyahu and his coalition partners did not accept their defeat and continued to exert immense pressure on rightist members to defect to his party. As Donald Trump had done when he lost the presidential elections in the US last year, they accused Bennet of election fraud and of stealing rightist votes.

In fact, Netanyahu’s rightist party Likud received only about 24 % of the votes in the March elections and with the support of two ultra-orthodox parties and new extremist party fell well below the majority threshold.

The change government, while supported by the other half of the electorate, is composed of 8 parties – right, centre, left and Arab – and from that point of view much more representative than the previous government. It is not a “fully rightist” government, as Netanyahu tried to establish, but nor a “leftist” government. On the contrary, the right will play a decisive role in the new government.

Naftali Bennett, the new Prime-Minister, a former successful IT-entrepreneur and director-general of the council of settlements in the West Bank, has a clear rightist ideology and agenda. His second hand, Ayelet Shaked, has been leading in the politicisation of the supreme court of justice. She will serve as interior minister during the first half of the government term and as minister of justice in the second term. Other rightist ministers will keep other key ministries.

According to the coalition agreement, Bennett and Lapid will have veto power over the decisions made in the new cabinet and ministerial committees.

“The minimum size coalition (just 61 Knesset members out of 120) of eight parties reflecting all the Israeli political spectrum may survive for a while because the glue that keeps it together is Netanyahu, the head of the opposition,” commented Professor Efraim Inbar, president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.

“The members of the anti-Netanyahu bloc will do everything to keep him in that position. This coalition signals the ability to cooperate on the part of parties with different agendas, as well as the large consensus in Israel’s society. This message is important to tone down the heated partisan and acerbic public discourse that characterized the last two years period that witnessed four election campaigns.”

He told The Brussels Times that the new government’s most important test will be to pass a budget for 2022 in the Knesset, a prerequisite for not sliding into a new election. “The coalition partners, despite their differences in their political preferences, will refrain from trying to promote policies that might rock the boat, in order to stay in power. Therefore, no drastic policy changes are to be expected.”

The ceremony in the Knesset turned very stormy with members of the Netanyahu coalition, including ministers, shouting and heckling the new Prime-Minister, while Netanyahu himself was silent and did not try to calm them down. The outgoing speaker tried to keep order by expelling some of them. Naftali Bennett made an effort to finish his inauguration speech but Lapid had to skip his speech.

US president Joe Biden, currently visiting Brussels, spoke by telephone to Bennett on Sunday evening.  In their conversation, the leaders emphasized the importance of the alliance between Israel and the United States, as well as their commitment to strengthening ties between the two countries, and maintaining the security of the State of Israel.

At the time of writing, the EU has not yet issued any statement but its foreign policy chief, High Representative Josep Borrell, tweeted that he has spoken to Yair Lapid and congratulated him to his appointment as Foreign Minister and alternate Prime-Minster.

According to the tweet, they “discussed the importance of strengthening the bilateral partnership & promoting security & peace in the region. Looking forward to working together & welcoming you soon in Brussels.”

After the elections in March, a Commission spokesperson said that, “The EU is committed to working with the incoming Israeli government on further pursuing a mutually beneficial relationship and on regional issues. The EU is also ready to support the resumption of a meaningful peace process towards a two-state solution.”

The new government, however, will probably have to focus on domestic issues where it can mobilise consensus among its coalition partners and carry out necessary reforms that will benefit both Jewish and Arab citizens. In his speech, Bennett emphasised that he intends to serve all the population and warned against the ungovernability during the Netanyahu regime and the disunity in Jewish history 2000 years ago.

“I am proud of the ability to sit together with people with very different views from my own. Our principle is, we will sit together, and we will forge forward on that which we agree – and there is much we agree on, transport, education and so on, and what separates us we will leave to the side. The new government will be a government which strives for real, practical solutions, to the problems faced by the country and its citizens.”

Importantly, he promised that Israel “will open a new page in the relations between the State of Israel and the country’s Arab citizens.”

M. Apelblat
The Brussels Times