The mechanics of change: How to build a new government in Israel with old material

This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.
The mechanics of change: How to build a new government in Israel with old material
From the left, Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid), Naftali Bennet (Yamina) and Mansour Abbas (Islamist Ra’am).

The swearing in of a new government may or may not be a big event. In Israel last week, it was. Not only because it dispelled the spectre of a fifth election, at least temporarily.

Nor only because it meant that, after 12 consecutive years as Israel’s prime minister and the longest overall premiership in the country’s history, Binyamin Netanyahu was relegated to the opposition benches. The event in the Knesset was remarkable due to the surprising government coalition that was achieved. Agreements were reached with eight parties, from right-wing Yamina (settler interests), Tikva Hadasha (largely breakaway from Netanyahu’s Likud party) and Israel Beitenu (secularist), over centrist Kahol-Lavan and Yesh Atid, to left-wing Avoda (labour) and Meretz (social-democrat), plus – as a first – an Arab Israeli party, Ra’am (islamist).

Even in other countries with a tradition of government coalitions such a hotchpotch would raise eyebrows. In Israel, it provided for fervent speculation ahead of the swearing-in, a raucous ceremony, and a host of early predictions on the government’s fate. While it would be illusionary to blindly trust any of those (this is the Middle East, after all), a few elements are worth noting.

First of all, a jolly atmosphere seemed to reign between many of the ministers. The new prime minister, Naftali Bennett (Yamina), consistently referred to chief negotiator and alternate prime minister/foreign minister Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) as “my friend”. He also quipped at himself joining Merav Michaeli’s (Avoda) gender-inclusive speech. Some cabinet members with rather opposite views were seen addressing each other cordially. While this joviality is of course de rigueur at the government’s onset, it may be more than superficial. In particular, Bennett and Lapid are reported to have maintained a good and respectful personal relationship, despite diverging views, for about a decade.

A cabinet member who did not hide a dose of scepsis was Yamina’s Ayelet Shaked, who stated that she would have preferred a more right-wing government, to then concede that the current coalition was the best possible in order to avoid new elections. Still, the new government is a “rotation” government (not unseen in Israeli politics), and Shaked, who was sworn in as the interior minister, might already be looking forward to the musical chairs in August 2023, when she is promised the justice portfolio she has held in the past and still highly covets.

Another gimmick to assemble divergent visions in one government are the coalition agreements themselves, as the government does not rest on one agreement signed by all eight parties. Rather, every party entered into a scheme with chief negotiator Lapid’s Yesh Atid, and all parties accepted that the “basic agreement” between Yesh Atid and Yamina would bind also them, with the exception of two clauses on West Bank Area C and the budget. Lapid and Bennett, who are to swap their roles of prime minister/alternate prime minister in August 2023, both hold a veto over government decisions.

In spite of all these arrangements, though, a certain perception reigned that the new government was centre-left or left-wing. While Netanyahu and his traditional allies indeed did not waste an opportunity to brand it as such, it is true that the new government was widely hailed by the center-left of the (Jewish) political spectrum, while the (Jewish) right and Arab parties seemed hopelessly divided. Another reason, therefore, for the parties composing the government, to walk the extra mile in order to stick together, is the fear of suffering a serious beating should new elections be held in the near future.

Nevertheless, whereas the desire for “change” (i.e. the refusal to sit with Netanyahu, who is also standing trial in court) may provide for sticking glue, the question remains as to how strong this glue will prove when the  government’s components will suffer the effects of ideological centrifugalism. As a matter of fact, the eight parties find themselves on different sides of fault lines with regard to a number of burning issues: the power of the judiciary, equality of rights, religion and state, the economy, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and regional and foreign policy. It should be borne in mind that the government was sworn in with 60 votes for and 59 against (one Yamina member voted against and one Ra’am member abstained), which further shows the fragility of the coalition.

Some of the contentious topics already emerged during the government's first week. In particular, after a contested flag parade in Jerusalem on 15 June 2021, the next touchstone for the government is the projected continuation of the temporary suspension of family reunifications between Israeli Arabs and their Palestinian spouses. This measure was first introduced in 2003 after family reunification had been abused by Palestinians involved in attacks within Israel. Since, the government has renewed it every year. Although some exceptions to the rule are possible, Meretz, Avoda and Ra'am find it hard to support its prolongation, as they point to the heavy personal impact (impossibility for Arab spouses to live together) of the security-inspired measure.

Ironically, the fate of Israel’s thirty-sixth government may well be in the hands of the person ousted by it. As long as the former prime minister continues to lead Likud, indeed, right-wingers in the “change government” are not likely to be tempted by a rapprochement with their ideological counterparts in the opposition. However, if Netanyahu disappears from the limelight and a comeback as prime minister is excluded, some partners in the current government may well leave it and try to build a new one with Likud and other right-wing parties currently in the opposition. Such a move would not be a sign of true loyalty but could be triggered by a major government crisis. As per Israeli law, it would not require new elections and the government would be able to rely on a comfortable right-wing majority in the Knesset.

It will be interesting to watch, therefore, if Likud primaries will be held in the early future. Netanyahu could push for their organisation to confirm and strengthen his own position. However, this step may also trigger the opposite effect, as several senior Likud politicians are unhappy about Netanyahu’s largesse in offering, during coalition negotiations, the alternate premiership to the leaders of Yamina, Tikva Hadasha and Kahol-Lavan, whereas they themselves were made feel little relevant.

A lot is thus up in the air for both the new government and its opposition. And – it bears repeating – in the Middle East events are almost predictably unpredictable. In just a few months, Israel put in place a Covid-19 exit strategy, mourned the loss of 45 lives at a religious celebration at Mount Meron, and got involved in a new round of the conflict with Hamas in Gaza, as well as inter-ethnic tensions and violence amongst its own population. While the new government has vowed to take on these and other issues, it will be worthwhile to watch the scene.

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