4 min read
A Coalition of Sand: Will Israel’s New Government Last?

Ilan Hulkower

In the wake of the 2021 elections for the Knesset, Israel’s legislative body, a new government was formed that ousted Benjamin Netanyahu, the longest serving Israeli prime minister, from power by a narrow margin of one vote. Yet, Netanyahu, now head of the opposition, is not out of the political game, even though he is going to face a leadership contest in his own party and has failed to move the date of the primary to his benefit. This new ruling coalition, headed by Naftali Bennett of the religious right-wing Yamina party and Yair Lapid of the secular, centrist Yesh Atid party, is a motley lot comprised of anti-Netanyahu right wingers to secular leftists to Islamists. While the credo of being against Netanyahu bound them together, it remains to be seen how they can form a long-lived stable government given their diverse and conflicting interests. The new government’s ability to implement its domestic and foreign policy agenda therefore serves as a key measure of its continued viability. In other words, the ability of a government to set an agenda and pass laws or act effectively on the world stage to advance this agenda are yardsticks to judge whether the coalition will be stable. 

The domestic situation for the new government, which was formed on the 13th of June, has not been an easy one. Member of Knesset Amichai Chikli, who belongs to the Yamina party, has gone rogue. Chikli voted against proposed legislation and declared that he is considering joining Netanyahu’s Likud party, when the next election happens. The net effect of Chikli’s act of defiance, as well as the abstention of two members of the United Arab List party, which is also a part of the governing coalition, was that a key piece of legislation did not muster enough votes in the parliament to pass. The opposition went beyond shooting down the bill in presenting a motion of no confidence in the government. The motion ultimately fell short of the necessary votes. A further insult to injury is that the proposed law would have ordinarily united the support of right wing parties, yet none of the right wing opposition parties voted in favor of it, out of spite for the new government. According to the current Interior Minister, the bill will be reintroduced at some point. 

Similar concerns about legislative dysfunction have been raised about another key item of legislation revolving around extending the Haredi draft law passage, which would typically have the support of most if not all right wing parties given that it exempts many from the ultra-Orthodox community from the draft. Yet another further headache to the new government is the recent power play by the United Arab List party (also known as Ra’am), which is an Islamist party. It was announced that the party will no longer vote with the coalition or participate in Knesset meetings, until further notice. This political maneuver was in protest to Bennett attempting to garner support for his state budget bill. A member of the Islamist party went so far as to say that this “will not be the last coalition crisis.” All of these early crises which have upset the coalition’s legislative agenda do not bode well for the post-Netanyahu government and there is every indication that legislative gridlock will continue for some time. 

While the government does not have much freedom of action in domestic affairs, it does have greater control over foreign policy. Yet, the government seems to be divided on whether this foreign policy will be more conciliatory than the previous administration or more hawkish in the realm of national security. This split can be crudely personified in the two leading men of the government, Bennett and Lapid. 

Bennett is an advocate for a more aggressive pro-national security foreign policy, while Lapid appears to be in favor of a more cautious and conciliatory foreign policy. From its inception, the new government has, in general, attempted to position itself as more aggressive in defending Israel than Netanyahu. For instance, Bennett has adopted a policy of automatic retaliatory air strikes to Hamas’s arson balloon launches, in comparison to Netanyahu, who was more selective in what launches merited airstrikes. Additionally, Bennett did not change course when the United States condemned the demolition of the home of a Palestinian-American accused of killing an Israeli student, despite alternative coalition opinions. Bennett has also berated Netanyahu as being all talk and no action towards Iran. 

In contrast, Lapid has advocated a rapprochement with the Democrats in the United States and with the European Union. For instance, Lapid critiqued Netanyahu for exacerbating the gulf between Democrats and Israel and for Netanyahu's penchant for making public his disagreements with the United States over how to deal with Iran rather than discussing these things in what Lapid deems is a direct and professional manner. Lapid therefore sees his new government as an opportunity to reset relations between the Democrats and Israel. To this end, Israel is prepared for the United States to reenter the Iran nuclear deal, but is lobbying the White House to continue Trump’s sanctions on Iran, given Israel’s concerns about Iran’s ballistic missile program and the Islamic Republic’s expansionist policy. Lapid has also attempted to conduct a charm offensive in Europe and was the first Israeli foreign minister to address the European Foreign Affairs Council in over 12 years. In his address to his European peers, he backed the idea of a two state solution. In summary, Israeli foreign policy appears to have contrasts of its own between the taking of an aggressive line when it comes to matters of national security and denouncements of the previous administration of being soft on Iran, while there have been gestures of a potential rapprochement with a Democratic-led American government and the European Union.

In conclusion, the new government faces its fair share of challenges. It appears to move from crisis to crisis with an inability to pass key pieces of legislation. Indeed, attempts to reach out the opposition through trying to pass right wing legislation and govern from the right have found no success. If the government cannot look to the right wing to save it from a domestic logjam, it will have to turn leftwards and appeal to the Arab parties to set and pass a legislative agenda. The United Arab List therefore sees a chance where they can gain a more powerful position within the government and have been threatening further logjams if they do not get their way.

Yet, Israel is a Jewish state with a Jewish majority and attempts to fundamentally revise the current political order are unlikely to be popular. Such a state of government, paralyzed by contradictory divides within its own coalition, is unlikely to win the next election, let alone survive a full term in office. The opposition is only trying to encourage such a divide and ensure a deadlock as Netanyahu (or his successor) will capitalize on his opponents’ weaknesses to make a case for his return to power.

The consequences of either policy emerging triumphant are clear: if the government appears more dovish on foreign policy than Netanyahu and with a leftward-leaning domestic agenda, especially given Bennett’s rhetoric, it will strengthen the hand of the opposition. If it is more aggressive in foreign affairs and more right-wing in domestic legislation than Netanyahu, it risks the ire of foreign powers like the United States and the European Union, whom Lapid wants to cozy up to, and it increases the likelihood of the Arab and leftist parties abandoning the coalition. In effect, a perfect storm of events that forces the government to clarify what its dominant ideology is might also lead to the derailment of the nascent government.

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