Don’t write off Israel’s new coalition government – it could herald real change

It may take years to bear fruit, but Jewish-Arab partnership is at last on Israel’s political agenda

Donald Macintyre
Thursday 03 June 2021 19:30 BST
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<p>Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett (left) speaks to his Yesh Atid counterpart Yair Lapid in the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on Wednesday</p>

Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett (left) speaks to his Yesh Atid counterpart Yair Lapid in the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on Wednesday

It isn’t hard to be cynical about the alternative coalition now finally poised, after four inconclusive elections in just two years, to oust Benjamin Netanyahu, the longest serving prime minister in Israel’s history.

Desperate to cling to power – and to protect himself from his criminal trial on corruption charges, which he denies – Netanyahu will deploy all his formidable skills in an effort to detach from the parties forming the coalition individual Knesset members who are discontented with their leaders’ choice of partners.

The yawning doctrinal abyss between, on the right, Yamina, led by the ultra-nationalist Naftali Bennett (who will now be the first prime minister in a rotation agreed with the centrist Yair Lapid), all the way to Meretz on the left, is not a recipe for long-term survival. Netanyahu is down, but not reliably out.

The relief at the end of King Bibi’s reign among liberals, outside as well as inside Israel, and even more among most Palestinians, will be enhanced by a sense of schadenfreude at Netanyahu’s failure to capitalise on last month’s brutal military assault on Gaza, which they saw as largely motivated by his hunger to remain in power. But they will hardly see much to celebrate in an alternative government, in which three leading figures, most notably Bennett, are personally even further to the right, in ideological terms, than Netanyahu himself.

All of that said, Lapid’s success in assembling this new coalition cannot be written off. Yes, it is fragile. But there are reasons, apart from the natural desire of politicians to retain ministerial office, once acquired, why some of its leading figures may not be anxious to break apart the coalition and proceed to a fifth election, which would exasperate many Israeli voters.

Whether Bennett will be forced – even temporarily – to compromise on his dangerous vision of unrestrained Israeli settlement growth in the occupied West Bank and a “greater Israel” between the Mediterranean and the River Jordan must be a matter of doubt. But he may be keen to avoid an early election for fear that many of his hard-right supporters would punish him for joining forces with centre-left parties. This is especially true since he broke off talks with Lapid last month in the midst of the Gaza conflagration, only to return to them once the war was over.

You can argue that there isn’t much political difference between a Bennett premiership and a Netanyahu one, of course. The new coalition will feature, as well as those on the centre and left, other ministers on the right like Gideon Saar, who broke away from Netanyahu’s Likud, and Avigdor Lieberman, who once suggested bombing the Aswan Dam and treating Gaza as Russia had treated Chechnya. The fact remains that the government that Netanyahu was trying to assemble was the most right wing in Israeli history. It would have included such figures as the racist settler and follower of the infamous Meir Kehane, Itamar Ben Gvir, who was prominent in fomenting the Jewish-Arab tensions in Jerusalem that preceded the Gaza war.

But there’s another reason that the Lapid-Bennett coalition could just herald real change, at least in the longer term, which is the historic inclusion in it of Mansour Abbas’s Ra’am party. The last government to depend – albeit temporarily – on Arab support was Yitzhak Rabin’s in the Nineties when backbench Arab Knesset members saved him from a “no confidence” vote. But that was nothing like this time, when Ra’am is a full signatory to a coalition.

Remarkably, it was Netanyahu’s own courtship of Abbas which helped turn him into a kingmaker. So determined was the prime minister to remain in power at any cost that he was prepared to break the taboo against bringing Arab parties into government. (He was helped by Abbas’s religious and socially conservative views which were an ironically good fit with those of some of Netanyahu’s ultra-orthodox Jewish allies.) In the end, however, Abbas was successfully wooed by Lapid.

But just as in May the right discovered that it could not form a coalition without an Arab partner, so will it be – even more so – for the much-diminished Israeli left. Some on the Jewish left were annoyed that other, secular, Arab parties, the ones in the “Joint List” – including Hadash, led by the able leftist Ayman Odeh – were unwilling, as an understandable matter of principle, to join a government headed by Naftali Bennett (though they did not try to stop such a government being formed).

There is a momentous lesson in this. Jewish Israeli politicians – including too many on the left – have long argued that the Israeli public is “not ready” for Arab politicians in its government, even though those parties represent 20 per cent of the electorate. It looks as if that myth is now exploding. If the Israeli left – including those who want to reverse the settlement project and crippling siege of Gaza and end discrimination against Palestinians who live in Israel as citizens, as well as those in the occupied territories – is ever to rebuild, it will have to do so in joint partnership with the Arab parties.

It may take years to bear fruit, but Jewish-Arab partnership is at last on Israel’s political agenda.

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