As Israel inches closer to ending two years of political stalemate and 12 consecutive years of Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership, pressure on rightwing parties preparing to join a “change” coalition from pro-Netanyahu rightwingers, has reached a crescendo. Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, leaders of the hardline Yamina party, have been called traitors and collaborators and received death threats for their planned defection from Netanyahu’s camp.
As so often in Israeli politics, there is an American parallel: Bennett and Shaked’s expressions recalled the unforgettable face of the US senator Lindsey Graham days after the 6 January Capitol riots as he was harangued by Trump-cult followers, unhinged by Graham’s denunciation of their leader. But it didn’t take long for Graham to revert to his pre-January, pro-Trump affinity. Will Yamina do the same? Bennett and Shaked could still cave to far-right pressure. Moreover, any number of tactics Netanyahu is devising may yet derail the new government before it is sworn in.
Even if the new government survives gestation, it might not be viable. “Rainbow coalition” would be an optimistic description; the “change” government would be a tangled knot of staunch nationalist, centre and leftwing parties, dependent on an Arab Islamist party for a voting majority. Can such a fraught alliance live up to its promise of change?
So much stands to go wrong. In a country with a major democratic deficit, Bennett is currently slated to become prime minister, though he received just 6.2% of the vote, as a reward for leaving Netanyahu’s camp. The largest party in the coalition, Yesh Atid, won 17 parliamentary seats and holds the mandate to form the government, but may never actually lead the country if the structure collapses before the aspirational rotation for the prime ministerial position.
Future coalition crises are already visible at the formation stage. On Monday, Shaked demanded to sit on Israel’s judicial appointment committee, a spot already promised to the leader of the leftwing Labor party, Merav Michaeli.
What sounds like a technicality touches on one of the most bitter, divisive issues in Israel today: the role of the judiciary. Shaked served as justice minister from 2015 to 2019, a role in which she fought valiantly to constrain judicial activism, increase partisan control over the supreme court (including judicial appointments) by the Knesset and the executive, and undermine the court’s authority in general. Michaeli and the Labor party have promised to do just the opposite: the left wing in Israel views the supreme court and the judiciary as critical restraints on government excesses, and defenders of human rights and liberal values (an inaccurate characterisation when it comes to the court’s role in occupation policies).
If members of the new government hold irreconcilable views on the judiciary, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the occupation could tear the alliance apart. Bennett was a prominent West Bank annexationist already in 2013, years ahead of Netanyahu, while Labor and the further-left Meretz party are stalwart two-state supporters. Yair Lapid, leader of Yesh Atid, tips towards two states (and centrist Israelis are firmly in the two-state camp). Either the government could collapse over policy regarding the Palestinians, or remain paralysed. But Israeli political paralysis means deepening occupation in practice – including creeping annexation, slow settlement spread and the decay of diplomacy between the two sides. If another war breaks out (the IDF has already warned of renewed fighting with Hamas), Ra’am, the Arab party whose four votes are critical for the future government, may suspend its support, just as it suspended coalition negotiations during the recent escalation.
For these reasons, voices on the margins of the left and the right are grumbling that a new government, should it come to pass, brings nothing good. Such a conclusion is unnecessarily defeatist. The new government still offers some “firsts” and “maybes” regarding policy change.
The symbolism of Israel establishing a government for the first time with the votes of a party representing Palestinian citizens of Israel – even as an “outside” supporter – cannot be overstated. The move towards Arab representation in Israel’s executive branch is painfully incremental and inexcusably late, and liberal spirits are not fully lifted by a conservative Islamist homophobic party breaking this ground. But it is progress nonetheless.
It would also be the first time in 20 years that little leftwing Meretz joins a governing coalition and holds ministerial portfolios. Not participating in the government is a notable trait among those parties of whom voters complain “but they really haven’t done anything lately”. Conversely, part of Netanyahu’s staying power has been the snowball effect of consolidating power. Voters cannot imagine anyone else governing, hence the oft-heard refrain “There’s no one else but him”. A new government would demonstrate that there is. If the rotation for prime minister goes as planned, from Bennett to Lapid, citizens will see that there are even two someone elses. That’s healthy for democracy.
A coalition built of mostly secular parties, even from the political right, could theoretically advance greater separation of religion and state in Israel, something the majority of Israelis support but is usually held hostage to ultra-orthodox coalition members.
Not least, should Netanyahu finally go down, it will be largely because his megalomaniac personality and divisive invective galvanised opponents of all political stripes against him. The words “friendship” and “unity” are on every key politician’s lips these days. In the bleak landscape of Israeli politics, even irony is welcome.