One year on, Israel’s ‘change’ government is on the brink

June 10, 2022 by JNS
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Israel’s government is marking its one-year anniversary but there is little celebration…writes Charles Bybelezer.

Israeli opposition leader and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu takes a morning walk in central Jerusalem, June 1, 2022. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

After recently losing its parliamentary majority, and no longer able to pass basic legislation, the coalition led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid is hanging on by the proverbial thread.

The current government represents Israel’s most ideologically diverse coalition ever—including eight parties spanning the political spectrum from, ostensibly, the far left to the hard right, plus the Islamist Ra’am party. The unlikely partners came together to break the political gridlock and turmoil that had gripped the country over four elections in the previous two years, and send former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the opposition after 12 years in power.

That their lone unifying principle was to dethrone “King Bibi,” as Time magazine famously dubbed Netanyahu, has not proven strong enough to provide long-term political stability.

Now without a majority, the coalition is struggling to hold on to power until the upcoming summer recess. It may not survive the month. Then again, it might.

New elections may be in Israel’s immediate future, as well as the real prospect of opposition leader Netanyahu returning to power.

“The primary reason for the coalition’s ongoing struggles is its composition—it is very unnatural … hard to think of stranger bedfellows,” Danny Ayalon, a former Israeli deputy foreign minister and ambassador to the United States, told JNS. “There is no real policy interest that binds them together, other than political survival because none of the parties want elections at this point.

“That said, the government since its inception has managed to do many good things, including streamlining processes and making reforms in the defense, education, health care and transportation establishments. They came to work, which was a breath of fresh air,” he added.

The government’s successes include the passage in November of a national budget for the first time in over three years, and, last month, sweeping legislation officially defining the rights of people suffering from a range of disabilities that came with a $599 million financial development package.

Yet none of these accomplishments have been enough to continuously overcome the parties’ ideological differences.

Perpetual turmoil

Points of contention between the parties have included a long-stalled diplomatic process with the Palestinian Authority; an increase in terror attacks; illegal construction in Bedouin communities; settlement expansion; control of the Temple Mount; and on and on.

In April, the coalition lost its one-seat parliamentary majority when a member of Bennett’s own Yamina Party bolted. Then, on Monday, the government failed to renew a bill extending Israeli law to citizens living in communities in Judea and Samaria, that had essentially been rubber-stamped by the Knesset every five years since the aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War.

The bill was voted down 58-52, with two members of the coalition, Meretz’s Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi and Ra’am’s Mazen Ghnaim, casting their ballots against it. Observers have warned of total chaos unless the renewal bill is passed before the related legislation expires at the end of June.

All the while, reports surface almost daily of more and more Knesset members in the coalition readying to jump ship.

In fact, Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar, who formally advanced the bill to extend the Emergency Regulations–Judea and Samaria, Jurisdiction and Legal Aid Law, earlier this week stated that his New Hope party’s partnership with Ra’am “may have exhausted itself.”

Immediately following the vote, Netanyahu’s Likud Party released a statement: “Bennett—go home. It’s over. It’s time to return Israel to the right.”

Media reports have been swirling that Sa’ar, who has repeatedly vowed not to sit in a Netanyahu-led government, is deep in negotiations with the Likud Party. If a deal is actualized, Netanyahu could potentially oust Bennett by forming a new coalition of 61-plus parliamentarians and circumvent new elections.

Amid the jockeying, the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) on Tuesday released a study confirming widespread public displeasure with the government’s handling of key issues.

The survey found that among Israelis who voted for parties in the coalition, only 46%, 41.5% and 35.5% believe that over the past year there has been an improvement in the critical spheres of foreign policy, the economy and defense, respectively. Notably, 48% of these respondents said that tensions between sectors of Israeli society had worsened over the last 12 months; a mere 28% said circumstances had improved.

Meanwhile, a least 70% of those who voted for parties in the opposition said the situation had deteriorated across all of these domains.

One of the raison d’êtres of the Bennett-Lapid “change” government was to “get the country back on course” and to “heal” what they claimed was an ailing society reeling from a decade-plus of divisive policies spearheaded by Netanyahu.

“The biggest takeaway is that the voters of parties in the opposition are unanimous in their thinking that everything went wrong with this government in all walks of life,” professor Tamar Hermann, a senior research fellow at the IDI and co-author of the study, told JNS.

“While they are of one opinion—on the negative side,” she continued, “the voters of the parties in the coalition are divided and it is very difficult to mobilize a [fractured] political camp. There seems to be no sense of common purpose that goes beyond individual or party interest.”

“The political system in Israel provides for the possibility of a minority coalition,” said Hermann, while adding that the inability to pass legislation “may result in the downfall of the government but not necessarily lead to elections.”

She noted that in Israel’s parliamentary system a prime minister can replace mid-session through a no-confidence motion whereby “any member of the Knesset can form a 61-seat majority at any time—and it seems like Netanyahu is quite close” to being able to do so.

Yet Ayalon suggested that the government could be less fragile than it appears. “I am not certain that the coalition’s fall is imminent. When push comes to shove, they may find compromises or steer clear of controversial issues,” he said. “It’s not over until it’s over.”

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