Although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been toppled, he remains the leader of Israel’s largest party in the Knesset. His enduring power was made clear as he was ousted by a margin of a single vote. Despite the broad alliance of the opposition parties that ousted him, they were only able to muster 60 votes to Netanyahu’s 59 (there was a single abstention).
Netanyahu’s woes in forming a government were not a result of a poor showing in Israel’s elections, in which his Likud party consistently came first. Rather, it was in his inability to form a coalition with traditional right-wing allies who began to take advantage of his judicial troubles over accusations of corruption, by demanding more concessions from him than he was prepared to make.
With right-wing Israeli parties abandoning Netanyahu, the stage was set for Yair Lapid, the leader of the second largest, center-left party – Yesh Atid— to negotiate the awkward alliance that has successfully toppled Netanyahu.
Although Yair Lapid is the leader of the second largest party in the Knesset, the necessity of right-wing support to topple Netanyahu was made abundantly clear in Lapid’s concession to Bennett to lead the new government. Having 10 fewer seats than Lapid’s party, Bennett successfully negotiated the leadership position in exchange for rallying the right-wing votes necessary to make the political “coup” work. Lapid ceded on the basis that Bennett would hand over the premiership two years into the new government’s term, with the former serving as Foreign Minister until then.
The Arab Contingent
Perhaps the most vital contingent of the awkward opposition alliance is the inclusion of the Arab Raam party. Led by Mansour Abbas, the Palestinian Arab party lent its four seats to Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett, which proved pivotal in ousting Netanyahu. Following the latter’s provocation of the Palestinians in Jerusalem and subsequent aggression against Gaza, Abbas has presented his support as one of retribution against Netanyahu for his actions, and vindication for his persistent argument that change can be made from within the Israeli establishment.
Raam’s participation, however, is far more complex than a simple revenge vote. Firstly, the party is not represented in the cabinet. While it is not clear if Abbas requested a cabinet seat, the presence of an Arab would have lent substance to Lapid and Bennett’s insistence that this is a government for “all of Israel” rather than just Israeli Jews.
Secondly, and more importantly, Abbas’ conditions that are believed to have been put to Naftali Bennet and Yair Lapid are likely to be seen as a tall order for both men, especially for the former who remains a dogged ideologue that firmly supports the continued expansion of the occupation and annexation of Palestinian territories.
Abbas is believed to have demanded a halt on the demolition of Palestinian homes as well as the designation of a budget of 53 million Israeli shekels (US$16 million) for the development of infrastructure in Arab areas. Given the ongoing provocations in Sheikh Jarrah, the order for the demolition of homes in Silwan, and the Israeli Attorney General’s apathetic statement that he would not intervene, it is difficult to imagine Bennett stepping in to halt measures that he, and his base, wholeheartedly support.
Abbas believes that the fragile nature of the coalition allows him to exert a disproportionate influence that can rein in Naftali Bennett’s xenophobic tendencies.
Abbas believes that the fragile nature of the coalition allows him to exert a disproportionate influence that can rein in Naftali Bennett’s xenophobic tendencies towards the Arabs, who he has even bragged of killing in the past. However, Abbas has been accused of naivety in his belief that an apartheid system which has been upheld, “respected,” strengthened, and violently enforced for more than 73 years can be tempered by lending his support to the new government.
If Bennett does not fulfill his agreement with Abbas, the latter is unlikely to immediately withdraw his support. Were he to do so, he would be caught between continuing to back a fragile government or risking the return of a potentially reinvigorated Netanyahu with no interest in any consultation with the Arab contingent whatsoever.
Abbas would thus go from being the much “touted” kingmaker, to a symbol of ridicule both among the Israeli politicians – for believing he could strongarm them into concessions, and from the Palestinians – for believing the Israeli politicians can be convinced to grant Palestinians the same rights as Israeli Jews.
Moreover, Abbas has offered Bennett far more than he is likely to receive in return. In lending support to the government, Abbas has offered Bennett and pro-Israeli media a PR narrative of “increasing co-existence” and Israeli “unity” that defies the reality of the apartheid practices on the ground.
Indeed, as Bennett’s government is being celebrated for its inclusion of the Arabs, an Israeli flag march designed to provoke the Arab population has been permitted to proceed through majority Arab areas near the Al-Aqsa compound. Adding to the tensions, prominent Palestinian activists in Sheikh Jarrah are being harassed by security forces who have also attacked journalists.
What is worse for Abbas is that the demands he has made are those that even Yair Lapid of the leftist party is unlikely to support. On the issue of expansion, annexation, and harassment of the Arab populations, Israel’s political parties are generally in consensus that the electorate welcome these policies and denounce advocates against such measures. In other words, Abbas is more likely to find himself isolated rather than heard, or even recognized.
It has been no secret that relations between Biden and Netanyahu were becoming increasingly strained. The latter has been firmly against the US negotiations with Iran over a new nuclear deal and the Israeli security apparatus is believed to have conducted a number of espionage attacks on Iranian soil in a bid to jeopardize the talks.
Biden has been exceptionally unhappy that the Israeli provocation and aggression against the Palestinians took place.
Biden has also been exceptionally unhappy that the Israeli provocation and aggression against the Palestinians took place as he has been seeking to rally the Nordic countries and European states into a unified stance on Russia and China.
It was not lost on observers that Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s conference with Nordic state representatives was marred by constant press conferences regarding the US position on the recent Israeli aggression in Gaza. In fact, Blinken was sent to the region on short notice to shore up the ceasefire and also convey Washington’s annoyance to Tel Aviv.
Some have suggested that the US has been involved in Netanyahu’s ouster and that Washington expects the fragile nature of Bennett’s government to act as a check on any attempts at unilateral action against US interests. Regardless, Biden is likely to breathe a sigh of relief that Netanyahu is out and therefore a recalibration of the Washington-Tel Aviv relationship’s parameters can take place.
The Impact on Palestine
Amid the drastic Israeli reshuffle, very little is expected to change for the Palestinians. For all the discussion over what a Bennett government might mean for foreign policy, the reality is that the dynamics governing its formation and emergence are uniquely domestic. What unites the coalition is a mutual hatred for Netanyahu specifically. Beyond that, there is not much else.
Moreover, Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians was not necessarily governed by Netanyahu specifically. Netanyahu ruled for 12 years. However, the apartheid regime has been in place for more than 73 years and in all those years, it has been expanded and reinforced by successive Israeli leaders without pause. While Netanyahu is likely to go down in history as the most successful of these Israeli leaders, the attitudes towards Palestine in Tel Aviv have always been consistent across the political spectrum.
The attitudes towards Palestine in Tel Aviv have always been consistent across the political spectrum.
Bennett himself is an ardent ideologue who believes in an Israel that stretches from the Mediterranean to the Euphrates. He has boasted of “killing Arabs and . . . seeing no problem with that.” Bennett will be acutely aware that Netanyahu’s aggression against the Palestinians has served him well at the ballot box and is therefore unlikely to hesitate in exacting Israeli force on Gaza or the Palestinians as and when opportunities arise. He will also recognize that Israeli parties across the spectrum tend to unite behind military action against the Palestinians, as do their international allies (even if they privately dissent on occasion).
The Palestinians are also burdened by an active “aid offensive” by the US, the UAE, and Egypt, geared towards weakening the Palestinian armed resistance, and elevating factions more amenable in accepting the status quo and favor the occupation. The Egyptian-brokered talks between the Palestinian factions in Cairo over a unity government have stalled, and Palestinians are at a loss over how to capitalize on their gains from the latest bout with their oppressors.
Where the Palestinians might benefit from the Bennett-led government is in Washington’s insistence that Tel Aviv refrain from unilateral action that might hamper the US’ wider foreign policy goals. While Biden is not necessarily in favor of the Palestinians, he seeks to maintain a “stable” status quo that allows him to focus on more important priorities without unnecessary distractions. Biden is likely to impress this on Bennett. Whether Bennett obliges is a different matter.
After losing the Israeli election, ousted premier Netanyahu attempted to sit in the Prime Minister’s seat and had to be reminded that he was now in the opposition and therefore had to move. Although Netanyahu might take comfort in his sizeable influence in the Knesset, he will nevertheless become increasingly concerned over the corruption cases that have plagued him in recent years. Netanyahu’s only option is to break the coalition by turning the parties against one another. However, any effort to do so will take time that he may not have, as opponents seek to press those corruption charges.
Yair Lapid will have to hope that Bennett does not renege on his agreement to surrender the premiership.
Meanwhile, Yair Lapid will have to hope that Bennett does not renege on his agreement to surrender the premiership. Bennett has already strongarmed Lapid into taking the premiership first.
Both will also be aware that they have separate political bases to satisfy and that awkward explanations will have to be made to each on multiple occasions over policy decisions (if the government survives). Moreover, the two men have six other parties from across the political spectrum, whom they must consult and liaise with in order to keep the coalition together.
More importantly, they will be acutely mindful of an expectant electorate that cares little for the political disagreements, and more about the domestic economic situation that has struggled through the COVID-19 pandemic and relentless political instability.
What sustains the government for now is a unanimous loathing for Netanyahu. Yet, how that translates into effective and functioning policy is anyone’s guess.