The announcement of the formation of a unity government in Israel by former political rivals Naftali Bennet (Yamina) and Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) caught many by surprise. Attempts to oust former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have been in the works since he took office for the second time in 2009. Still, the success of the newfound unity government in overcoming the vast differences in their political, economic, and social world views appears at first as a hopeful development in Israel’s heavily divided political system.
Formed on the basis of the inclusion of a wide range of politically marginalized sectors of Israeli society, this coalition incorporates Israel’s left-wing Labor and Meretz parties and, for the first time, an Israeli Arab party, the Islamic conservative Ra’am party. And while their ability to see past deep rooted differences and succeed in unseating Israel’s longest serving Prime Minister – referred to by some as “King Bibi” – is impressive, one must question the prospects of the bloc’s long-term viability.
With the primary issue binding the eight parties comprising the coalition being their desire to see Netanyahu depart Balfour Street, it is only natural to be skeptical of the coalition’s ability to legislate beyond Covid-19-related issues, on which there is relative consensus. The first legislative challenge was already evident in late June, with what has come to be known as the “Family Reunification Law.”
The debate surrounds the extension of a 2003 Citizenship Law, instituted on the heels of the Second Intifada, which prevents Palestinians marrying Israeli citizens from reuniting, residing together, and applying for citizenship. Extended every year since its implementation by Israel’s right-wing Likud-led government, it is unclear how the new government plans to renew the law with its current razor thin majority. The legislation is central to Prime Minister Bennet’s voter base. Yet Minister Issawi Frej (Meretz), MK Ibtisam Mara’ana (Labor), and the Ra’am party have clearly expressed their strong opposition to the extension of the law.
Unsurprisingly, reports have surfaced that the Netanyahu-led opposition, seeking to undermine the new government at any opportunity, has been instructed to vote against the measure. Even though Netanyahu had previously supported the law’s extension every year since its passing in 2003. On June 27, the vote on the controversial law was again postponed for the second time in two weeks.
Netanyahu previously warned his voters that the current coalition threatens the security of the country.
Understanding the central role that security concerns play in the Israeli public’s mind, Netanyahu previously warned his voters that the current coalition threatens the security of the country. If a Bennet-led government cannot rely on Likud for extending legislation it was previously a staunch supporter of, it is apparent that it cannot rely on it for anything at all, save not so subtle attempts to undermine its every action.
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A further test facing the current coalition, which is expected to pose significant problems, is the future of the Givat Eviatar outpost. Set up without the required Israeli government approvals after the death of Eviatar Borovsky in 2013, the outpost is considered illegal under Israeli law. It is unclear how incumbent Prime Minister Bennet, former leader of the Jewish Home party and current leader of the right-wing Yamina (literally translated as “right”) party, will rise to the challenge.
Bennet is reliant on a voter base that does not believe in the future of a two-state solution. Accordingly, in a 2013 statement – criticized by the American Jewish Committee (AJC) – he stated: “The most important thing in the Land of Israel is to build, build, build. It is important that there will be an Israeli presence everywhere. Our principal problem is still Israel’s leaders’ unwillingness to say in a simple manner that the Land of Israel belongs to the People of Israel.”
Bennet is reliant on a voter base that does not believe in the future of a two-state solution.
However, such views and a staunch commitment to his voter base would indeed seem to pose an insurmountable challenge. Particularly, as Bennet is the simultaneous leader of a coalition which includes two former Peace Now Secretary Generals Mossi Raz (Meretz) and Gaby Lasky (Meretz), as well as a human rights activist and lawyer who in the past represented organizations such as Breaking the Silence, Gush Shalom, and Anarchists Against the Wall.
Looking beyond security issues threatening the coalition’s cohesion, other matters of discord among the wide range of parties abound. These include issues of religion and state, such as conversions and regulations related to businesses and public transportation operating on the Jewish Sabbath. Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beitenu), now serving as Israel’s Minister of Finance, has thus far been a steadfast supporter of overturning the business and transport restrictions. He called that an “important step which is needed in our days.” It is unclear how such issues will mesh with a government led by Bennet, who in the past bragged about stepping up the enforcement of Sabbath as a “rest day.”
Similar inner-coalition disputes surround LGBTQ rights in Israel. Israel has long been seen as a bastion of gay rights, with the Meretz and Labor parties being the strongest proponents of full equality. Bennet on the other hand has made no secret of his take on the issue, stating when he was leader of the Jewish Home party, “Judaism doesn’t recognize gay marriage, just as we don’t recognize milk and meat together as Kosher, and nothing will change it.”
Most observers were therefore not fooled when in classic political fashion, the prospects of Bennet becoming a prime ministerial candidate led to a rebranding of himself, including a widely circulated Instagram post stating: “To the LGBTQ community, I love you very much, and it troubles me that it’s perceived as though I have any problem.” How such fundamental issues will be overcome when they arise on the political and legislative fronts is not entirely clear.
It is difficult to imagine how a coalition based on common opposition to an issue or an individual can be sustainable.
It is difficult to imagine how a coalition based on common opposition to an issue or an individual can be sustainable in the long-term. Still running on the excitement of its initial success of unseating Netanyahu, it is only a matter of time before the adrenalin runs out, leaving the Israeli public exasperated and less trusting than ever before in its political leadership.
However, it is doubtful that the anticipated failures of the current Bennet-led government would pave the way for Netanyahu’s return, considering his ongoing corruption trial for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in three separate cases. This, coupled with reports that the current coalition is pursuing legislation to bar Netanyahu from contending for office in the future, makes his return to the prime minister’s office increasingly unlikely. What is certain however, is that divisiveness will continue to dominate Israeli politics no matter who occupies the residence on Balfour Street.