Naftali Bennett: One Year On

ON JUNE 13, the 36th government of the state of Israel will be commemorating the first anniversary of its formation. The mere fact that the coalition, forged by Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, is still in existence is nothing short of a miracle.

This political pantomime horse, composed of the Right (Yamina, Yisrael Beiteinu and New Hope), the Centre (Yesh Atid, Blue and White), the Left (Labour and Meretz) and the Islamists (Ra’am) has remarkably survived despite an ongoing series of challenges. As its composition suggests, it was held together by a common detestation of Netanyahu and a determination to make the Haredim accept normative Jewish values. There was also a deep desire not to repeat the political stalemate of the last few years and to avoid a fifth election. The mantra of this unwieldy coalition has definitely been: “Anyone but Bibi!”

It has seen unemployment fall, pulled Israel out of the pandemic without formal lockdowns and projected itself on the world stage as an interlocutor between Russia and Ukraine. National interests have been paramount — so it has had to face in both directions in the growing dispute between the US and China. Like Erdogan’s Turkey, Israel has danced to a tune of two steps forward, two steps back. This elevation of realpolitik over morality has placed Israel in a Fourth World of small nations, struggling to maintain its political balance.

In June 2021, Bennett became prime minister at the head of a party which only had seven seats in the 120 seat Knesset: 93.79% of those who voted in the last election in March 2021 did not vote for Bennett’s Yamina party. His elevation to power was seen as the only means of keeping Netanyahu out of office.

It obviously satisfied the Left and the Centre, but also pleased Netanyahu’s bitter critics on the Right. Too many had been taken for a ride in Netanyahu’s chariot and then unceremoniously dumped by the roadside.

The weakness of the coalition was self-evident from the outset and all parties have tried to suppress differences. Bennett visited the West Bank settlement of Elkana and told its inhabitants that “the Zionist answer to violence has always been settlement, security and immigration”. His cabinet colleagues in Meretz would have begged to differ.

The price of preserving this anti-Netanyahu coalition has been no peace initiatives, a stasis in cooperation with the Palestinian Authority and no overt annexations. Yet the government recently gave its approval for the construction of 4,427 new homes on the West Bank. This coincided with the Supreme Court’s ruling that land near Hebron needed to be cleared to enable the IDF to establish a military firing zone. This would involve the expulsion of a thousand Palestinian residents.

In 2010, as head of YESHA, the settlers’ movement, Bennett opposed a settlement freeze after Netanyahu’s return to office. Unlike Netanyahu, Bennett has always opposed a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine imbroglio. He has advocated the annexation of Area C, where most Jewish settlers live on the West Bank, and the transfer of Gaza to Egyptian jurisdiction.

At the end of June, President Biden is scheduled to visit Israel. In a clear distancing from President Trump’s approach of ignoring the Palestinians, Biden plans to visit the Al Makassed hospital in East Jerusalem — without Israeli officials. This, too, will prove a challenge to the coalition.

As a member of the national religious camp, Bennett differs sharply with the Haredi world outlook. While opposing secularism, he is willing to work with secularists — and this has allowed him to construct mixed parties in the past. To the disgust of many rabbis, he felt strongly about moving some young Haredim out of the yeshiva and integrating them into the work force.

This permitted him to work with the secular Yair Lapid. In contrast, Netanyahu always considered the Haredim a card to play in the formation of any government.

A year ago, Bennett and Lapid agreed to oust Netanyahu and cobbled together a coalition of 60 Knesset votes to confirm a coalition government against 59 who opposed it. One Ra’am MK abstained. The process elevated political horse-trading to new levels.

Netanyahu has described the Bennett-Lapid government as a camel which does not see its hump and has worked hard at exposing the fault lines in this coalition. He has therefore attempted to target individuals in the Knesset whom he believed would buckle under persistent intimidation.

Like Trump in the United States, Netanyahu attempted to delegitimise the ascendency of an alternative government, albeit without an election. Yamina has lost two of its seven seats during the past year whereas Likud has maintained its bloc of 30 seats. This testifies to the fragmentation of the Israeli Left since Rabin’s time and to the continuing stability of the Likud. Apart from Lapid’s Yesh Atid, all of Netanyahu’s opponents are in small parties with single figure representation in the Knesset.

The Likud-led opposition enlisted the extreme Right and the Kahanists not only to bolster its broad support but also to act as attack dogs in attempts to prise open this coalition. Likud has therefore pandered to its fellow political exiles, the Haredi parties, and objected to the election of a Reform rabbi, the Labour MK, Gilad Kariv, as chairperson of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee in the Knesset.

In April, Bezalel Smotrich of the Religious Zionism party commented that whoever is “a partner in this government should not be allowed to enter a synagogue”. Itamar Ben-Gvir, of the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit, has become a travelling provocateur, selling the snake oil of hatred in a plethora of places.

The presence of an Arab party, Ra’am, in an Israeli government proved too much for this alliance. Hamas thought so too. It violated its code of “no recognition, no engagement, no normalisation” as far as Israel is concerned. The Hamas leader, Yehya Sinwar in Gaza told Mansour Abbas, Ra’am’s leader that “you are rejecting your religion, your Arab identity and your national identity”.

Even so, Mansour has had to react to events such as the disturbances on the Temple Mount, the conflict in Sheikh Jarrah, the unruly behaviour of the Israeli police during the funeral of the Palestinian journalist, Shireen Abu Akleh, and the permission given to the Jewish National Fund to plant trees in 5,000 dunams of forest alongside the Anim Stream — an area which was used by local Bedouin for agricultural purposes.

Ra’am found itself mired even deeper in the contradictions of this government when it initially felt obligated to support a bill to conscript young Haredim into the IDF even though Arabs are not called upon to serve.

On the Left, an increasing number have been unwilling to hold their nose when endorsing unsavoury measures. Meretz opposed a revamped Citizenship Law which denied full citizenship to Palestinian partners of Israeli citizens. This traditional dilemma of the Left — whether to remain within and compromise or exist powerless on the outside but true to principle — is uppermost in the minds of many in Israel today. Yet those who refused to support Hillary Clinton in 2016 got Trump instead. Those who couldn’t abide Macron recently could have ended up with Marine Le Pen.

Bennett has been keen to utilise the Norwegian Law to tame rebels. This allows ministers or deputy ministers to resign their Knesset seats, but still remain in office as a minister. The Knesset seat is then taken by the next person on the party list. This allowed Bennett the manoeuvrability to dismiss recalcitrants and replace them by loyalists.

Even so, poll after poll has shown that Netanyahu has consistently been the choice of the Israeli public for prime minister – and by a wide margin, even if they don’t give him a majority of seats. It may simply be a matter of time before the government collapses and new elections are required.

It therefore seems unlikely that Netanyahu will enter a plea bargain in his legal cases and step down from office. It seems even more unlikely that Yuli Edelstein will therefore challenge him for the leadership of the Likud.

The Bennett-Lapid government is defined both by its inherent contradictions and the willingness of its constituent parties to work together. Netanyahu has trumpeted this in the public arena as “weakness”. In this respect, Netanyahu has simply mimicked past contenders for office who wished to remove a sitting prime minister.

Even though it is currently fraying at the edges, the government will, in all likelihood, trundle on until there is a major blow-up with the Palestinian Islamists or the Iranians — and this will provide Netanyahu with the opportunity to pull down this house of cards. Yet the stalemate in the Knesset will probably continue with neither Netanyahu nor his opponents capable of mustering a blocking majority of 61 seats.

It should be noted that Margaret Thatcher vowed to go “on and on” after her tumultuous victory in the UK election in 1987. She was pushed out of office a few years later. As an alleged student of history, Netanyahu will not be unaware of Thatcher’s hubris and fate, but whether he takes it to heart is another matter.

Plus61j 27 May 2022

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