In Israel, ‘Government of Change’ Will Have a Hard Time Living Up to Its Name

The sight of thousands of secular, liberal, cosmopolitan Israelis descending on Rabin Square in Tel…

The sight of thousands of secular, liberal, cosmopolitan Israelis descending on Rabin Square in Tel Aviv last week to celebrate the appointment of a religious, conservative nationalist as their new prime minister perfectly captures the peculiar state of Israeli politics today. One can only imagine the horror that would have swept over those demonstrators had Naftali Bennett been elected under any other circumstances. But such is the political mood in Israel as the new government takes the helm: Settlers mourn the election of the former head of the Yesha Council—the umbrella organization of Jewish settlements in the West Bank—as prime minister, while leftists rejoice as staunch opponents of peace and civil equality return to their erstwhile posts in top government ministries.

A single common cause inspires the eight-party coalition government—the most ideologically diverse in Israeli history—that was sworn in on June 13: to free Israel not only from the personal sway of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—popularly known in Israel by his nickname, Bibi—but also from the toll that his efforts to cling to power have taken on the country’s political norms, public institutions and social fabric.

Although the new government includes several right-wing politicians, including prominent former members of Netanyahu’s Likud party, many Israeli conservatives view it as a leftist conspiracy. One reason for this paranoia is that over the past few years, large swaths of the Israeli right have shed all ideological commitments, turning themselves into pure vehicles for Netanyahu’s will to power. It would only be a slight exaggeration to say that these “Bibists,” as they are colloquially called, believe that Israel was a desert backwater before Netanyahu miraculously turned it into a thriving modern superpower. It’s no wonder that they regard his removal from office as an act of madness and a threat to Israel’s existence. From their perspective, Bennett, Gideon Saar and other former Netanyahu allies in the new coalition are not guilty of treason because of what they might do in office, but simply because they deprive the nation of its greatest leader.

There are plenty of accusations of treason to go around. Alongside the Bibists, Jewish fundamentalists abhor the new government because it encompasses and, therefore, legitimizes two elements of Israeli society that they have long tried to eliminate from the political sphere: leftists and Arabs. In their eyes, leftists are Jews, and therefore still redeemable. While obviously traitorous and dangerous, their participation in Israeli politics must be tolerated because they belong in the Jewish tribe. Arabs, however, are only citizens of Israel “for the time being,” as Betzalel Smotrich, the leader of the Jewish supremacist Religious Zionism party, recently remarked. From Smotrich’s perspective, Bennett’s sin is not only political, but metaphysical: He has allowed an Arab party, Mansour Abbas’ United Arab List, to partake in the governance of the Jewish state. In other words, Bennett has given the secular machinery of state precedence over the messianic destiny that this state is supposed to realize. If it widens, this split between Bennett’s and Smotrich’s factions of religious Zionism could presage new fault lines in Israeli political life.

Having broken with the hard right, Bennett must find a new electoral base in the softer right. Compared with his former supporters in the West Bank settlements, these are less ideological, more pragmatic voters; Bennett will have to govern effectively to win them over, delivering results that justify his alliance with the left. But the structure of his government suggests that this will not be an easy task. The coalition is set up in the same way as the previous one: two blocs enjoying equal voting power as well as mutual veto power, with an agreed-upon rotation for the top job.

If this is indeed a “government of change,” truly built on goodwill and mutual trust, change cannot stop at the name plate on the prime minister’s residence.

In effect, these are two mini-governments in one, conjoined by an agreement between their leaders. Yair Lapid, the leader of the center-left bloc, is scheduled to replace Bennett as prime minister in August 2023, and until then will serve in the unique position of alternate prime minister, in addition to minister of foreign affairs. The alternate is not only a premier in-waiting; he is responsible for the ministers of his bloc, having the sole capacity to fire them. The short-lived unity government between Netanyahu and Benny Gantz—the leader of the Blue and White party who is retaining his position as defense minister in the new coalition—required such an arrangement due to the extreme distrust between the parties. And even then, nobody, save perhaps Gantz, believed that Netanyahu would honor the rotation agreement.

Although looks can be deceiving, the new government appears to have started out in more auspicious conditions. Lapid and Bennett seem to trust each other, and none of the fragile coalition’s members have an interest in sabotaging it. But challenges in dealing with the Palestinians, as well as tense relations between Jewish and Arab communities within Israel, will test the stability of the government before long. Since its members hold vastly different views on these issues, it is unclear who will prevail.

While new alliances may create new dynamics, the smart money isn’t betting on the left. In Israeli politics, unity is often a euphemism for right-wing dominance. One of the Israeli right’s signature moves is to extol national unity, while accusing all who deviate from their version of this unity of sedition and treachery. Bennett himself employed this trick countless times in the past, to great effect. The Israeli left, as well as media outlets and public figures, tends to internalize the blame, gradually accepting the narrowing boundaries of legitimate views that the right dictates.

Israeli liberals who celebrate the new government must ask themselves if this dynamic will not be repeated on a larger scale now that their representatives are wielding power. The left has focused its desires on removing Netanyahu for so long that wielding its new source of leverage—leaving the coalition, or threatening to do so—may prove hard, at least as long as Netanyahu is plotting his comeback. As a result, the next time Hamas fires rockets at Israel, or violence breaks out between Jewish and Arab Israelis, leftist parties in the coalition like Meretz and Labor—and, in some ways, the United Arab List—may have to acquiesce to measures that they would have vociferously protested from the opposition benches. The left has waited for a generation to assume positions of power in government, but the slow grind of playing second fiddle in a unity government may prove even more lethal than the long years it spent in the wilderness.

To avoid such a fate, the coalition’s center-left representatives must insist that unity is not, in fact, a synonym for religious nationalism, and that the sacrifices that Bennett and his bloc have made in uniting with the left are not greater than their own. If this is indeed a “government of change,” truly built on goodwill and mutual trust, change cannot stop at the name plate on the prime minister’s residence.

Avner Inbar is a senior fellow and co-founder of Molad, a progressive think tank based in Jerusalem.

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