Israel’s Government of change – or is it?

Jun 17, 2021

Israel now has the most diverse “unity” government in its history and it’s all thanks to one man: Benjamin Netanyahu. Without the visceral contempt for Netanyahu, engendered during his 12-year reign as Prime Minister, the possibility of such an assortment of parties coming together would have been unthinkable.

In the words of a former senior Israeli diplomat and political adviser, by virtue of his personality traits, his lies, the critical mass of people he offended and deceived and the war he waged on Israeli democracy, Netanyahu made such an “implausible and unfathomable coalition possible”.

Describing the new government as “a wonder,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett pledged it would “end a terrible period of hatred among the people of Israel”. The biggest wonder, though, is how long the new government will survive.

Yair Lapid, leader of the centrist Yesh Atid (There is a future) party, declared that “friendship and trust” will keep it in power. Those two qualities have long been conspicuous by their absence in Israeli politics. Ideologically, there is little to bind this rainbow “government of change”. Its eight parties range from hard-line anti-Palestinian nationalists—including Prime Minister Bennett’s own Yamina (Rightwards) party—to dovish supporters of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Although coalition governments in Israel are the norm, this one takes it a new level. For the first time ever it includes an Israeli Arab political party. Its leader, Mansour Abbas, Bennett had previously described as a supporter of terrorism.

Bennett told his new cabinet they would work “to return the country to functioning”. He urged them to “maintain restraint and moderation in ideological terms”. One of the first tasks will be pass a national budget, which has not happened since 2018. This is likely to place particular emphasis on pressuring Ultra-orthodox Israelis (the Haredim) to participate more fully in secular Israeli life—notably through education, employment and military service—and to be less of a financial burden on the state. The budget will also seek to redress the glaring socio-economic inequities faced by Israel’s Arab citizens, about 20 per cent of the total population, whose second-class status was dramatized by the rioting which accompanied the recent Israeli-Hamas mini-war.

The government’s focus on domestic policies points to a lack of appetite and opportunity to wrangle regional and other foreign policy issues. One important exception is Iran, where the new Israeli government will continue Netanyahu’s campaign to dissuade the US from reviving the 2015 agreement aimed at containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Bennett has termed renewal of the agreement as an error that would legitimise “one of the darkest and violent regimes in the world”. But with Biden not Trump in the White House, the task of scuttling renewed negotiations will be more difficult. Ironically—at least in the short term—that will suit Netanyahu’s aim of demonising the Bennett/Lapid government for its inability to “stand up” to the US.

Not only is Bennett contemptuous of the idea of Palestinian statehood, he is also an architect of Israeli settlement in the West Bank. On the surface this fits uncomfortably with earlier reported comments to the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies by now Foreign Minister Lapid that the Iranian problem could not be separated from the Palestinian problem. President Biden reportedly told Bennett the US intended to work closely with Israel on “efforts to advance peace, security, and prosperity for Israelis and Palestinians”. Bennett has said his government would work to “shrink” rather than resolve the conflict. What that means is far from clear but no matter how long the “government of change” lasts, little is likely to change for the better on the Israeli-Palestinian front.

Watching closely, breathing malevolence, is Israel’s putative opposition leader, Benjamin Netanyahu. With 30 seats, his Likud party remains the largest in the 120-member parliament. This compares favourably to the 60 held by the eight parties which make up the new government, of which the Lapid-led Yesh Atid is the largest, with 17 seats. Bennett’s Yamina party holds only 7.

If the Bennett government wobbles, the opportunity for a reconfiguration of right-wing and centrist parties in a Likud-led government is clear. Just as clear is Netanyahu’s primary, perhaps only, goal to make that happen. In the lead up to the parliamentary vote on 13 June to approve the new government, Netanyahu declared he would “wage a daily battle against this bad, dangerous left-wing government to topple it. With God’s help,” he added, “it will be much sooner than you think”. With Trumpian bad grace, Netanyahu then shunned the traditional ceremony for the handover of power.

Australia has little immediate interest, let alone influence in any of this. But there would be nothing to lose in reminding the new Israeli government that while the Iranian nuclear agreement was far from perfect it was the best show in town. The expert review the Australian Government conducted in 2018 found the agreement had resulted in “substantial restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activity” and had taken Iran from the brink of having enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon, “to a place where the international community has daily oversight of its nuclear activities”. The deal “served Australian interests in nuclear non-proliferation and in reinforcing the rules-based international system”.

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is worth noting comments in mid-May by Australia’s UN representative, Mitch Fifield, reiterating strong support for “a two-state solution … where Israel and a future state of Palestine exist in peace and security within internationally recognised borders”. Two questions need to be asked. What exactly will Australia say to Israel’s “government of change” to help make that a reality? More important, how long will the Australian Government continue the public deceit that a two-state solution is even possible?

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