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The new government coalition in Israel is a strange bird in many ways. While rotation of the office of Prime Minister is not new viz. unity governments of the 1980s, a Prime Minister from a party with only 6 mandates from the recent elections is indeed new. In addition, for the first time an Arab party will be a full member of the coalition, as distinct from merely supporting the coalition from outside. And in this case, the Arab party is a small (4 mandates), super conservative (Islamist) party with relatively little support even among the Arab public of Israel. Moreover, and perhaps most strikingly, the coalition brings together parties from the left end of the Israeli political spectrum (Meretz) to the right wing (right of Netanyahu’s Likud, New Hope) under a religious Zionist leader of a still further right wing party (Yamina) that is avowedly opposed to most of the positions of the left, and even center left (Labor), regarding the occupation, settlements, the court system, gay rights, and more. Aside from possible agreement on the legalization of marijuana, the inclusion also of Avigdor Lieberman strengthens those in the coalition opposed to the disproportionate power of the ultra-orthodox parties in Israel. Thus, a significant achievement of the coalition agreement is, indeed, its promises to assist reform and conservative streams of Judaism in Israel and further the draft of ultra-orthodox men into the army. Yet the many practical as well as ideological differences themselves would suggest that it will be difficult for the coalition to rule or remain stable for long. But, also, the coalition agreement provides mutual veto power on many issues for the two leading parties, Yamina (Bennett) and Yesh Atid (Lapid). And restrictions that would make it difficult if not impossible for one of the two leaders, Lapid or Bennett, to form a new government on his own.
Further difficulties will be burning issues awaiting the new government, for example, the authorization or evacuation of a new settlement outpost, Eviatar, in the West Bank, the efforts to oust Palestinians from their home (for settler entry) in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in east Jerusalem. Indeed the first test may come the very first day after the new ministers take office. The extreme right wing flag march, due to take place 15 June, might spark resistance among Palestinian citizens of Israel and even Hamas, similar to the outbreaks that sparked the recent war in May. Extreme right wing politicians have been barred from participating, and the path of the march has been changed by the police to reduce friction in the Old City of Jerusalem, but the event is still expected to provoke local Palestinian residents in the powder keg of east Jerusalem.
And then there are the many problems and obstacles that can be expected from the opposition led by Netanyahu with the Likud’s 30 members of Knesset – still the largest faction in the parliament. The only matter that appeared to bind the new government together was its mutual opposition to Netanyahu’s continued reign. But the new opposition is pretty much united and loyal to Netanyahu. As a result one may expect legislative initiatives that will embarrass the coalition parties, together with repeated attempts to prevent government proposed bills, as a result of constant efforts to woo members away from the coalition parties.
Thus, it is indeed difficult to believe that this coalition will last long, despite the incentives to stay together and in power.
Yet, there may be some chance that the apparent strength of the right wing in the new government can be held in check. There will, of course, be efforts by the Arab party Ram, Meretz, and probably also Labor (led by Chairperson Merav Michaeli) to prevent further expansion of settlements, or official annexation of West Bank land. But it may also be the case that Bennett, even as leader of a pro-settlement, religiously motivated pro-annexation party, will prefer pragmatism over confrontation with his government partners (and perhaps the United States). Lapid is not of the same ideological persuasion as Bennett, but even Lapid originally launched his party in 2010 from the West Bank settlement of Ariel, suggesting at least a nod to the right wing electorate if not genuine support for settlements. With Bennett there is no question regarding his enthusiastic support for settlements and what he believes to be Jewish rights to all of the land (Biblical eretz israel). In the past he was even the head of the settlements ‘Council of Judea and Samaria.’
Nonetheless, there are a number of precedents of Israeli leaders coming from the right or thinking along right wing lines. Even Yitzhak Rabin was in the right wing “activist” faction of Labor, and more traditional right wing politicians such as Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni shifted to pro-compromise positions once in power. Even Ariel Sharon claimed that “what you see from there is not what you see from here….” Sharon preferred settlement evacuations and a compromise when he realized, as he said, that continued occupation would be bad for the Palestinians and for Israelis, meaning that it would lead to a bi-national state and the loss of a Jewish majority from the sea to the river. Pragmatism of this kind is possible, although the addition of the religious element that exists with Bennett may remain an obstacle to any change of Bennett’s views.
Speculation is rife regarding almost every aspect of the new coalition. Actually, so much is new – even unprecedented, including the inclusion of nine women in the new cabinet, the largest female representation in Israel’s history. But particularly unprecedented is having a religious person leading a religious party as prime minister. Bennett’s party Yamina is the heir to the old National Religious Party (NRP), a Zionist religious party often in coalitions with Labor’s predecessor, Mapai. But the once moderate NRP shifted severely right-ward, toward extreme nationalist positions over the years following the 1967 war. The Likud party itself may abandon Netanyahu and choose a new leader to turn their 30 seat mandate from the most recent elections into a significant challenge to Bennett and Lapid. Without the mutual opposition to Netanyahu that brought the new coalition together, a changed Likud might well gain significant strength in future elections, perhaps prompting defections from some of today’s coalition partners from the center and the right, for example, from Gideon Saar’s New Hope party or even Blue and White.
The Israeli system is complicated, and four national elections within two years brought such similar results that a fifth election held little attraction for the parties or the public. The most one can say at present is that we have to wait to see if the new government can agree on a budget and remain united in face of the many challenges it will face beginning with its very first days.