After difficult negotiations, the anti-Benjamin Netanyahu coalition in Israel succeeded in ending the prime minister’s 12-year reign and putting together a unity government of eight disparate parties. Yamina Party leader Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, of the Yesh Atid Party, agreed to take turns in the prime minister’s office, with the former serving the first two years of the four-year term of the government.
Following the last election in March, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin asked the incumbent Netanyahu to form a new government after his Likud Party won 30 seats in the Knesset. Netanyahu attempted to cobble together a cabinet supported by right-wing parties that garnered 52 seats in addition to Bennett’s Yamina (seven seats) and the Islamist United Arab List (UAL; four seats)—both had agreed to join Netanyahu in a coalition government. But the Religious Zionist Party (seven seats) refused to be in a coalition dependent on an Arab list. Netanyahu tried to put pressure on the party’s leadership by setting up a meeting between UAL leader Mansour Abbas and Rabbi Haim Drukman, the spiritual leader of religious settlers in the occupied Palestinian territories and one of the most extremist religious leaders in the country. But Drukman refused to endorse the arrangement and instead declared his support for religious Zionists who had rejected cooperation with Abbas’s Islamists.
After Netanyahu failed to form the government, Rivlin asked Yesh Atid’s Lapid (who had won second place in the election and received 17 seats) to form the government. Not to be outdone, Netanyahu tried his best to thwart Lapid’s efforts, including escalating Israeli attacks on East Jerusalem Palestinians, especially at the Al-Aqsa Mosque and in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. Despite Hamas’s ineffectual first salvo of rockets in support of Jerusalem, an attack that Israel could have easily contained, Netanyahu exploited the situation to wage an 11-day war against the Gaza Strip.
Simultaneously, Netanyahu incited his followers against Yamina and Bennett as well as the entire opposition camp in an attempt to strip it of its legitimacy. He called on his supporters and the rabbis of the religious right to pressure Bennett and his Yamina partisans in the Knesset. He also attacked Gideon Saar, leader of the New Hope Party that broke with Likud, in order to prevent the formation of an alternate government. Extremist rabbis, including Drukman, issued a statement in which they vowed to “do what is necessary” to prevent such a formation. The incitement reached a level that required the director of Shabak (the internal intelligence service) to issue a statement warning against the possibility of political assassinations—as had happened in 1995 when a right-wing extremist killed former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Formation and Principles
The Bennett-Lapid cabinet won a razor-thin 60-59 vote of confidence in the Knesset, with one abstention, to end Netanyahu’s 12-year reign. The government has 27 ministers and six ministers of state—the third largest in Israel’s history—in order to satisfy all the disparate parties and their constituencies in the Knesset.
The coalition includes eight parties with differing political preferences and ideologies: three are from the extreme right wing, two from the right, two from the Zionist left, and one Palestinian Arab with Islamist leanings. These are:
- Yamina: Three ministers with Bennett serving as Prime Minister and Minister of Settlements. The party still has six members in the Knesset after one defected in protest of Bennett’s joining the anti-Netanyahu camp.
- Yesh Atid: Seven ministers with Lapid as alternate Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs.
- Blue and White: Four ministers with Gantz serving as Defense Minister.
- Labor: Three ministers with party leader Merav Michaeli as Minister of Transportation.
- Yisrael Beiteinu: Three ministers with party leader Avigdor Lieberman as Minister of Finance. The party still has six members in the Knesset after one defected because he did not get a ministerial position.
- New Hope: Four ministers with leader Saar as Deputy Premier and Minister of Justice.
- Meretz: Three ministers with leader Nitzan Horowitz as Minister of Health.
- United Arab List: Leader Abbas as Minister of State.
As for decision-making inside the government, coalition leaders Bennett and Lapid agreed to have two clusters: one includes Yamina and New Hope and the other includes Yesh Atid, Blue and White, Labor, Yisrael Beiteinu, and Meretz. It was also agreed that any cluster could derail a government decision if it does not agree with it, which gave Yamina and New Hope (seven ministers) inordinate power in the cabinet.
The political-security cabinet will be formed of 12 ministers, six to each of the two clusters, which in practical terms gave the extreme right-wing parties that have only 12 members in the Knesset the power to control the government.i On the one hand, this was an achievement for the extreme right; but on the other, all these parties appear traitorous to the majority of right-wing voters because they cooperated with the “left and Arabs.”
It is obvious from the agreement to form the government that socioeconomic issues in the country are a priority, especially that the Israeli economy is still suffering from the economic crisis resulting from COVID-19. In addition, the agreement gave great importance to the issue of the nature of the Israeli state as Jewish and democratic and that it will work on uniting world Jewry, encouraging Jewish immigration, and increasing mutual understanding between Israel and Jews around the world.
The new government agreement also emphasized the importance of Judaizing Jerusalem. The coalition promised to augment the growth of settlements in the city and to transfer all ministries to it in quick order so that Jerusalem becomes the permanent symbol of governance and sovereignty. Additionally, the government pledged to increase financial assistance to Ariel University in the Ariel settlement in the occupied West Bank. In his speech to the Knesset, Bennett pledged more settlements in all of Palestine.
What was noticeable is that the new coalition completely ignored the Palestinian issue, with Yamina and Yesh Atid agreeing to secure Israel’s interest in Area C of the occupied West Bank. For that purpose, the government promised to support the civil administration in the Defense Ministry with more resources and personnel in order to prevent Palestinians from building in Area C and asserting their ownership. On this particular issue, the new government may be worse than its predecessor because it aims to prevent the Palestinian Authority from exercising any rights or privileges in Area C and to increase Jewish settlement there.
Challenges Facing the New Government
The eight parties that formed the new government face a great challenge in maintaining the coalition, whose parties have had long-standing and serious political and ideological differences. Three of the parties belong to the extreme Zionist right—Yamina, New Hope, and Yisrael Beiteinu—and they only broke with Netanyahu because of personal problems. They are virulently opposed to the rights of the Palestinian people and a Palestinian state in the occupied territories, support continued Jewish settlement, and call for annexing parts of the West Bank to Israel. Bennett belongs to the religious Zionist right; previously he was the leader of the Yesha Council, a political organization that represents Jewish settlers and calls for annexing the entire Area C, which constitutes more than 60 percent of the occupied West Bank.
It is true that the coalition parties worked hard to arrive at the government agreement, but the problem is that they have avoided the serious and inescapable differences that they will confront, mainly those dealing with the larger Palestinian issue, the occupation, and the current attempt to ethnically cleanse Palestinians from Jerusalem and to control the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Bennett’s government must address the thorny issue of expelling Palestinian families from Sheikh Jarrah and other areas of Jerusalem if the Israeli Supreme Court decides to give the green light. It also has to deal with settlers’ continued attempts to invade Al-Aqsa and with the latest erection of a new settlement in the heart of the West Bank, in addition to the other clusters of settlements everywhere else.
Importantly, the new coalition has to answer questions about whether it will follow Netanyahu’s footsteps of the last decade. The Unified Arab List and Meretz must also decide whether they will remain in the coalition and bear the responsibility for the government’s actions and potential crimes. What will they do if Bennett’s cabinet decides to evict the Palestinian families from Sheikh Jarrah or to allow settlers to invade Al-Aqsa’s sanctuary in preparation for Judaizing it? What will they do if the government does not reverse the decision to construct the new settlement?
One serious challenge is Netanyahu’s continued effort to sabotage the government if he remains the Likud leader and head of the opposition. Everyone knows that he wants to force the government to resign so that he may return to power, as he did twice before. Netanyahu still enjoys more support in Israeli society than any other political leader—despite his legal troubles—and insists on leading Likud and the opposition. He also is likely to beat any challenger within the party and may organize protests by extremists against the government and cast doubts on its legitimacy. Finally, he will increase his attempts to convince right-wing members of the Knesset to pull their support from the government, thus precipitating its collapse.
Israel’s new government is mainly one of the right and the extreme right, with cover from the Zionist left and the Islamist United Arab List. Its fate as a coalition government depends on unity between its disparate elements and on its ability to resolve its inherent contradictions. This fate also depends on the UAL’s and Meretz’s readiness to continue to support the government’s aggressive policies against the Palestinians in Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah and Al-Aqsa, the occupied West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. To be sure, it appears that the coalition will not be able to continue in its present form for a long time, especially that Netanyahu will remain the leader of the opposition.
The article was first published in Arabic on June 14, 2021 by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in Doha, Qatar.
i Members of the political-security cabinet are: Naftali Bennett, Yair Lapid, Avigdor Lieberman, Benny Gantz, Omer Bar-Lev, Zeev Elkin, Nitzan Horowitz, Yifat Shasha-Biton, Gideon Saar, Ayelet Shaked, Matan Kahana, and Merav Michaeli.