Even before winning formal approval on June 13, 2021, the Naftali Bennett-Yair Lapid rotation government has raised many questions as to its durability, the unifying nature of its political agenda, and its potential contribution to achieving a just and lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians—instead of continuing to manage the conflict, as done by several of its predecessors.
Two months since its inauguration, political analysts and pundits continue to debate whether the fragile Bennett government will indeed survive its two-year term in office, after which Lapid will replace Bennett as premier for another two years. This is considering the political turmoil that preceded this Israeli administration, which featured four failed rounds of Knesset elections in two years, reflecting the deep schism that divides the Israeli polity at this critical time. Others have focused their concern on the institutional makeup of the coalition itself, which is inordinately fragmented and splintered politically, even by traditional Israeli coalition standards. Experts continue to question how such an ideologically disparate and ill-fitted assortment of loose allies, brought together by their hatred for former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, could transform their political marriage of convenience into an effective and lasting governing coalition, particularly on the polarizing but substantive issue of future relations with the Palestinians.
What Is the Agenda of the Bennett-Lapid Government?
Simply stated, the current objective of the ruling coalition in Israel is to survive by delivering the minimal possible demands made by its eight constituent partners without endangering the fragile arrangement that brought them together in 2021. “The government’s first line of business,” according to Herb Keinon, “needs to be restoring the public’s faith in the government and its ability to deal with the issues that prop up on a day-to-day basis in a meaningful and responsible way.” These issues might include passing a new budget, continuing the battle against the COVID-19 resurgent pandemic, overcoming the economic turmoil of the past two years, minimizing the damage brought about by the endemic culture of corruption associated with Netanyahu’s decade in office, and rehabilitating Israel’s vital relations with Washington, which were damaged by the former prime minister’s manipulation of his personal relationship with former President Donald Trump. These issues have taken the bulk of the government’s time and effort since assuming power in June.
Bennett’s limited political agenda is obviously governed by the general principles agreed to by the parties upon joining the coalition on June 11, 2021.
Bennett’s limited political agenda is obviously governed by the general principles agreed to by the parties upon joining the coalition on June 11, 2021. Following weeks of tense negotiations, the parties committed to a list of basic guidelines including—among other predominantly domestic issues—determining the general conduct and procedures of the new government, working for an inclusive and united Israel, specifying the actual ministries to include or exclude from the cabinet (four ministries were abolished and others were merged), and revamping the rabbinical establishment and kashrut services in Israeli society. They also included advancing an economic reform package pertaining to veterans and the elderly, extending economic subsidies and tax relief to economic sectors directly harmed by the pandemic, promoting anti-crime measures among Palestinian Arab citizens, and initiating an inquiry into the Mount Meron stampede disaster that occurred on April 30, 2021.
The governing guidelines, however, did not offer detailed foreign policy objectives that were particularly directed at the Palestinians. Indeed, the main reference to Palestinians was an indirect mention of “Area C” in the occupied West Bank, which is fully controlled by Israel, whereby the agreement emphasized the parties’ commitment to “ensure Israel’s national interests” and to beef up the Israeli armed forces to prevent Palestinians from building homes in the area, in line with past illegal Israeli settlement policies and practices in the territories. In other words, the guidelines/parties unequivocally supported continued Israeli occupation of Palestine despite the widely touted inclusion of the Islamist United Arab List (Ra’am) within the coalition, which promised to defend Palestinian rights on both sides of the so-called “Green Line.”
Bennett Is Oblivious to Palestine
Naftali Bennett’s agenda as Israel’s 13th prime minister is essentially domestic in nature. It is deliberately loaded to the hilt with popular domestic issues and policies but devoid of any serious commitment to pursue a peaceful arrangement with the Palestinians. This is not surprising at all, considering the prime minister’s long-held personal ultranationalist views as well as those of his right-wing nationalist party, HaYamin HeHadash (The New Right). Bennett is described as “a territorial maximalist” and has long opposed the establishment of a Palestinian state, including in the context of a two-state solution. He has been an ardent supporter of annexation and illegal Jewish settlements built on occupied Palestinian land and, as former head of the Jewish settlers’ Yesha Council, he advocated that “all of Area C, where all the Israeli settlements are located should be part of sovereign Israel.” On his recent visit to the United States, King Abdullah II of Jordan confirmed privately and publicly that he had met secretly with Bennett and characterized his government as not the “most ideal” to advance a two-state solution.
Since assuming power as prime minister in June, Bennett, the self-made high-tech millionaire, has made it clear that unlike his wavering and opportunistic predecessor, Netanyahu, he means business as far as Israel’s national security is concerned.
Since assuming power as prime minister in June, Bennett, the self-made high-tech millionaire, has made it clear that unlike his wavering and opportunistic predecessor, Netanyahu, he means business as far as Israel’s national security is concerned. He wastes no public opportunity to describe himself as “more right-wing” than his former boss, reiterating his unwavering support for “Jewish historical and religious claims to the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Syrian Golan Heights.” That explains his statement in February 2021 that, “As long as I have any power and control, I won’t hand over one centimetre of land of the Land of Israel. Period.”
Bennett’s Actions Match His Words
Based on his performance in office thus far, Bennett and his government are not as ready for change as hoped for by their promoters in Tel Aviv or Washington, and they fall way short of deserving the nickname, the “change government.” Until now, the ultranationalist prime minister has avoided any contact with the Palestinian Authority (PA) in Ramallah. As a matter of fact, according to Israeli Channel 12 news, he has even blocked his defense minister Benny Gantz from meeting with PA President Mahmoud Abbas to advance bilateral ties (the two leaders ended up talking by phone instead). Even PLO officials who are generally receptive to the idea of returning to the negotiating table “under any circumstances and at any time” have expressed their frustrations with the Bennett government for failing, so far, to “take some steps to change the reality on the ground” in the direction of peace.
The same changeless approach applies to Bennett’s policy on Jewish settlements, the cornerstone of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians. The government is about to end the unofficial moratorium on new settlement activities that started in November 2020 to avoid provoking the incoming US administration. Despite promises of restraint by Bennett’s foreign policy and national security advisors Shimrit Meir and Eyal Hulata during their recent visit to Washington, their government quickly reneged by announcing its intention to build 3,200 new units in the West Bank. The final number was quickly reduced to 2,200 units so as not to anger President Joe Biden before his first summit with Bennett, and in light of rare State Department criticism of the construction of new housing units. This begs the question: if 3,200 new units were deemed illegal and an impediment to future peace with the Palestinians, then what indeed makes 2,200 units kosher? Of course, the Israeli decision to proceed received immediate condemnation from President Abbas, who could not do much more than complain that the new construction order by the Bennett government contradicts Biden’s position on settlements and the need to avoid unilateral measures by all parties.
Although the Bennett government has periodically eased up on the flow of goods and people across the land crossings with Gaza, as the threat of military clashes with Hamas has subsided, no sense of “normalcy” has been restored yet.
Regarding the Gaza Strip, the Israeli government has been resorting to familiar delaying tactics and obfuscation to pressure Hamas despite the deteriorating economic and humanitarian conditions there. Although the Bennett government has periodically eased up on the flow of goods and people across the land crossings with Gaza, as the threat of military clashes with Hamas has subsided, no sense of “normalcy” has been restored yet. The same carrot-and-stick approach was applied to extending the fishing zone that is vital to the local economy in Gaza. Another case in point is Israel’s overdue agreement on August 19, 2021, to allow stalled Qatari humanitarian aid to reach 100,000 needy Palestinian families in Gaza. Bennett finally approved the resumption of this vital aid after blackmailing the United Nations and the Palestinians to radically change the direct aid process to a convoluted transfer of funds through New York banks subject to Israel’s direct control and approval.
Naftali Bennett and his politically hybrid coalition clearly do not believe in a peaceful political solution to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians. His approach is a typical rejectionist Zionist stand in the tradition of his predecessors like Netanyahu, Ariel Sharon, Yitzhak Shamir, and Menachem Begin. It is Israel’s version of the “Three No’s” that for years blamed the Khartoum Arab Summit of 1967: no peace, no recognition, and no negotiations. Bennett’s motto is: no to Palestinian statehood; no to ending Israeli occupation; and no to stopping Jewish settlements on Palestinian land. For Israel’s current prime minister, the Palestinians are like “a shrapnel in the ass,” to use his own words. Clearly, he does not seek to end, or even manage, the conflict. Instead, he prefers to “shrink” it until the conflict sinks into oblivion.