ISRAEL

End of the Netanyahu era

Print edition : July 02, 2021

Benjamin Netanyahu at a ceremony organised by the Health Ministry in appreciation of the contribution of the health system personnel and partner agencies in fighting COVID-19, in Jerusalem on June 6. Photo: MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP

Yair Lapid. His Yesh Atid party did a lot of wheeling and dealing with seven different parties to ensure the exit of Netanyahu. Photo: MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP

Naftali Bennett of the Yamina party making a statement at the Knesset in Jerusalem on June 6. He was once Netanyahu’s trusted aide. Photo: AP

Supporters of Israel’s newly formed coalition government at a rally in Tel Aviv on June 6. Photo: JACK GUEZ/AFP

Disparate parties come together to form the new anti-Likud coalition government denying Benjamin Netanyahu yet another stint in office. In the power-sharing deal, Naftali Bennet will be Prime Minister for two years and will be succeeded by Yair Lapid, leader of the secular centrist Yesh Atid party, for the rest of the term.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the longest-serving Prime Minister of Israel lost his desperate bid to stay on in power, at least for the time being. Four general elections in the last two years resulted in a hung parliament with neither of the two contending political groupings, Labour and Likud, gaining a decisive upper hand. But Netanyahu managed to remain at the helm as caretaker Prime Minister despite failing to sew up a majority in the 120-member Knesset in the last three elections. That was because the opposition was disunited and unable to choose a flagbearer to lead the country. Netanyahu’s luck finally ran out after the fourth parliamentary election held in March this year. Many of his close allies ditched him. The last thing Israeli voters want is another election this year. The politicians seem to have read the public mood.

Israel’s polity is completely fractured, with small right-wing and religious parties of various hues proliferating in the political landscape. The Labour Party is now a pale shadow of what it once was. In the first three decades after independence, Israeli politics was dominated by the Labour Party and Likud. But only the Likud continues to remain a dominant force though its numbers and vote share have been declining steadily owing to splits and the governing style of Netanyahu, who has been the undisputed leader of the party for the last three decades. With 30 seats, the Likud emerged as the largest party in the Knesset in the March election, but the number was not sufficient to cobble up a stable coalition.

Many right-wing parties had from the outset refused to support another term in office for Netanyahu despite sharing his hard-line views on domestic and international politics. Since his second stint as Prime Minster, which started in 2009, Netanyahu had managed to get the right wing and religious parties to back him despite Likud not having a majority of its own in the Knesset. His uncompromising policies towards Palestinians and his success at sabotaging the Oslo Peace Accords of 1995 and the two-state solution they had envisaged made him a hero to many Israelis. The majority of Israeli Jews are still opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state.

The new voting bloc

The influx of Russian Jews into Israel at the end of the Cold War created another voting bloc, led by Avigdor Lieberman. The new immigrants were even more opposed to Palestinian statehood and were among the loudest supporters of Netanyahu’s dream of establishing a Jewish state extending from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, incorporating all of the West Bank. Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party was a close ally of Netanyahu and Likud until 2015. Lieberman, known for his extremist and racist views, served as Defence Minister under Netanyahu when his party was part of the ruling coalition.

But Lieberman, like many of Netanyahu’s former prominent ideological soulmates and close allies, developed personal differences with the domineering Prime Minister. Netanyahu’s refusal to step down from the post of Prime Minister while facing serious charges of corruption infuriated his senior Cabinet colleagues and allies. Netanyahu’s legal team has been arguing that a sitting Prime Minister cannot be tried in a court of law in Israel. Conviction for corrupt activities would have debarred Netanyahu from Israeli politics. Also, he could face the possible ignominy of a jail term.
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In the new anti-Likud coalition government that in all probability will win the vote of confidence in the Knesset, Lieberman is expected to be the Finance Minister. Netanyahu’s former chief of staff, Gideon Sa’ar, is tipped to be the new Justice Minister. He had split with Netanyahu last year, angered by the Prime Minister’s refusal to step down despite facing trial on corruption charges. Naftali Bennet, who was once Netanyahu’s trusted aide and chief of staff, split from Likud to form another equally right-wing party called Yamina (Rightward). Now he too has deserted the Likud-led coalition and done a surprise deal with Yair Lapid, the leader of the opposition coalition representing Yesh Atid (There is a Future), a secular centrist party. Bennet and his Yamina party had gone to the election as allies of the Likud Party.

But the election once again resulted in a stalemate with none of the leading contenders for the top job able to show a convincing majority. The ambitious Bennet, whose party has only seven legislators in the Knesset, saw his chance and did a deal with Lapid while dumping his erstwhile mentor and the Likud-led coalition. Now he will be taking over as Prime Minister. His supporters opined that had he stayed with Netanyahu, Israel would have had to go to the polls for the fifth time in two years.

Lapid, whose Yesh Atid is the second biggest party in the Knesset, had to do a lot of wheeling and dealing with seven different parties with radically differing ideologies to finally ensure the exit of Netanyahu. The Labour Party, and the more progressive Meretz Party, are also part of the coalition. For the first time in Israeli politics, an Arab Party is part of the power-sharing deal. The United Arab List, known as Ra’am, has four elected members in the Knesset. The group had split from Joint List, as the mainstream Arab parties are known, before the election.

Ra’am’s proposal that Arab parties cooperate with the right-wing Israeli parties to improve the living conditions of Palestinians inside Israel was rejected by the other Arab parties. Ra’am’s decision to join the coalition has come in for strong criticism from all the major Palestinian political parties. All of them believe that Palestinians will gain nothing by joining hands with Jewish parties that want to go on treating them as second-class citizens and take over the West Bank and Jerusalem.

In the March election, unlike previous elections in Israel, most of the Jewish parties, including Likud, tried to woo the Arab electorate. In a last-ditch attempt to cling to power, Netanyahu even approached the United Arab List for support. He was rebuffed. Netanyahu had won the 2015 election on a blatantly racist platform demonising Palestinians, who constitute around 21 per cent of the Jewish state’s population. Netanyahu was forced to change tack as that ploy did not work in the last couple of elections.
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Not many expected a Palestinian party to join hands in a government that has the likes of Naftali Bennet. The coalition agreement would have been signed much earlier but was delayed as Netanyahu ordered full-scale hostilities against the Gaza Strip. Many Israeli commentators say that one of the reasons for Netanyahu’s latest war on Gaza was to scupper the coalition deal. He had hoped that the right-wing Jewish parties and the Arab party would no longer be willing to be on the same side as far as the formation of a new government was concerned.

Bennet’s promise

Bennet had gained notoriety for his anti-Palestinian rhetoric. He had once said that Palestinian “terrorists should be killed, not released” and “that there never will be a peace plan” with Palestinians. An Israeli newspaper had quoted him as saying in 2013 that he had “killed a lot of Arabs in his life” and that “there was no problem with that”. Bennet is now promising to turn the page, saying that the new government will focus “on what can be done, instead of fighting all day on what’s impossible”. Palestinians and Israel’s few remaining centre-left parties will hope that Bennet will at least for the time being put the annexation of the West Bank and other contentious policies on hold.

In the power-sharing deal, Bennet will be Prime Minister for the first two years and will be succeeded by Lapid for the rest of the government’s terms in office. The government as of now has only a majority of one in the Knesset. Netanyahu has been trying to use every method in the book to get some members of the religious parties to break ranks before the vote of confidence in the new government is held. Netanyahu has been urging his supporters to stage rowdy protests in Palestinian neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem and in front of the houses of Knesset members from right-wing and religious parties who switched sides to support the new coalition government.

The head of Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security agency, issued a warning in early June to politicians and religious leaders to desist from inciting their supporters. A Jewish extremist assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 for agreeing to the “land for peace deal” with Palestinians. The Left in Israel had blamed Netanyahu for playing a role in the events that led to the assassination of Rabin, who signed the Oslo Peace Accords along with the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Netanyahu has accused Bennet of trying to form a “left-wing government” that would pose “a danger to the security of Israel”.

The disparate parties that have joined together to form the new “change government” will try to stick together until such time Netanyahu either fades into the sunset politically or is jailed. There are reports that the new Knesset may pass a law barring anyone facing charges of corruption from holding the Prime Minister’s post. The Knesset could pass a law limiting the number of terms for a Prime Minister. After the common goal of getting rid of Netanyahu from the political scene is achieved, there is no rationale for the government to carry on, given the different agendas of the main players.
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Anyway, most of Israel’s political parties, belonging to the Right and the so-called Left, want to continue with the brutal occupation and discriminatory policies against Palestinians. Right-wing nationalists are slated to hold key posts in the new government, including finance, interior, justice and defence. Benny Gantz, who was the head of the Israeli army during its criminal assault on Gaza in 2014 and was Defence Minister during the Netanyahu government’s 11-day war on the enclave in May, will continue in the post. Gantz is under investigation by the International Criminal Court for his role in the 2014 war on Gaza.

However, it will be the first government in recent Israeli history that will not have any Ministers from the ultra-orthodox Jewish religious parties. The influence and privileges enjoyed by the ultra-orthodox Jews, who constitute only around 13 per cent of the Israeli population, has caused a great deal of resentment. The youths studying in religious schools are exempted from the compulsory and rigorous military training which other Israelis are forced to undergo for two years. The ultra-orthodox Jews refused to obey the COVID-19 restrictions imposed by the government. Lapid had pledged that if Netanyahu was defeated, he would ensure that no special concessions were given to ultra-orthodox groups.

Palestinians may be able to breathe a brief sigh of relief as the Jewish settlement expansion in the West Bank and Jerusalem could be put on hold for a short time to keep the coalition government from collapsing. The Arab List has got a commitment from the new government that it will allocate $16 billion to improve the living conditions in towns that have a sizeable Arab population. Palestinians living inside Israel have suffered from decades of discrimination and neglect. They were humiliated and upset with the passage of the One Nation Law in 2018. The racist law gave only Jewish citizens “the right of national self-determination” in Israel, confining Palestinians to the status of second-class citizens. It transformed Israel into a theocratic state. Arabic was removed as an official language.

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