26 September, 2021
June 2021 saw the longest-serving Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, finally exit office after being in power for over a decade.[i] Israel has seen four general elections in the past two years, none of which could provide a decisive majority to either Likud or Labour.[ii] Netanyahu had still managed to retain his post of Prime Minister as a caretaker despite not being able to cobble up a majority in the 120-member Knesset in the past three elections owing to opposition disunity. Following the parliamentary election held in March 2021, many of Netanyahu's aides decided to switch sides, leaving him stranded. The Israeli voters were not in favour of holding another election any time soon and this sentiment seems to have been understood by the political parties.
The landscape of Israeli politics has changed a lot since the first few years of the nation's independence, with several right-wing and religious parties of different denominations occupying significant space. The first three decades after independence was dominated by Labour and Likud parties. The Labour Party has now become a shadow of its former self, but the Likud is continuing to dominate the Israeli polity even though the extent of its dominance has reduced significantly.[iii] Many leaders have decided to abandon the Likud as they were unhappy with the governing style of Netanyahu, popularly known as Bibi.[iv] While Likud won 30 seats in the March elections, it was not enough to form the government. Even though they share the same ideological affiliation as Netanyahu, many right-wing parties had declined to support Netanyahu for another term as the Prime Minister. This is significant as Netanyahu has got various right-wing and religious parties to back him as the Prime Minister since 2009(his second term as the Prime Minister) when Likud did not have the required numbers to form the government on its own.[v] Many orthodox Israelis continue to support him for his hard-line policies against Palestinians and his attempts to sabotage the Oslo Peace Accords of 1995.[vi] Netanyahu has made his stance against the two-state solution clear.
Former Allies Abandon Netanyahu
A new development at the end of Cold War gave the extremist voices in the Israeli society more power. A large number of Russian Jews entered the country, and Avigdor Lieberman emerged as their leader. The Russian Jews were ardent supporters of Netanyahu's ambition of creating a Jewish state which would extend from the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea, essentially taking over all of West Bank.[vii] The new immigrants were against Palestinian statehood. Yisrael Beiteinu, which is led by Lieberman, had been an important ally of the Likud till 2015, with Lieberman himself serving as the Defence Minister in the Netanyahu government as a part of the ruling coalition. Lieberman was known to reflect the hard-line and outwardly racist attitude of his supporters. However, Lieberman fell out with Netanyahu as the latter was not willing to step down as the Prime Minister while facing corruption charges. His lawyers argued that since Netanyahu was a sitting Prime Minister, he could not be tried in an Israeli court. If Netanyahu would have been convicted, he would have been debarred from Israeli politics and could also face a jail term.[viii]
In the new anti-Likud government, Lieberman holds the post of Finance Minister, while Gideon Sa’ar, former Chief of Staff of Netanyahu, holds the post of Justice Minister. The new Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett is also a former Chief of Staff of Netanyahu, who left the Likud and formed another right-wing party called Yamina. Dissatisfied with the alliance with Likud, with whom he had gone to the March election, Bennett decided to abandon the alliance and form a coalition with the secular-centrist party Yesh Atid and Yair Lapid is the leader of the party. The opportunist Bennett, whose party has only six legislators in the Knesset, took his chance and became the Prime Minister.[ix] Yair Lapid is being credited for stitching up the alliance with seven different political parties, all of whom have divergent ideological goals but have rallied together in order to force Netanyahu to vacate the post of Prime Minister. Progressive parties like the Labour Party and Meretz Party are also part of the alliance.
What is the most interesting fact about the new alliance, which is now in power, is that it has managed to accommodate the United Arab List, also known as Ra'am. This marks the first time that an Arab party will be a part of a ruling coalition.[x] The United Arab List has four legislators in the Knesset and had broken away from the Joint List, as the mainstream Arab parties are called, before the elections as they wanted the Arab parties to cooperate with the orthodox Israeli parties in improving the social conditions of the Palestinians residing in Israel. Their proposal fell on deaf ears, forcing the Ra'am to break away.[xi] Other prominent Palestinian parties have criticised Ra'am as they believe that allying with the Jewish parties would not improve the living conditions of the Palestinians as the right-wing parties are hell bent on taking over West Bank and Jerusalem.
A novel feature of the March elections was that the major Jewish parties were trying to reach out to the Arab voters. This attempt is unprecedented with even the Likud trying to woo the Arab citizens. Netanyahu even went to the extent of asking the United Arab List for support, but he was declined. Earlier in 2015, Netanyahu had run his campaign on a racist plank where he demonised the Palestinians. Later, he was forced to change track considering the fact that Palestinians account for 21 percent of Israel's population.
The signing of the coalition agreement was delayed owing to Netanyahu's declaration of a full-scale attack on the Gaza Strip in May 2021.[xii] Various political analysts believe that the attack was an attempt to break down the coalition negotiations by Netanyahu. He was expecting the attack to sow the seeds of distrust between the right-wing Jewish parties and the Arab party, which would help in extending his tenure in office.
Constituents of the New Government
Bennett's decision to ally with a Palestinian party has come as a shocker to many in the country. He was known for inciting hatred between the Jews and the Arabs. He had once opined that the "Palestinian terrorists should be killed and not released" and that “there never will be a peace plan” with Palestinians.[xiii] He has gone to the extent of admitting in a 2013 interview with an Israeli paper that he was involved in the killings of several Arabs and explained how it was not a problem.[xiv] Bennett has come down from his out-and-out racist supremacist beliefs and has promised that his government would look to solve the outstanding issues between the two communities instead of continuing fighting.
Palestinians and other centre-left parties have placed their hopes in the belief that the new government would put on hold the Israeli plans of annexing the West Bank for the time being. As per the power-sharing agreement, Lapid will succeed Bennett as the Prime Minister after two years. As the new coalition is in majority by only a solitary seat, Netanyahu had tried all possible ways to make sure that the coalition members abandon the alliance. Netanyahu had attempted to convince religious parties to break rank with the coalition and support him instead. He even went to the extent of urging his supporters to hold rowdy protests in Palestinian neighbourhood in East Jerusalem so that the tension between the two communities escalate.[xv] Likud supporters have also staged angry demonstrations outside the houses of right-wing and religious party legislators who have left Netanyahu's side. This led to a warning by the head of Shin Bet, Israel's internal security agency, who made it clear to the politicians and religious leaders that inciting religious and racist hatred was not welcome.[xvi] Former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish extremist in 1995 after he had agreed to the "land peace deal" with the Palestinians.[xvii] Several non-orthodox parties in Israel believed that Netanyahu was behind the killing as the right-wing groups were not happy with Rabin signing the Oslo Peace Accords with the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Netanyahu has once again tried to instil the fear of a "left-wing government" in Israel that will endanger Israel's security.[xviii]
The new coalition is primarily made of partners who have allied in order to keep Netanyahu out of office. Several reports suggest that the new Knesset is contemplating on passing a law which would bar anyone facing corruption charges from occupying the post of the Prime Minister and a law that would limit the number of terms for a Prime Minister.[xix] Sceptics of the new government believe that governance problems owing to the different ideologies of the partners will crop up soon. Politicians having right-wing inclinations occupy the important posts in the new government which include Finance and Defence Ministries. Interior and Justice Minister Benny Gantz, who is under investigation by the International Criminal Court for his role in the 2014 war on Gaza , will continue as the Defence Minister.[xx] He was the head of the Israeli army during the 2014 war on Gaza and was the Defence Minister during the 11-day-war launched by the Netanyahu government on the Gaza enclave in May 2021.
An interesting fact about this government is that it will see the exclusion of Ministers who belong to ultra-orthodox Jewish parties. Even though they comprise just 13 percent of the total population, they enjoyed powers which were disproportionate to their population. While all the youths in Israel have to undergo rigorous, compulsory military training for two years, those enrolled in religious schools are exempted .The ultra-orthodox Jews were also against the government restrictions to deal with the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, which led to a lot of resentment among the other groups.[xxi] Lapid had vowed that he would ensure no special treatment was meted out to these ultra-orthodox groups in case he came to power.
A New Dawn in Israel-Palestine Relations?
Palestinians initially believed that having an Arab party in the coalition would deter the new government from continuing with the plans of expanding Jewish settlement to West Bank and Jerusalem. The new government promised the Arab List that they would allocate $
However, relations between the new government in Israel and the Palestinian Authority are showing signs of growth. In the last week of August, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met with Benny Gantz, the Israeli Defence Minister, who assured him of $
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