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Israel's political earthquake: Exit Bibi

In the new Israeli government, a fragile cabinet faces difficult domestic and regional issues

Mohamed Abu Shaar , Tuesday 8 Jun 2021
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“Political earthquake” is the phrase that has been used by newspapers and political analysts to describe the moment when opponents of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu managed to remove him from power after 12 years in office, and agreed to form a government for change.

Netanyahu, who led the Likud Party and the right-wing bloc in Israel, is one of the most powerful politicians to have ruled the country. His rivals needed four rounds of elections over two years in order to accomplish the feat, and they had to agree to close ranks to boot.

The new government includes the Yesh Atid Party led by Yair Lapid, who was nominated by Israeli President Reuvin Rivlin to form a government after Netanyahu failed to do so. It also includes the Kahol Lavan Party headed by Benny Gantz, the incumbent minister of defence and Netanyahu’s partner in the former coalition before it collapsed. The new government also includes the Yisrael Beiteinu Party led by former Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, as well as the Tikva Hadasha Party led by Likud defector Gideon Sa’ar, and Netanyahu’s other former ally Naftali Bennet, the leader of the right-wing Yamina Party.

The new government has also unprecedentedly won the support of the United Arab List Party led by Mansour Abbas, a controversial Arab Islamist figure. Although Abbas’s party won only four out of 120 seats in the Knesset, these were enough for the party to be the kingmaker of the new government which needs the support of 61 Knesset members.

Such a political composition was required for all partners in the new cabinet. Bennett fluctuated several times from switching to the centre and left-wing bloc, which opposes Netanyahu, to returning to the right-wing camp which won the confidence of voters because he was part of it. Bennett views the new government as merely a way to avoid a fifth round of elections.

Lieberman, who usually takes a hardline against alliances with Arab parties in the Knesset, this time accepted an alliance with the United Arab List as a means to justify the end of removing Netanyahu. Lapid, meanwhile, agreed to the position of alternate prime minister in the second term of government to convince Bennett to join him.

All these factors indicate that Netanyahu’s rivals have nothing in common other than the desire to remove him from office, which does not make for a strong cabinet.

The new deal stipulates forming a governing coalition with Bennett serving as prime minister in the first two-year term, followed by Lapid, who led the camp for change, in the second.

This fragile and contradictory composition of the new Israeli cabinet which combines opposites in the political arena raises many questions about how resilient it will be in the face of colossal issues that await decisions, due to changes imposed by regional and international security and political conditions.

Imtans Shehada, a Palestinian political analyst in Israel, said it is clear the new government will take shape despite its fragility, removing Likud leader Netanyahu from power. “The partners in the new government for change in Israel have the joint goal of overthrowing Netanyahu, and eliminating him politically,” said Shehada. “The new coalition will work diligently on forming a new government, especially since most of them are worried about holding a fifth round of Knesset elections.”

He explained that there will be a government for change, but there is no guarantee how long it will remain in power, especially in light of differences on political, social and key issues in Israeli society. Shehada noted there is agreement among these parties not to address major issues, and postpone them till after the cabinet is formed. This indicates that the participating parties will delay discussions on trigger issues that could detonate their agreement for the time being.

“This government will be short-lived,” he opined. “It will continue operating until Netanyahu’s political and parliamentary powers are diminished, especially since Bennett wants to promote himself as a good prime minister, to ensure his political future. But there are no guarantees this cabinet will last long.”

According to Shehada, despite the fact that the support of an Arab political party, Mansour’s United Arab List, for an Israeli government is unprecedented, the Arab party will have no influence over the government and will be greatly marginalised. “The key points of contention are among the Zionist parties in the coalition,” Shehada added. “Mansour’s party wants to secure daily-life benefits for Arab citizens, which have been postponed until the new cabinet is formed.”

He continued, “Abbas is tying his political future to this step, and he did not propose any key issues or discuss the Palestinian cause. He talks about daily issues only, especially since everyone agreed to suspend discussion of the Palestinian cause due to disputes among all parties.”

There are many contradictions among the political players involved in the government, which makes its longevity and ability to bring about clear change on the home front a difficult task in a fractured Israeli society. There is also strong polarisation which Netanyahu is trying to manipulate to undermine the formation of a new government, similar to what occurred after the defeat of US president Donald Trump in the elections, according to the Israeli and US press.

Severe polarisation in Israel has caused officials in Shabak (the internal security service) to warn that political assassinations are a possiblity, which is an Israeli fear since the assassination of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1994 by those who were opposed to him signing a peace agreement with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation led by the late Palestinian president Yasser Arafat.

Domestic challenges in Israel are not the only problem facing the new government. A new leadership in Israel coincides with the strong return of the Palestinian cause to the international limelight, due to Arab activism led by Egypt and Jordan and the Biden administration’s desire to revive the political track between Palestinians and Israelis.

Although the major players in the new cabinet have clear positions regarding the Palestinian cause, no less right-wing and extremist than Netanyahu’s, the new government will be required to respond to the queries and efforts of mediators as well as to Arab and international pressure regarding the need to reach a settlement to enforce calm in the region. Recent military confrontations between armed Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip and Israel, and worldwide solidarity with events in Sheikh Jarrah in occupied Jerusalem, increased everyone’s desire to push Palestinians and Israelis to return to the path of settlement and calm, especially since Hamas has said several times it is willing to de-escalate long-term in return for a reasonable price.

Commenting on the possible position of the Israeli government on the Palestinian cause, Shehada said that Lapid offers nothing new on the Palestinian issue and is not too different from Netanyahu on this matter. He said that the Palestinian cause is not a priority right now on the Israeli political agenda.

Observers agree that Israeli action on the Palestinian issue requires a strong cabinet, but this government will be too weak to take a progressive stand on the Palestinian issue, while Netanyahu and the right-wing bloc are lying in wait and continue to incite against any movement on the matter.

The new government in Israel coincides with new circumstances in the US, which is now ruled by a Democrat, Biden who, though keen on support for Israel, appears to be more cautious than his predecessor and also more equitable to Palestinians.

“Warmer relations between the US and Israel are always adverse for the Palestinian cause and counter-productive,” noted Shehada. A key question is how the new government in Israel will deal with Washington’s desire to revive relations with the Palestinians, and its support of Egyptian efforts to restore calm between Palestinians and Israelis, and push forward the peace process.

A partial response to this question can be gleaned from a report by the Hebrew newspaper Israel Hayom, stating that Israel’s Defence Minister Gantz and partner in the next government relayed positive signals to the US administration during a recent visit to Washington about resuming talks with the Palestinian Authority. Gantz views it from two perspectives: resuming the political track on the one hand, and weakening Hamas and empowering the PA on the other.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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