In a recent article in the New York Times, columnist Thomas Friedman portrayed Benjamin Netanyahu as the Donald Trump of Israel, and the Israeli Change Coalition which replaced his government as Joe Biden. Alhough Friedman drew many similarities in support of his postulation, Netanyahu, certainly, has a much smarter political brain.
He is the ‘magician’ of Israeli politics, who has been at the helm for 15 long years, and 12 years at a stretch since 2009. He has been demonstrated extraordinary political skill and control.
After two long years and four elections, the political scenario of the country is in a mess. There has been no annual budget since March 2018. A serious political deadlock, indeed. No wonder that there have been severe policy paralyses in Israel in between, and public trust in the institutions has seen a sharp decline. And all this happened amid the deadliest pandemic in a century. Now, apparently, Israel has broken a two-year political logjam and far-right former settler leader Naftali Bennett was sworn in as the country’s new prime minister on June 13, after winning a confidence vote with a razor-thin margin of 60 votes to 59. What is more, he created history by ousting Netanyahu, the longest-serving prime minister of Israel. While negotiations for the ‘Change Coalition’ were in the final stage, a 11-day-long war in the Gaza strip almost scuttled the chances of such a government and many believed that the war could provide another lifeline to Netanyahu.
Bennett is the leader of Yamina, a right-wing party which could bag only seven seats in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, according to its proportional representation system where seats are assigned proportional to vote shares beyond a threshold. It is, however, unprecedented to become the prime minister with such a small number of seats, even in the multi-party democracy of Israel where coalitions of conflicting ideologies is the destiny of the country.
But still it is certainly the most diverse coalition Israel has ever seen. It is an unlikely assortment of eight parties, including the anti-occupation and dovish Meretz, and parties led by other hawkish figures on the right such as Avigdor Lieberman, a Moldova-born settler. Yair Lapid, the head of the centrist Yesh Atid party having 17 seats in the Knesset, is the main architect of this unlikely coalition. Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid agreed to a rotational scheme, with Bennett becoming prime minister for the first two years and Lapid scheduled to take over thereafter.
Such an arrangement is certainly not alien to Israel – this happened between 1984 and 1988 when Labor leader Shimon Peres and Likud leader Yitzhak Shamir served as prime ministers for two years each.
However, this is the first time an Arab party with four seats in the Knesset – the United Arab List, known by its Hebrew acronym ‘Ra’am’ and led by Mansour Abbas – is part of the government. That is the most important aspect of the new regime of Israel. Every other issue, including the ouster of Israel’s longest serving prime minister, is insignificant compared to the unusual picture of Abbas, Lapid and Bennett sitting around a little table, which drew much international attention. Many political commentators including Haaretz’s Anshel Pfeffer, however, believed that “the man who made it all possible wasn’t there. Netanyahu created this moment.” True, the cementing factor of this alliance was the need to oust Netanyahu. One may like him or not, but Israel’s politics at the moment revolve around that man.
However, Ra’am’s participation in the ruling coalition might have a long-standing impact in the peace process of the region as well. Despite the fact that Arabs constitute one-fifth of Israel’s population, no Arab party has ever taken part in the government. In the 1950s, a small faction composed of one Arab parliamentarian, which essentially operated as an Arab franchise of Israel’s ruling socialist party, Mapai, entered the coalition. And, in the 1990s, when the government of Labor leader Yitzhak Rabin was struggling, the Arab parties stepped in to prevent a vote of no confidence.
Although many Arab politicians in Israel are not happy about Abbas joining the government by abandoning his principles, he is now clearly a kingmaker – no doubt about that. The so-called change bloc supposedly agreed to put over 53 billion Israeli New Shekel ($16.3 billion) in budgets and government development plans for Arab society, and a significant part of it would flow to the Negev region in southern Israel having Ra’am’s political base. “This agreement has a lot of things for the benefit of Arab society, and Israeli society in general,” Abbas told reporters.
And, more importantly, with the inclusion of Ra’am, the Islamist party, a taboo is broken.
It might pave the way for a broader Arab-Israeli coalition in future, thus having huge potential to become a game-changer in Israel’s politics. It could impact the relationship between Israeli-Arabs and Jews, and might have potential to influence the future direction of Isreal-Palestine conflict as well. The photograph of the smiling Mansour Abbas along with Bennett and Lapid could have an enduring power, even beyond simple imagination.
Many people are suspicious whether this Israeli ‘Change Coalition’ would last long. Certainly, Netanyahu would continually try to dismantle the coalition for his political survival, and for his personal interest. Netanyahu is facing multiple corruption charges in the court. He would not like to follow his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, who resigned in such a situation, and was convicted subsequently. Netanyahu might desperately seek immunity as the prime minister. Also, there has been wide speculation that the new government would impose term limits or make it illegal for someone who has been indicted to be prime minister.
Back to the issue of Ra’am’s inclusion in the government. It might have unknown effects in multiple directions. Take an example. About 64.8 per cent Arab Israelis voted in the previous election for the 23rd Knesset, while only around 52 per cent of Arabs turned out to vote in this election – a significant drop. With Abbas joining the government now, Arab Israelis might find more interest in voting in subsequent elections.
The broader question, however, is whether the new ‘change government’ can change Israel, its politics and its social co-existence. Can it lead to a fuller integration of Arab-Israelis in society? History is being written in Israel. And there is scope to reshape history as well.
The writer is Professor of Statistics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata.