Against the odds: The Israeli Government lives to fight another day!

A personal view by Mosaic Reform member, Judith Bara

On June 13th 2021, a new government consisting of eight disparate parties was sworn into office by the outgoing President of Israel, Reuven Rivlin. It represented a coalition between centrist and centre-left parties, known as the ‘Change Bloc’ comprising Yesh Atid, Blue and White, Labour and Meretz, the recently created rightist parties Yamina and New Hope, as well as the veteran Yisrael Beiteinu and the Arab Joint List. Collectively (at that stage) they held sixty-four of the 120 Knesset seats. This had followed protracted and difficult negotiations, spearheaded by the Yesh Atid Leader, Yair Lapid, who persuaded Naftali Bennett of Yamina to join and agreed to an alternating premiership with him. It appeared at the outset that there was only one real point of agreement. Primarily, all these parties wanted rid of Netanyahu, who had betrayed, vilified, and denigrated all of them to differing degrees, but also to avoid yet another election. In the event, only one element of the Arab Joint List – Ra’am – remained in the coalition which reduced its tally of seats to 61, giving it the most wafer thin of majorities over the combined opposition total of 59. Much of the ensuing difficulty in agreeing a coalition was related to the distribution of portfolios – but that is hardly new to Israel. The coalition agreement was based on bringing stability to the country and, crucially, not to discuss detailed changes to the ‘status quo’ in religious affairs nor to dismantle settlements on the West Bank.

Critically, on 4th November, the new government managed not only to pass a budget for 2020-21, but also a framework for a 2021-22 budget. This cleared one of the major obstacles of the previous Knesset and avoided new elections having to be called. It is also likely that these budgets, which are based on a two-year spending plan, will open the way to greater economic activity and trade, having removed a series of barriers and regulations. The budget also upheld the coalition agreement promise to invest substantially in the Palestinian-Israeli community as well as enabling and encouraging economic capacity in the West Bank territories. There is also speculation that a new law, limiting the length of time any prime minister can serve to eight years, thus preventing Netanyahu regaining power, will be introduced.

The government’s policy package was described by The Economist as ‘a change in tone but not in substance’.  But tone can often be a catalyst for change and improved relations with the wider world. Indeed, the government will continue to enable settlements to be developed but will also encourage economic progress in the Palestinian Territories and greater engagement with the wider world. In domestic terms, it will promote infrastructure development, including a new airport and university, and will also prioritise greater attention to welfare and social justice. The Bank of Israel supports this. There will also be an inquiry to examine the disturbances of April 2021.

Furthermore, the nature of the coalition itself could create opportunities to build new alliances within Israel. It brings together different communities of parties and their voters who had been significantly disenchanted by government in recent years. Firstly, the elements of the right, notably Bennett, Sa’ar and Beiteinu, previous members or allies of Likud who had been demeaned by Netanyahu. Secondly the centre-right, such as Gantz, who should have become Prime Minister had not Netanyahu reneged on the deal he had signed up to, and Lapid, who had received death threats from Netanyahu allies. Thirdly, the centre-left and left, notably Labour and Meretz, whose support had eroded over recent years and had worried that they might have failed to meet the electoral threshold. These groups are in the main secular and were fed up with seeing their rights eroded by the influence of the ultra-orthodox. Collectively, these communities could muster sufficient votes to outflank Likud and prevent some of its ‘natural’ allies from gaining ground. If the present coalition is successful, it could pave the way for a realignment in Israeli party politics. After all, the majority of Israeli voters are not ultra-orthodox.

In international terms, the new government has made some early moves to improve Israel’s image and forge new ties. It is no exaggeration to say that the previous government seriously alienated much of the world, not simply in terms of policy, but in terms of its uncompromising attitude, as well as its clear support for the Trump regime. It is fortuitous that the American presidency had changed during the past year. Obviously, both Trump and Netanyahu were among the architects of the Abraham Accords with several Gulf states, and these are welcomed by both the new Israeli and American regimes and have already been built on.

President Biden, in his meeting with Prime Minister Bennett, discussed an upgrade to Israel’s ‘Iron Dome’ defence system. There has been concern that Biden is ‘soft’ on Iran as he would like the US to re-join the Nuclear Deal. But the new, hard-line government in Tehran has indicated that it wants all sanctions lifted before it engages in talks with the US and that is unlikely to happen. To Israel’s advantage is that Biden has only modest expectations about a negotiated peace deal with the Palestinians and would prefer to support economic development in the West Bank – which is also on Israel’s agenda

On 24th November, Gantz as defence Minister, signed a Memorandum of Understanding on defence and security with Abdullatef Oudiyi, his opposite number in Morocco. On 29th November, Lapid and Liz Truss, as foreign ministers, signed an Anglo-Israeli deal on trade and security, including cybersecurity, aimed primarily at preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. The UK has proscribed the political wing of HAMAS, which it described as a terrorist and anti-semitic organisation. Bennett has also visited Egypt for talks with President Sissi and Gantz has met with President Abbas to discuss economic development in the Palestinian Territories. Bennett also attended COP26, along with Ministers Tamar Zandberg (Environmental Protection) and Karine Elharrar (National Infrastructure, Energy and Water). Israel’s response to the covid pandemic, under both this and the previous government, has been monitored as an example of good practice.

Whilst international focus has been on government formation and survival, another development has taken place in Israel. President Rivlin, regarded as a supporter of the coalition and, despite coming from Likud, was a forthright critic of the previous government on occasion, came to the end of his seven-year term. His successor. Yitzhak Herzog took office on 7th July. He is a former Labour Leader and son of former President Chaim Herzog.

So, against the odds, the Israeli government which took office in June, has survived its first six months. More than that, it has made significant headway, especially in terms of averting an early election, passing a budget, and repairing bridges across the world. Yet we must not forget that it is still in a fragile position, having a knife-edge majority and could fall on the whim of one MK. We should not be complacent about its long-term survival, but Israel is clearly in a better place than it was in last spring.

Many thanks to Judith for sharing her thoughts.  Please note that these are her personal views and NOT those of Mosaic Jewish Community or our three Synagogues.  For more about Israel see Mosaic’s webpage about Israel.  If you’d like to contribute to this series or take part in some discussions about Israel then please contact Israel matters at Mosaic

December 16, 2021