Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Goodbye Netanyahu: Why Israel’s Naftali Bennett Government Will Need To ‘Unlearn’ Five Lessons From The Past

Israel now has a new coalition government led by PM Naftali Bennett, thus ending the 12-year-rule, the longest in Israeli history, of Benjamin Netanyahu.

But given five important lessons of Israeli politics, how stable this government will be and how long will it last may always remain a big guess.

First, this is the 36th government of Israel since 1949, though Israel’s parliament, Knesset, to which the government is responsible, has a term of four years. The fact that so far there have been 36 governments in only 72 years means that rarely any government has lasted its full term of four years.

In fact, there have been only two governments that have lasted four years (the last one was between 1974 and 81, led by Menachem Begin).

Of course, there have been Prime Ministers like Netanyahu who have had prolonged rules, but the nature of their regimes had not remained the same in the sense that the coalition partners did constantly change. So much so that under Netanyahu, Israel saw four general elections in the last two years alone.

By the way, ‘Bibi’, as the ex-PM is popularly called in Israel, lost the vote of confidence by only one vote.

Second, no single party has ever won a majority of seats in a national election. Hence all governments have been coalitions. And this is precisely because of Israel’s electoral system, a system of near-absolute (and nationwide) list proportional representation.

Though over time the threshold for entry to the Knesset has been raised (which is currently set at 3.25%, with the number of seats a party receives in the Knesset being proportional to the number of votes it receives) and parties must now win at least four seats, the situation has not improved.

In fact, it has become worse, with the citizens now allowed to cast votes for two separate parties. This, in turn, encourages political parties to split, merge and change names effortlessly.

Third, given this fragmented politics, charisma plays a big role for those Prime Ministers who have lasted long. As ideologies of the parties do not prevent their leaders to make compromises (Leftists turn right or center, rightists turn left and so on), if one is a charismatic leader, he or she who manages well these contradictions and attracts support.

Netanyahu may have failed this time and he may be one of the most intensely hated politicians of the country today, but the fact remains that he did display his capacity to hold many politicians, factions, diverse groups in the society together.

That explains why the Likud’s popular base remains still loyal to him (let us not forget that his party is the largest in the Knesset with 30 seats and other parties are way behind in individual numbers). That is how he succeeded in building a lasting alliance with the ultra-Orthodox, in spite of his secular way of life, and winning the loyalty of most religious Zionists.

Netanyahu’s charisma was also based on his impressive record as a performer. During his 12 years, he made Israel a science and technology superpower with a booming economy (the nation’s GDP grew 206 percent in the Netanyahu years). He presided over a top-notch military build-up and made strategic and diplomatic breakthroughs like the Abraham Accords. And he engineered a nationwide Pfizer vaccination against COVID-19.

File:Naftali Bennett HUJI Election Debate 2.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
File: Naftali Bennett – Wikipedia

In fact, the new Prime Minister Naftali Bennett of the Yamina Party was not long ago one of Netanyahu’s foremost allies. A known right-winger, he now leads the eight-party coalition along with centrist Yair Lapid. The two will take turns as PM, with Bennett taking the first period of two years. And what is most important, for the first time, an Arab party will be included in government, with Mansour Abbas’s Ra’am party joining the coalition.

Viewed thus, it remains to be seen whether, like his erstwhile ally and leader Netanyahu, the new Prime Minister will manage the coalition’s political diversity. With Labor and Meretz on the left and Yamina, New Hope and Yisrael Beiteinu on the right, the largest segment will be the centrist forces of Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Benny Ganz’s Blue and White party.

Fourth, what binds the coalition together is opposition to Netanyahu at any cost, otherwise the latter’s broad conservatism and right of the center politics theme continues to dominate Israel’s polity.

As Michel Gurfinkiel, a French public intellectual and founder and president of the Jean-Jacques Rousseau Institute, argues, though the March 23 elections did not solve the Knesset’s immediate arithmetical problems, conservative politics won overwhelmingly.

The pro-Netanyahu bloc controls 52 seats (Netanyahu alone got 30) out of 120 in the 24th Knesset — exactly as in the 23rd Knesset. If Bennett, whose party is a hardcore conservative one and its 6 seats will be added (with just 6 seats, he is now the Prime Minister), then the conservative-right parties won 53.96 percent of the vote, while an alternative anti-Netanyahu, the four-party coalition led by Lapid got only 30.9 percent. The combined left and far-left won 10.68 percent, and the Arab parties 8.54 percent.

“If conservatism is defined as the politics of national identity and national interest, Israel is now emerging as the most conservative nation in the democratic world,” argues Gurfinkiel.

Fifthly, which is a corollary of the above, with a hardcore conservative like Bennett as the Prime Minister, the historic participation of a party of Arabs Mansour Abbas’s Ra’am — in the government, raises more questions than answers.

Israeli Arabs constitute nearly 21 percent of the country’s population and they got 10 seats, including Ra’am’s 4 (four). Bennett is opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state and had favored the annexation of the West Bank. Meretz and Labor are signed up to the creation of a Palestinian state, and the former is highly critical of the occupation.

There is no majority in the coalition for either position and as a result, both sides will park these policies. How comfortable Arabs of Israel will be in such a situation?

That is a difficult question to answer, though if the coalition runs well, the Arab participation in the Israeli government, like Israel concluding the Abram Accords with countries like the UAE, may turn out to be a positive factor in promoting the broader Arab-Israel cooperation, naturally on terms favorable to Israel.

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