Israel: Israeli government celebrates one year, but future uncertain

JERUSALEM: Even Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who leads an ideologically divided coalition that is perpetually collapsing, has expressed doubts about the viability of his eight-party government.
“A year ago I wasn’t sure if it was possible,” the religious-nationalist leader told AFP, 12 months after ending the long reign of right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Under the deal he struck with coalition architect, Foreign Secretary Yair Lapid, the two are slated to switch positions midway through their four-year term.
The first anniversary of their motley alliance falls next Monday, but some experts say a second is highly unlikely. Others doubt it will survive until the end of the month.
The impending doom is nothing new for a coalition that spans the political spectrum from hard right parties like Bennett to centrists, doves and Arab Islamists.
The April defection by a member of the prime minister’s Yamina alliance robbed it of its majority in Israel’s 120-seat parliament.
It even lasted several days as a minority government after a left-wing Arab legislator fled last month, but she then bounced back and the coalition is now holding out with 60 seats.
However, the current crisis, rooted in one of Israel’s most sensitive fault lines, could prove fatal.
Lawmakers from two coalition supporters, the United Arab List (Raam) and the moderate Meretz party, have refused to extend a measure that would make Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank subject to Israeli law.
Any concession to the idea that the settlers live outside of Israel abhors other coalition partners, most notably Yamina and the aggressive New Hope party led by Attorney General Gideon Saar.
It remains uncertain whether the government will survive this dispute and what the next crisis will bring.
But in written answers to AFP’s interview questions, Bennett claimed that the alliance had already proven its worth, showing the merit of compromise between rivals.
“After a year of actually leading this government, my biggest realization is that Israel is at its best when we work together, overcome our differences and focus on the well-being of this country,” he wrote.
“What started as a political accident turned into a goal. It works,” he added, pointing to the November budget approval, Israel’s first in three years.
“A year ago, Israel was heading for its fifth election in two years and was paralyzed by polarization,” Bennett said, recalling the turbulence that has characterized Netanyahu in recent years.
“This government is the antidote to polarization.”
Bennett, a hardliner on the Palestinian conflict, was not previously known for his commitment to political inclusivity.
When the former settler lobby chief ran for the first time in 2012-2013, he drew attention to conveying nationalist messages with a modern twist.
“There are certain things that most of us understand will never happen,” read one campaign line. “The Sopranos are not coming back for another season…and there will never be a peace plan with the Palestinians.”
Bennett has not changed ideologically: he opposes the Palestinian state, affirming that there will be no peace talks during his term in office, while his government has approved new homes for settlers in the West Bank.
Bennett has said he wants instead to increase economic opportunities for Palestinians, including through access to Israeli jobs with higher wages.
But some pundits say Bennett’s first year at the helm has revealed he was partly misplaced as an unwavering hardliner.
“He puts the interests of the state above the interests of the ideological camp he represents,” said Yedidia Stern, president of the Jewish People Policy Institute and professor of law at Bar-Ilan University.
Bennett’s coalition was forged by a shared antipathy towards Netanyahu, who was in power from 1996 to 1999 and again from 2009 to June last year.
While many of Bennett’s associates share Netanyahu’s aggressive views, they broke out with him over fears that he was undermining state institutions to serve his personal ambition and survive a trial on corruption charges, which he denies.
Many saw Netanyahu, a close ally of former US President Donald Trump, nurturing right-wing populism and encouraging conspiracy theories about malicious judges, bureaucrats and journalists.
Ami Pedahzur, author of “The Triumph of Israel’s Radical Right,” argued that Bennett’s government is made up of “institutionalists” who oppose the narrative of a “cabal or the deep state trying to take power from the people” .
Left-right divisions were temporarily quelled by a shared desire to “defend the institutions for a while,” said Pedahzur, an Israeli-born professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
Bennett, in a similar vein, praised his coalition for “ensuring the integrity of Israeli democracy”.
“It’s not about making the left happy one day and the right the next,” he wrote. “It’s about listening to each other, hearing different perspectives and sometimes making compromises.”

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