Hard Questions, Tough Answers: Israel’s 36th Government (June 14, 2021)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Israel’s 36th government

Q: What on earth could have brought together, into one government, the settler right, the center, the left, and an Arab Islamist party?

 A: Almost all these disparate elements came together out of intense disapproval of outgoing Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government: its cynical immorality, its sowing of discord among Israelis as a means of remaining in power, and its members’ sycophantic worship of the corrupt Netanyahu.

 The latter, never missing a beat, has devoted the past two weeks to attacking the emerging new coalition in a style that clearly echoed and channeled Donald Trump. The new government, led by an Orthodox arch-hawk, Naftali Bennett, is described by Netanyahu as “dangerous, left-wing”. Coalition strong-man Yair Lapid is perpetrating the “fraud of the century” and the “greatest election fraud in the history of the country”. The new government reflects a plot by the “deep state”. The two Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties, Netanyahu’s constant backers in recent years, have chimed in with shrill warnings that “the Jewish state is in danger” and “the entire Jewish character [of Israel] is in danger” (needless to say, by “Jewish” they mean ultra-Orthodox).

Like Trump before them, Netanyahu and his allies are consciously laying the groundwork for a hoped-for comeback by means of the delegitimization of the new government. So vicious have their verbal attacks been that a worried Nadav Argaman, head of the General Security Service (Shin Bet), took the very unusual step last week of warning publicly against “extremely violent and inciteful discourse” targeting the new post-Netanyahu coalition. The Shin Bet has a strong institutional memory of the atmosphere, also galvanized by the political right, that led up to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.

Thus what brought this coalition together is its members’ sense of repugnance at the behavior of Netanyahu and his legions--repugnance helpfully reinforced by the outgoing coalition in its final days. Note that only two of the eight parties forming the new coalition were declaratively prepared, at least in theory, to cooperate with a Netanyahu-led coalition as well. Note, too, that these are the two most extreme parties in the new coalition: Naftali Bennett’s Yamina on the pro-settler far right and Mansour Abbas’s Raam, the Arab party. Bennett successfully parlayed this flexibility into the premiership for the first two years of the new government’s tenure. Raam--declaratively Islamist in the Hamas mold but with a pragmatic streak--is the first Arab party to serve formally in any Israeli government: a welcome departure that merely underlines the desperation of all the new coalition’s Zionist parties to drive Netanyahu from office.

Q: Opposition to Netanyahu brought these eight parties together, but what will hold them together? Where is the political glue of a shared platform, a shared ideology?

A: This new coalition has the urgent business of repairing the damage done by Netanyahu’s behavior over the past two and a half years of political mayhem. The tasks of passing a long-delayed budget and a two-term limit for prime ministers, renewing civil service appointments, streamlining government, repairing the damage of a pandemic, institutionalizing Haredi military conscription and core education and restoring law and order to the Arab sector will keep the Lapid-Bennett project busy for at least a year. Beyond this agenda, most of the eight parties truly do not share a common ideology.

 Paradoxically, this brings us back to Netanyahu. As long as Netanyahu heads the Likud and the parliamentary opposition, his Trump-like behavior is likely to reinforce the new coalition’s cohesiveness. Neither Bennett and Saar to Netanyahu’s political right nor Michaeli (Labor) and Horowitz (Meretz) on the left wants to be remembered for folding under Netanyahu’s bullying incitement.

 This means that if Netanyahu’s real objective is to oust the new coalition and restore the Likud and possibly the Haredim to power, he should resign from his leadership role and possibly from politics in general. He has a ready excuse: the need to fight three corruption indictments in court. Were he to do so, the effect on Bennett, Saar and Liberman, all senior ministers in the new government who left the Likud because of Netanyahu, would be dramatic. They are not going to be comfortable in a coalition with the left and even the center. Accordingly, either they and their small parties would gravitate back to the Likud or they would invite the Likud to join the new government at the expense of the parties to their left.

But, luckily for this new coalition, Netanyahu’s real objective is to restore Netanyahu to power. After 15 years as prime minister, he seems capable of contemplating no alternative reality. His Knesset speech on Sunday June 13 made it clear that he intends to lead the parliamentary opposition and will fight off any and all attempts by fellow Likudniks to ‘retire’ him.


Q: How is the new coalition structured to function, given its political diversity?

A: Lapid of the centrist Yesh Atid, who with 17 mandates leads the dominant party, only gave up the premiership to Bennett for the first two years in order to cement Bennett’s participation. He apparently had no alternative but to copy the failed formula of the outgoing coalition with its intricately structured balance between two blocs and its invention of the ‘alternate prime minister’ post.

That is a bad omen. Lapid’s coalition agreement with each party specifies to which ‘bloc’ of the coalition it will belong: his or Bennett’s. Lapid’s bloc, from the left and center (Labor, Meretz, Blue-White and Yisrael Beteinu along with Lapid’s Yesh Atid) numerically far outweighs Bennett’s (the right-wingers: Yamina and Gideon Saar’s New Hope). Yet the two blocs will carry equal weight in all decision-making and will each hold veto power. Judging by the performance of the outgoing Netanyahu-Gantz coalition, this arrangement is almost certain to prove disruptive if not ultimately fatal to the new coalition.


Q: Let’s assume harmony, at least in the short term. Who are the primary movers and shakers to keep an eye on?

A: Both Prime Minister Bennett and Foreign Minister Lapid (for the first two years, before they switch) are dynamic and articulate, but relatively inexperienced. Bennett will seek to benefit his settler supporters, but without violating the coalition’s tenuous status quo agreements. Lapid will try to prove as foreign minister that he has matured since flubbing the job of finance minister under Netanyahu a few years ago. Judging by his skill in cobbling together this bizarre coalition, he has indeed come of age as a politician. Benny Gantz (Blue-White), who remains minister of defense, brings with him the bitter political experience of cohabiting with Netanyahu along with the continuity of a long security career.

Elected on a platform of ‘secular liberalism’, Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman (Yisrael Beteinu) will seek, coalition partners permitting, to use the lever of entitlements to compel educational and other reforms among the Haredim. He will also use the treasury to benefit the Russian-speaking immigrants who constitute his main constituency. New Hope leader Gideon Saar, minister of justice, plans to introduce legislation aimed at constraining the judicial branch of government and seeks to appoint conservative judges, all in keeping with his right-wing approach to strengthening the executive and legislative branches vis-à-vis Israel’s High Court of Justice.

All these objectives are defined either explicitly or implicitly in the coalition agreements entered into by Lapid and each of the other party heads. Yet ostensibly, they can be nixed or modified by the other members of the coalition invoking the mutual veto arrangements. What will happen if Bennett and Saar with their religious sympathies object to Liberman slashing Haredi entitlements or to Meretz’s plans to liberalize marriage and worship at the Western Wall? If Labor and Meretz object to Saar’s designation of a too-conservative attorney general? In the best case, all parties will shelve their controversial pet projects for the duration. In the worst case, the coalition’s life will be nerve-rattling and possibly short.

There are two more ministers, both from the right, whose experience in Netanyahu’s cabinets in recent years renders them worthy of our attention. Housing Minister Zeev Elkin (New Hope) is a master parliamentary manipulator. Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked (Yamina) has been awarded an influential position on the committee that appoint judges, where she can weigh in against the right-religious bogeyman of ‘judicial activism’. 

Q: What initiatives and new departures enshrined in the coalition guidelines are likely to generate coalition consensus?

A: Here are two examples. Bennett, a hi-tech millionaire, introduced the goal of increasing the proportion of hi-tech workers to 15 percent of the Israeli labor scene. Who can object to enlarging the engine of Israel’s economy? And several artificial and wasteful ministries created in recent years to reward political coalition partners will be abolished, e.g. ‘strategic affairs’ will be merged with the Foreign Ministry while ‘water’ will be returned to the Energy Ministry.

 Then there are oddities. The coalition guidelines are rich with commitments to build and develop ‘united Jerusalem’, Israel’s capital, where almost none of the new ministers chooses to live. And the promise to legislate against an indicted politician becoming prime minister is nowhere to be found in the guidelines. (Cynical educated guess: the coalition partners realized that any one of them could theoretically be denied the premiership by his/her opponents leveling corruption charges against them.)


Q: Your bottom line?

A: Perversely, Netanyahu remains a key factor contributing to this coalition’s very existence. The odds are against it enjoying a long and harmonious life.