Hard Questions, Tough Answers: The Bennett Government’s First Month in Office (July 12, 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.

Q: Nearly a month into what is already a rocky term of office, what has the Bennett-Lapid government done to ensure its own stability?

A: Last week in the Knesset, alongside a dramatic parliamentary defeat on the citizenship law (see Q & A from two weeks ago), the Bennett-Lapid government succeeded in enforcing coalition discipline, recruiting votes from the Joint Arab List, and passing two measures that are vital to its survival.

One measure extends the deadline for passing a budget. Knesset summer recess and September’s concentration of Jewish holidays would have rendered it impossible for the coalition to pass the budget by September 23, meaning the coalition would have fallen automatically. Now the coalition has awarded itself an additional two months.

The second measure permits as few as four members of Knesset to break off from their party list and form a separate Knesset faction. Bennett and Lapid apparently believe that if and when a budget has passed, and as the passage of time weakens ex-PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s grip on the Likud as an opposition party, a handful of Likud MKs will be prepared to part company with Netanyahu and join them. That would enable them to expand the coalition, thereby ensuring comfortable majorities on key votes. At a minimum, the threat to break up the Likud weakens Netanyahu, hence weakens the parliamentary opposition. Until now only one-third of a Knesset faction--in the Likud’s case, 10 out of 30--could break away.

Bennett has also reportedly been devoting time and an unusual effort to understanding and accommodating his coalition partners from the left: Labor leader Michaeli, Meretz leader Horowitz and Raam leader Abbas. They sacrificed their ideological principles last week to vote with the coalition on the citizenship law and to look the other way regarding the ugly compromise Bennett reached regarding renegade outpost Evyatar—both issues, incidentally, dumped on Bennett and Lapid by the outgoing Netanyahu government. Now Bennett ‘owes’ coalition right-wing votes to Labor, Meretz and Raam on issues dear to them.

Here we must note that Bennett’s political base, i.e., the voter base of his seven Yamina mandates which is located to the right of the Likud, is almost certainly not bending and compromising the way he is to keep the coalition together. The Yamina Knesset faction has already lost one MK, Amichai Chikli, to right-wing political correctness. One reason Bennett is courting the left (and center) of the coalition is to lay the foundation for a new base, one more ideologically diverse, by the time next election comes around.

Note, too, that according to an Israel Democracy Institute poll published on Monday, more Israelis believe Foreign Minister Yair Lapid rather than PM Bennett is the strongest figure in the new government. Further, only around half of the public believes the new coalition will survive its first year in office. These are hardly indicators of stability.


Q: Have Bennet and Lapid changed anything during this first month in office in Israel’s approach to its most pressing regional strategic issues?

A: Leaving aside the Palestinian issue, which we’ll come back to, the Bennett-Lapid duo has taken important first steps toward positive change, in many cases repairing damage done in recent years by Netanyahu. They have met with the leaders of Israel’s immediate neighbors, Egypt and Jordan. Jordan’s access to excess Israeli water reserves and its role on the Temple Mount have been restored, and additional economic cooperation agreements are in the pipeline. Dialogue and exchange with the European Union have also been restored, including one instance where Israel agrees that an EU arts and culture financial grant program not extend to West Bank settlements.

Then there is the Iran issue and in particular the American context. Bennett is reportedly conducting extensive meetings with everyone concerned in Israel with a view to formulating a coherent policy that he can present to President Biden in a hoped-for meeting next month. Meanwhile, Israel’s approach to the ongoing JCPOA nuclear deal meetings in Vienna is low key: expressing concerns about Israel’s interests yet without openly criticizing or campaigning against the administration in the style employed so destructively by Netanyahu against the Obama administration.

By August, newly-elected Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi will take office and the fate of the JCPOA talks will probably have been determined--agreement or not. Bennett plans to show up in Washington with an Iran agenda based on dialogue and cooperation that offset whatever disagreements remain.


Q: You’re describing a very different style that contrasts sharply with that of Netanyahu . . .

A: Yes, and not only in regional and international affairs. Gone are Netanyahu’s bombast, threats and paranoia toward even his closest associates. In domestic affairs too, Bennett is open, approachable and low key. There is no drama. His wife is not involved in key appointments and his children are not tweeting distortions and lies against his political opponents. Now that Netanyahu has finally vacated the PM’s Balfour St. residence in Jerusalem--for many, a symbol of all that was wrong with the behavior of the previous ‘crime minister’--Bennett is not moving his family there and plans to sleep and work there for only part of the work week.


Q: Netanyahu’s regional policies and his approach to US politics seemingly alienated a large portion of the American Jewish community. Is the Bennett-Lapid team doing anything to reverse this trend?

A: Yes. First, by mending fences with the Biden administration and the Democratic party and avoiding policy confrontations in every way possible: for starters, regarding Iran. And second, by restoring relations with the non-Orthodox American Jewish mainstream. Bennett, who is Orthodox, has Conservative Jewish roots in America. The Labor contingent in his coalition features Rabbi Gilad Kariv, former head of the Reform Movement in Israel.

Bennett, Lapid, Saar and Liberman--the coalition’s right and centrist leaders--will in most respects be able to conciliate and dialogue with the American Jewish community.


Q: Most other respects, but not the Palestinian issue. . .

A: Bennett, Saar, Liberman and even parts of Gantz’s Blue-White and Lapid’s Yesh Atid parties are hawkish regarding the Palestinians. They reject the two-state solution and support settlements. Unless the vicissitudes and constraints of the PM’s Office radically change Bennett’s position (remember PM Ariel Sharon’s abrupt about-face regarding settlements, citing the song “things you see from here you don’t see from there”), Bennett will continue to support what can only be called an Israeli version of apartheid for the West Bank. The entire political opposition, meaning the other half of the Knesset, is hawkish too.

This coalition, then, will not line up behind a two-state solution, despite the dovish views of coalition-members Labor, Meretz and Raam. At most, it will reassure the Biden administration and the American Jewish community that it will maintain the status quo regarding settlements. And it will promote economic cooperation with the Palestinian Authority: Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Freige (Meretz) is already working to reconvene a Joint Economic Committee established back in 1994 and to increase work permits in Israel for West Bank laborers. The UAE and Bahrain, Israel’s new normalization partners, will be encouraged to invest in the PA.

Of course, expanded economic cooperation and development are desirable. They are good for both sides. But anyone who thinks this token ‘economic peace’ will pave the way for genuine political movement with the Palestinians is mistaken. The conflict is ideological, religious, historical, political and geographic--not economic.

Nor do Bennett’s policies bespeak genuine progress with Hamas in Gaza. Israel’s new prime minister believes in a tough approach: immediate Israel Air Force reprisals for even low-level Hamas provocations like incendiary balloons; and more economic carrots, but via Egypt, not Israel. Bennett endorses Israel’s earlier hard-and-fast demands that Hamas begin any new agreement by returning the remains of Israeli MIAs and repatriating two mentally-challenged Israelis who crossed on their own into the Strip.

Gaza-based Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar is not about to bend. Even the current quiet is not likely to last long. Bennett’s first serious military challenge is almost certain to come from Gaza.


Q: Finally, at the political-parliamentary level, is this coalition holding its own?

A: As long as its very existence can be held hostage by an unhappy MK or two from its right wing, left wing or Arab wing, the coalition’s behavior in the Knesset will be erratic and in many cases overly provocative, demanding, and here and there reminiscent of the worst of the Netanyahu era. Why, for example, ram through basic law amendments enabling the establishment of new ministries and why distort the composition of Knesset committees? Unless you are so desperate to satisfy your potentially rebellious back-benchers that you will risk needless provocations against the parliamentary opposition and needless distortions of proper parliamentary behavior.  

Why offer goodies to the Arab party that stayed out of the coalition, the six-MK strong Joint List, when this angers the smaller Arab party, Raam, that courageously and formally joined your coalition? Unless you are desperate to shore up your unique right-center-left-Arab coalition, with its bare majority, against the next defection or the next opposition challenge.


Q: Your bottom line?

A: The Bennett-Lapid coalition should have relatively smooth sailing on regional and international issues, where Netanyahu is an easy act to follow. This holds to at least some extent regarding relations with the American Jewish community, although liberal America will have to acquiesce in a lack of substantive movement on the Palestinian issue and very possibly in more fighting with Hamas in Gaza.

It is on the domestic political scene where most of the new coalition’s landmines lie.