Israeli politics are entering a new chapter. After inconclusive elections in March, a politically diverse coalition has formed to end Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12 years as prime minister.
The eight-party coalition is led by right-winger Naftali Bennett and centrist Yair Lapid. The two will take turns as prime minister, with Bennett taking the first period of two years. For the first time, an Arab party will be included in government, with Mansour Abbas’s Ra'am party joining the coalition.
The Bennett-Lapid government could open a new period for Israel. However, it might not be so promising for the Palestinians of the occupied territories.
The coalition’s political diversity will pose a challenge for working together. 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 Defense Minister Benny Ganz’s Blue and White party.
The coalition is united in opposition to Netanyahu, whose period in office has been marked by allegations of corruption (he is currently standing trial on three such counts) and divisive politics. The policies of the new government will therefore reflect a series of compromises and will probably focus on economic and social issues.
It is also likely to offer a change in the political environment and tone down the rather highly charged ideological atmosphere which has characterised the Netanyahu years. His supporters, for example, have organised demonstrations denouncing coalition politicians as “traitors”.
The new government and Palestine
The inclusion of Mansour Abbas’s Ra’am may appear a symbol of some sort of Jewish-Arab cooperation after 11 days of violent conflict in May. But anyone hoping for progress on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict may be disappointed - the parties of the new government have vastly different views on the issue.
Bennett is opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state and had favoured 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. It is unlikely there will be any dramatic new initiatives, but it is possible that the new government could be more receptive to international pressure on the issue, especially from the Biden administration.
Ra’am did not seek to address the Palestinian question in its campaigning, instead focusing on issues affecting the Arab community within Israel. It appears to have reached an agreement that the new government will recognise some currently unauthorised villages, and freeze planning laws that penalise Arab construction. It has also negotiated a commitment from coalition partners to invest 50 billion shekels (US$15 billion) in Arab society. Abbas’s aim when agreeing to enter the coalition was ensuring that Arab concerns become central in Israeli politics. He will point to these gains, if delivered, as a success of this approach.
This is not good news for the Palestinians. While there may be some slowing of settlement activity in the West Bank and concessions to Gaza under pressure from the international community (including the United States), the new government will, in effect, continue the status quo.
We should expect Netanyahu’s policy of managing the conflict through a mixture of encouraging economic activity in the West Bank and military and security deterrence to continue.
A tentative new phase for Jewish-Arab relations
The significance of including Ra’am in the government should not be underestimated. The taboo on Arab political participation in Israeli governments has been broken. It offers a new start for Jewish-Arab relations, and may begin to address decades of discrimination against Arab citizens of Israel.
However, the issues at stake go beyond the economic and social. As underlined by the tensions that came to the surface last month, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict remains, unsurprisingly, the number one domestic challenge. While Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem are still under occupation, the Palestinian citizens of Israel will continue to feel a sense of national injustice.
Lapid has moved quickly, gathering more than 60 signatures of Knesset members to trigger election of a new Speaker and a vote on the new government. Netanyahu and his supporters will do all in their power to frustrate its formation. The Knesset speaker, Yariv Levin, is a Netanyahu supporter in charge of the agenda, and would be expected to put off the confirmation vote for as long as possible, hoping to win over some of the right-wing members of the coalition caucus.
A non-Netanyahu government will be a breath of fresh air for Israel. The picture of Yair Lapid, Naftali Bennett and Mansour Abbas signing the agreement is a powerful image that shows relationships can change. However, despite the inclusion of the first Arab party in an Israeli government, it looks as if little will change for the Palestinians of the occupied territories.