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Tuesday, 06 June 2023
How will Bennett differ from Bibi?
Ian Black

Israel’s new government, led by Naftali Bennett, a former settler leader, had its first cabinet meeting on June 20, three months since the country went to the polls for the fourth time in less than two years. Binyamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, after 12 years in office and the country’s longest-serving prime minister, is finally no longer in power. But how much difference will this change make?

On domestic issues, potentially quite a lot. Bennett’s unwieldy coalition includes an unprecedently wide range of participants, from his own ultra-nationalist Yamina movement through secular and leftist parties such as Meretz to an Arab Islamist party - the first time in history that a party representing Israel’s Palestinian community has taken part in any government.

That could have an impact in terms of achieving greater equality between the Jewish majority and the 21% Arab minority, especially since the rioting that took place in mixed cities like Lod, Ramle and Haifa triggered by the recent escalation between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip which left 256 Palestinians, including 66 children, and 13 Israelis dead – the worst outbreak of violence since 2014, and a bleak reminder of the long-term unsustainability of the status quo.

Bennett is religiously observant himself, but his new government may also reduce the influence of the ultra-Orthodox parties that benefitted from Netanyahu’s long rule, especially if, as planned, he hands over to his alternate prime minister and foreign minister, Yair Lapid, leader of Shinui (Change) after two years. Lapid is a former TV presenter who embodies Israeli secularism and its hostility to religious communities - especially in the light of their non-observance of Covid pandemic restrictions.

The Bennett-Lapid coalition breaks a political deadlock that has resulted in four snap elections since 2019. During that time, Netanyahu, who is famous for his political skills, managed to keep his rivals bickering and divided while he clung to power, even after he was indicted in three criminal corruption cases on charges he denies.

Netanyahu has been in office for so long that – after last Sunday’s confidence vote dethroned him – he unthinkingly returned to a Knesset seat reserved for the prime minister. After being discreetly prompted by an MP from his own Likud party, he moved to a seat designated for the opposition. And he has still not evacuated his official residence in Balfour Street in West Jerusalem, the scene of mass demonstrations against him in recent times.

It is hard to overstate the significance of Bibi’s defeat. “The political establishment in Israel is embarking on a new path, after two and a half years of irresponsibly drifting from one election to the next, after 12 years in which one person drew all the political oxygen from the room,” wrote Nahum Barnea, the star columnist for the country’s leading Hebrew daily, Yediot Aharonot, last week.

According to coalition agreements with eight separate partners, the Bennett-Lapid “government of change” is to focus mainly on economic and social issues, for example passing a state budget and building new hospitals in the wake of pandemic pressures.

Another key question is how Bennett will respond to pressure from the administration of Joe Biden, which greeted his victory but seems determined to downplay expectations of any breakthrough on Israel-Palestine and to reduce the US commitment to dealing with the Middle East in general, while focusing on reviving the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. Yet another is how Netanyahu will behave as the leader of the opposition: the assumption is that he will act, as ever, in an entirely self-serving way.

Last week’s planned march by far-right Jewish nationalists through Palestinian neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem was Bennett’s first challenge in the wake of last month’s Gaza 11-day flare-up. The march was re-routed to avoid provocation but the participants still shouted “Death to Arabs”. In response incendiary balloons targeting southern Israel were launched from Gaza and Israel carried out airstrikes on the Gaza Strip, although no casualties were reported this time and its blockade eased slightly.

Little change is likely on that front but these underlying issues are simply not going to go away. Palestinian expectations of the Israeli government were unsurprisingly low. As Mohammed Shtayyeh, prime minister of the Palestinian Authority (PA), declared: “We do not see this new government as any less bad than the previous one, and we condemn the announcements of the new prime minister in support of Israeli settlements”. It is hard to argue with his statement that “the new government has no future if it does not take into consideration the future of the Palestinian people and their legitimate rights.” Hamas, of course, is even more hostile.

Lapid will want to renew relations and cooperation with the PA, but he may face opposition from Bennett, who is unlikely to proceed with the unilateral annexation that Netanyahu, backed by Donald Trump, supported. Nothing much is expected to happen on the central, indeed existential, issue of relations between Israel and the Palestinians. In the words of Daniel Seidemann, a well-known Jerusalem peace activist: “Israel will end occupation, or occupation will be the end of us.” levant