The Unusual New Israeli Government

It is the most diverse - and most fragile - in Israel’s history.

The unusual happened at the Israeli Knesset (parliament) in Jerusalem on Sunday, June 13, 2021. The bloc of Change (the anti-Netanyahu bloc) was able to form a coalition government with less than the required 61 Knesset members voting their confidence in the government led by Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid. The vote was 60 for the new government and 59 against. Lapid, the force behind the Change Bloc, and the alternate Prime Minister in rotation with Bennett, had to summon Labor Knesset member Emilie Moatti from her hospital bed to vote while lying on a stretcher, just to make it 60… The Arab Islamist list (Ra’am in Hebrew), part of the new coalition government, had one of its four members abstain. Without Moatti’s vote there would have been no Lapid-Bennett government. Naftali Bennett will be leading the most diverse coalition in Israel’s history.

Another unprecedented fact about the incoming government led by new Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is that he leads a party of only six Knesset members in the unicameral Knesset of 120 members. The outgoing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the longest serving PM in Israel’s history (15-years in total, and last 12 consecutive years) leads the largest party in the Knesset with 30 members. Amichai Chikli of Bennett’s Yamina party voted against his own leader, pointing out that he could not bring himself to sit in the same government with the far-left Meretz party that is part of the new coalition.

The new coalition government has one binding issue in common; all eight parties wanted to get Netanyahu out of office. There is little else they share. Yair Lapid’s (57) center-left party, Yesh Atid (17 seats in the current Knesset) has a liberal agenda on domestic-economic affairs; its platform says little on foreign and security affairs. Interestingly, while its platform calls for an effective government with no more than 18 ministers, the current Change Bloc that Lapid has concocted has 27 ministers. Yesh Atid, a secular, Tel Aviv centered party believes in drafting Haredi boys into the IDF, and the integration of the Ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) community into Israeli society. Lapid served as Finance Minister in 2013, under Netanyahu, who subsequently fired him. Lapid was also a member of the security cabinet. A former journalist and a TV host, Lapid shares President Biden’s commitment to a two-state solution with the Palestinians, but he opposes the division of Jerusalem. Lapid is now Israel’s Foreign Minister and is slated to rotate with Naftali Bennett and become the Prime Minister in 2023.

Benny Gantz (62), leader of the centrist Blue and White party (8 seats), will continue serving as the Defense Minister in the new government. Once a partner with Yesh Atid’s Lapid, Gantz (former IDF Chief-of-Staff) joined Netanyahu’s government on the basis of a rotation. Unfortunately for him, pulling out of the government failed to materialize his chance. Gantz appeared rather glum in the festive photo of all the newly sworn in government ministers taken with President Rivlin. There is certain pathos in Gantz’s situation. He could have been Prime Minister, and now he has to endure under Bennett and Lapid. In 2019, Gantz was the senior partner in the merger of Lapid’s Yesh Atid, his own Resilience party, and Moshe Yaalon (a fellow IDF Chief-of-Staff) Telem party. He was slated to serve first as Prime Minister in rotation with Lapid in a government that never materialized. On defense, especially on Iran, Gantz shares a hardline view with Netanyahu. He did however oppose Netanyahu’s annexation plans in Judea and Samaria.

Naftali Bennett’s (49), leader of the Yamina party (7 seats), has been sworn in as Israel’s 13th Prime Minister last Sunday. A successful entrepreneur, he moved into politics after serving as chairman of the Judea and Samaria Council. Under PM Netanyahu, Bennett served as Minister of Diaspora Affairs, Education Minister, and Defense Minister. A religious-Zionist and a Jewish nationalist, Bennett will sit in his cabinet alongside politicians with completely opposing ideologies to his own. Lapid’s short speech at their first cabinet meeting, following the Knesset swearing in process, pointed out that the new government is based on “mutual trust and friendship.”  

Bennett’s ideology on many issues lies to the right of Netanyahu’s. Like Netanyahu, Bennett served as an officer in the IDF’s elite unit Sayeret Matkal. Bennett sold his high-tech company for $145 million, and he is one of Israel’s young millionaires. But, like Netanyahu, Bennett opposes the creation of a Palestinian state. In a New York Times opinion piece (November 5, 2014) titled “For Israel, Two States is no Solution.” He wrote: “For its security, Israel cannot withdraw from more territory and cannot allow for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank. If we were to pull out of the West Bank, the entire country would become a target for terrorists who would be able to set up rocket launchers adjacent to the Old City of Jerusalem, the hills above the runways of the Ben Gurion International Airport, and the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange.”

Avigdor Lieberman, head of Israel Beitenu, originally a Russian immigrant party (7 seats), is a rightist party and hawkish on defense. Lieberman hates the Ultra-Orthodox, the Arabs, and above all, “Bibi” Netanyahu. His reason for splitting with Netanyahu was sheer ego. Although Lieberman supports a Two-State solution, he has proposed annexing the large Jewish settlement blocs in Judea and Samaria, while ceding the predominantly Arab Triangle in northern Israel to the future Palestinian state. Lieberman was given one of the three most important government portfolios - the Treasury. He will serve as Minister of Finance adding to his previous stint as Defense Minister.

Like Lapid, Merav Michaeli (54) has been a journalist for Ha’aretz newspaper and a talk show host before entering politics as a Labor party Knesset member. The party is located in the ideological left. She rejected the idea of joining the Netanyahu-Gantz coalition last year, declaring that she won’t sit with Netanyahu. But, her Labor party chairman, Amir Peretz, did join. Michaeli was elected Labor party chairman on January 24, 2021. Labor brings 7 seats to the Bennett-Lapid government coalition. Michaeli, who is now the Transportation Minister in the new government, is a self-declared feminist.

Gideon Saar (54) launched his new party, New Hope (6 seats) last year. He previously challenged his mentor Netanyahu for the chairmanship of the Likud and lost decisively. A lawyer by profession, Saar entered politics as a cabinet secretary in 1999. After entering the Knesset as a Likud Member (MK), he subsequently served as Education Minister, then as Interior Minister. Ideologically Saar is right of Netanyahu and his party is a right-wing nationalist. He rejects the Two-State solution and was against Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. He supports annexation of the West Bank. Saar is the Justice Minister in the new government.

Nitzan Horowitz (56), chairman of the far-left Meretz party (6 seats), is a former journalist and an openly gay Knesset member. In a Ha’aretz article (June 27, 2019), he said that he would make the struggle against religious coercion, and fight for social justice, the focal points of his party’s agenda. He is the Health Minister in Bennett’s cabinet.

The most unprecedented feature of the 36th Israeli government is the inclusion in the coalition government of the United Arab (Islamist) list. Its leader, Mansour Abbas (47) is a dentist. Ra’am’s 4 seats are crucial to Bennett’s government survival. As part of the coalition agreement, the Arab sector will receive $16 billion to improve infrastructure, and combat violent crime in Arab towns. Another provision includes freezing the demolition of homes without permits in Arab villages. Abbas will serve as Deputy Minister of Arab Affairs in the Prime Minister’s Office.

While this government is the most diverse, it is also the most fragile, and it is unlikely to survive its full term.

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