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Israel

Is the new Israeli government the end of ‘the magician’?

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After 12 consecutive years of Benjamin Netanyahu, Israelis are coming to terms with the fact that the magician, as his fans like to call him, has finally run out of tricks. Or not.

A special parliament session on Sunday ended with a razor-thin majority of 60-59 in favour of a new, hugely diverse, coalition of eight parties. Headed by the leader of the far-right Yamina party, Naftali Bennett, it will result in Netanyahu, as head of the right-wing Likud party that won the most votes in the last election, heading off to lead the opposition bloc.

But before one writes Netanyahu off, it’s worth noting that he’s been here before. Twice he’s returned from the opposition to become prime minister, and he certainly plans to do it a third time. He’s vowed to “rescue Israel” from an incoming government based on “fraud, hate, and power-seeking”.

Netanyahu is a sore loser. He forwent the traditional public handover ceremony on Monday, 14 June, that includes a toast for the incoming prime minister, and reportedly gave Bennett just half an hour of his time before leaving to meet with his new opposition forces. They welcomed him as “prime minister”, and he didn’t feel the need to correct them, claiming that he could feel the “weak points” of the “dangerous left-wing government” at “the tips of my fingers”.

So, who is Naftali Bennett, the man who managed to unseat Israel’s longest serving prime minister? Ironically, the 49-year-old former tech-start-up-millionaire-turned-politician once served as a senior aide to Netanyahu, although the two often clashed. Bennett went on to form his own political party that represents the religious right and over the years, held three ministerial positions – diaspora affairs, education, and defence. But he failed to perform during the last election in March this year, coming joint fifth with just six out of 120 parliament seats. In the previous election, he didn’t even cross the threshold.

Israelis are asking themselves how someone with such a small mandate (the equivalent of 180 000 seats) is now their prime minister. Speaking to the SA Jewish Report, his erstwhile supporters say he “stole” their vote. Many feel betrayed and angry. They complain that they voted for the right, and now Bennett has joined forces with parties on the centre and left. Many believe his desire to become prime minister, or to oust Netanyahu, or both, was so great, he forfeited his political positions. If elections were to be held today, Bennett would fare worse than he did three months ago.

But the new prime minister sees things differently. After Netanyahu failed to form a majority coalition back in April, President Reuven Rivlin handed the baton to Yair Lapid, the leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party which won the second largest number of votes in the last election. But Lapid was short of seven seats, exactly the number Bennett, an unlikely ally, could offer him, although later, one of the seven left the party. Bennett was kingmaker. After weeks of negotiations, he and Lapid signed a power-sharing deal in which Bennett will be prime minister until September 2023 and then Lapid for a further two years.

Most Israelis, though, don’t believe the new government will last that long, sounding its death knell as early as a few weeks from now. Bennett is Israel’s first Orthodox prime minister and the former head of the Settlers Council. Lapid is a secular centrist. Bennett wants to annex up to 60% of the West Bank; Meretz’s Nitzan Horowitz wants to withdraw to pre-1967 lines. Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman is seeking to maximise conscription in the ultra-Orthodox community and drastically reduce that sector’s government funding; Bennett and maybe even Lapid hold out the hope of at least some of the ultra-Orthodox MKs joining the coalition. And so it goes on.

But Bennett is using the coalition’s weakness as his biggest strength, arguing this “change government” is the broadest and most representative in Israel’s history.

“We hope it’s the beginning of a new Israel,” he said, promising that his government would “work for the sake of all the people” and prioritise reforms in education, health, and cutting red tape. Thorny issues like reaching a deal with the Palestinians he’s left out for now.

But the biggest irony of all is that it’s on Bennett’s watch that for the first time, an Arab party will be sitting in the ruling coalition. In the 73-year history of Israel, there’s an unwritten rule that any government is formed only by Jewish parties. The one exception was when the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin relied on the support of an Arab party in the wake of the Oslo Peace Accords in the 1990s. That agreement, however, didn’t formalise the party’s entry into the ruling coalition.

What has driven Mansour Abbas, the leader of the Arab Islamist Ra’am party, to join the government isn’t the desire for a peace agreement but rather pragmatism. He wants immediate attention paid to the demands of the Israeli Arab minority. Among the promises he has extracted from Bennett are the adoption of a five-year economic-development plan for the Arab community with a budget of 30 billion shekels (about R126 billion) as well as plans to combat crime and violence in the Arab community, improve infrastructure, and advance Arab local authorities.

Palestinian leaders, however, have reacted dismissively to Israel’s new government, saying it makes no difference who heads it, least of all when it’s someone cut from the same cloth as Netanyahu.

Inside Israel, there have been calls for physical violence against Bennett and members of the new government. Even before being elected, the new prime minister’s security was increased amid concerns that he could be harmed. Rising incitement and hate speech on social media led to an extraordinary statement being issued by the head of the Shin Bet internal security service, Nadav Argaman. “This discourse may be interpreted among certain groups or individuals as one that allows violent and illegal activity, and could even lead to harm to individuals,” he warned.

It’s worth remembering that Rabin (like Bennett) was depicted as a traitor by the Israeli right, and eventually that led to his assassination. Some are worried the current political climate has echoes of those times.

Netanyahu has declared that the new government endangers the land of Israel, the state of Israel, and the Israel Defense Forces. “We’ll be back,” he pledged just before getting dethroned. Sounding like Arnold Schwarzenegger in his blockbuster Terminator movie, there’s likely to be a dramatic sequel to follow. Watch this space!

  • Paula Slier is the Middle East bureau chief of RT, the founder and chief executive of Newshound Media International, and the inaugural winner of the Europcar Women in Leadership Award of the Absa Jewish Achiever Awards.

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