Pitfalls abound for Israel’s disparate ruling coalition

Published June 15, 2021
srael's President Reuven Rivlin between Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid as they pose for a group photo with ministers of the new Israeli government, in Jerusalem on June 14. — Reuters
srael's President Reuven Rivlin between Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid as they pose for a group photo with ministers of the new Israeli government, in Jerusalem on June 14. — Reuters

JERUSALEM: Israel’s new government, a fragile alliance spanning the political spectrum, is meant to endure until 2025 but it could be brought down quickly by divisive issues such as the Israel-Palestinian conflict, analysts said on Monday.

And that excludes any moves by Benjamin Netanyahu, a shrewd politician who is ready to pounce on any missteps by the coalition and return through new elections after his ouster following 12 straight years as prime minister.

Even though thousands of Israelis celebrated his departure, many doubt the longevity of a government made up of eight parties representing the left, far-right and centre, as well as Arab Islamic conservatives.

An opinion poll by Channel 12 television said 43 percent of Israelis expect it to dissolve “quickly”, 30 percent think it will last “a long time” and only 11 percent expect it to survive its four-year mandate.

In order to survive, the government led by Naftali Bennett — who has the weakest parliamentary base for a prime minister in Israel’s history with only six of 120 seats — should focus on the post-pandemic economic recovery and avoid divisive issues, analysts said.

Bennett, a tech millionaire, played up his economic credentials in a speech to parliament on Sunday, saying he would aim to get 15 percent of Israel’s workforce employed in the hi-tech sector within four years, up from the current 10 percent.

“The first issue of course is (passing) the budget,” said analyst Dahlia Scheindlin, adding it was “something Israel has not been able to do... for the last two years.” But “there is not that much disagreement over issues like how to revive the economy and health and (the) environment”, she said.

The Bennett government was likely to focus on such issues and “try to put aside more controversial issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”.

The government could quickly become caught up in sensitive issues such as the development of settlements in the occupied West Bank or the situation in the Gaza Strip, said Guy Ben-Porat, professor of political science at Ben-Gurion University.

It may also have to decide on the fate of a wildcat settlement to be evacuated in the West Bank, which could anger settlers once represented by Bennett.

And that doesn’t take into account the fate of a ceasefire agreed last month with Hamas after a deadly 11-day conflict between the Islamist rulers of Gaza and Israel.

“The Palestinian question is definitely going to bother this government,” said Ben-Porat.

“They will do the best they can to put that question away... I don’t think that works for the long run and this actually can come in the face of this government very soon.” Any attempt to deal with such issues might cause the government’s “collapse”, he warned.

“For Bennett, pragmatism is a method of survival.” The new leader would have to remain in step with the “security establishment” on the issue of Gaza’s reconstruction and any prisoner exchange, said Saleh al-Naami, a specialist in Israeli affairs at the Islamic University of Gaza.

“There will be no fundamental change, but Bennett may try to improve the economic situation in Gaza in a limited way,” said Naami, stressing the government would also have to “deal with pressure” from the United States.

US President Joe Biden, who had a telephone call with Bennett on Sunday night, has distanced himself from the policies of his predecessor, Donald Trump.

The Trump administration supported the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and withdrew from the nuclear deal with Israel’s arch-foe Iran.

One of the biggest challenges of the new government is “to gain the trust of the Democratic party and of the Biden administration”, said Gayil Talshir, professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

In order to do so, it would have to “play a more sophisticated game” with the Biden administration on Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian issue, she said.

Published in Dawn, June 15th, 2021

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