The Bennett-Lapid Coalition: Berfrois Interviews John Lyndon
Haim Tzach/GPO: Thirty-Sixth Government of Israel at Beit HaNassi, 2021 (CC)
by Russell Bennetts
John Lyndon is the Executive Director of the Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP), the region’s largest and fastest-growing network of Israeli/Palestinian peacebuilders.
How will the ousting of Benjamin Netanyahu affect the future of Israeli politics?
Benjamin Netanyahu has been Prime Minister for a fifth of Israel’s history and has helped to frame the current political reality more than any other figure. The median age in Israel today is thirty. That means that the average Israeli turned eighteen in 2009, when Bibi returned for his record breaking twelve-year second stint as Prime Minister. He emerged holding that office from each of the next six elections that this cohort could vote in. This is the first week in their lives as enfranchised citizens when he has not been Prime Minister.
Netanyahu’s defeat is a seismic event in its own terms, even before you examine the damage that his era has wrought, as well as the highly unusual nature of the government that has replaced him. That government is the broadest in Israel’s history, with the first National Religious Prime Minister; the first Arab party in government in Israel – one of the first Islamist parties to ever enter government in a non-Muslim majority country; the return of the Zionist left to power after a long absence; and the presence of hard-right wing figures like Avigdor Liberman and Gidon Sa’ar.
Will such a broad government prove to be stable?
Such a heterogenous government, with a slender single seat majority, does seems likely to be incredibly unstable. Yet, there’s an electorate that will incentivise and likely reward a government that can pass a budget, repair the post-Covid economy and address long-standing infrastructure issues. After two and a half years of political paralysis, there is much to be done. The absence of Haredi parties means that difficult issues that have been punted for a long time might finally be addressed. Importantly, the bet that people like Naftali Bennett, Mansour Abbas and Gidon Saar have made – going way out of their base’s comfort zone – means that they will be incentivised to make this unlikely coalition work. Because if it collapses without any real achievements, they will find it very hard to recover politically.
Self-interest is a glue that can bind unlikely partners together and cover over many ideological gaps. That also means that Arab/Jewish partnership – from religious nationalists at either end of the spectrum – will be encouraged to function. That could have far-reaching consequences for Israeli politics, hopefully normalising the idea of Arab participation in government and making the 20% of the electorate who are Palestinian citizens of Israel more fully enfranchised and politically empowered.
A note here for Yair Lapid, whose magnanimity in ceding the Prime Ministership, until 2023, to Bennett – despite heading the largest party in the government, with almost treble Bennett’s Knesset seats – deserves recognition. I suspect that whatever happens, he will emerge from this situation with his reputation enhanced, as he is most responsible for ending this cycle of repeated elections that has exasperated Israelis. Lapid has shown rare self-sacrifice and leadership.
Netanyahu is still leader of Likud, who remain popular with voters. Do you see a potential path back to power for him in the future?
Though the path back is difficult, you’d be a fool to count him out. He will lead a strong right-wing bloc that will be able to apply pressure on a right-wing Prime Minister – with only a one seat majority – and will be far more ruthless and clinical than the succession of fairly milquetoast leaders of the opposition we have seen in recent years. However, his legal challenges will also complicate matters, as being indicted with three serious charges without the protection that high office provides will be a distraction. If the new government manages to hold together for six months or so and pass a budget, I do wonder whether Netanyahu might lose interest in the fairly unglamorous position of opposition leader. He is prevented from earning an outside income. With legal costs mounting, challengers from within Likud mobilising and a lucrative speaker-circuit career in the offing, he well may decide that bowing out is the smartest move. But likely not before he tests every possible weakness in the new coalition.
What are the implications of the Bennett-Lapid coalition for the peace process ?
This coalition is structurally incapable of delivering a final status agreement with the Palestinians. If that is forced upon it, it will break: opposition to a Palestinian state is a core ideological principle of both Bennett and Saar. Having a right-wing Prime Minister facing a right-wing opposition is also unchartered territory and means that Bennett will be attacked relentlessly if he moves too far from the maximalist positions that characterise the Israeli nationalist camp.
However, the identity of the Israeli Prime Minister is only one of the variables required for peace and the other variables are just as misaligned right now. The Hamas/Fatah split, the lack of prioritisation from the United States and the weakness of Mahmoud Abbas all mean that final status simply isn’t viable at this moment. But what can and should be viable is an ambitious strategy to build the foundations that can get us there. A historic investment in civil society peacebuilding via an International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace should be the cornerstone of such a strategy. $250m has already been appropriated in the United States, Canada is announcing new investments that can be part of it and the UK has already endorsed the concept. It can radically expand programmes that build parallel constituencies for peace and resilience against the racism and dehumanisation that has sadly characterised the Netanyahu era. It can also change the political incentives for both Israeli and Palestinian leaders, opening up avenues that are not viable at this moment.
What else can be tried?
There are clear opportunities to shrink the occupation and the conflict in the interim. Ideas include expanding Palestinian National Authority (PA) control in Area B and parts of Area C; removing checkpoints between West Bank cities and liberalising the Kafkaesque permit system; reforming the PA prisoner payments system; fighting corruption within the PA; rethinking the draconian policy toward civil society organisations; opening up Gaza while pressurising Hamas to renounce violence and return captured Israelis; and establishing a new set of norms in Jerusalem that end evictions in Sheikh Jarrah, bringing quiet to the Temple Mount. All of these ideas are viable with willing leadership and smart engagement, even if a final status agreement is not.