Israel Has a New Government

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June 2, 2021 5:11 p.m.

Literally in the final hour, members of the so-called ‘change coalition’ have finalized an agreement to form a coalition government and presented it to the President. Caretaker Prime Minister Netanyahu has one more card to play but it’s hope and against hope and veering increasingly into Jan 6th territory. A Netanyahu ally, Yariv Levin, is the Speaker of the Knesset. And he and Netanyahu’s supporters have said he will simply refuse to hold the vote that confirms the new government. That is not really a thing. It’s pretty close to the Israeli system’s version of refusing to accept the electoral college ballots. It’s not clear how long he can he do that legally. Some have said he could conceivably delay for as long as a week. To what end? The coalition is so fragile that the hope is that a few more days might break it apart. Then Netanyahu gets to remain perpetual Prime Minister.

Really, though, this almost certainly means Netanyahu is through. Or at least through as the incumbent Prime Minister. The reality of the situation may lead to them jettisoning that plan.

Remember that Netanyahu is himself currently on trial for corruption. The mandate for Lapid for form a new government literally went down to the final hour.

The coalition is not simply improbable. It is closer to absurd. The architect of the government – Yair Lapid – is the leader of the opposition who gave up the opportunity to be Prime Minister to make the deal. (In theory, he will become PM for the 3rd and 4th year of the government. But two years is two eternities in Israeli politics.) The incoming PM is Naftali Bennett, a one time leader of the settler movement – though not actually a settler himself. He lives outside Tel Aviv. The critical other component of the government – though only speaking for four seats – is the Islamist party leader Mansour Abbas. That these two men are sitting in the same government is difficult to believe. Bennett’s party only has 7. He tied for fifth place.

And yet here we are.

This is the first time a non-Zionist Arab party has been part of a governing coalition. Israeli Arabs have voted for the main Zionist parties. They’ve been part of governing coalitions through those parties. But a predominantly Arab party – which are by definition not Zionist parties – has never been part of a coalition government though they have supported such governments from outside. This may prove the biggest watershed tied to this government.

There are two figures here who have managed something remarkable. One is Lapid. He’s ended Netanyahu’s Prime Ministership by assembling far and away the most improbable coalition in Israeli history. The amount of skill required to pull this off is difficult to convey or overstate. Something similar must be said for Abbas. In many ways he has most in common with the ultra-orthodox parties which over recent decades have become permanent allies of Likud. (One of his demands was that the government pass no more pro-LGBT laws during its term in office.) He managed both to appeal to the mainstream Jewish parties and break that taboo and also maintain his hold on his constituency. As the fighting was going on in the second half of May and the prospects of a coalition seemed dashed he very conspicuously made condolence visits to Jewish victims of the intercommunal violence. Abbas set aside most of the history and deeply ingrained patterns of how the Arab parties relate to Knesset majorities and made a frankly transactional play: the opposition cannot form a government without some participation of the Arab parties and he made a play for a concrete set of things in return – basically spending in the Arab sector, recognizing ‘unauthorized’ Bedouin villages in the Negev. Tangible, transitional goods in a political system that is above all else transactional.

This may be the real change in this new government.

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