Can pathbreaking new Israeli govt last longer?
Some of the measures in the agreed agenda of the new government are pioneering but controversial. The fragility of the coalition was palpable even before the Monday vote.
The new Israeli government headed by Naftali Bennett (with Yair Lapid as the alternate prime minister) sworn in on Monday establishes several precedents and breaks barriers. Bennett became the first religiously observant person to head the Israeli government. Until now, all the prime ministers were notionally secular, even if they presented themselves as ‘observant’ due to political considerations; for example, even during foreign trips, Shimon Peres preferred to walk on Jewish sabbath than travel by car.
Leader of the Ra’am party Mansour Abbas broke the psychological Jewish-Arab barrier and emerged as the kingmaker of the new government. His willingness to break away from the Joint Arab List and explore coalition possibilities with Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu largely enabled the Islamist party to join the Bennett-Lapid coalition.
Despite having a woman prime minister in Golda Meir, female political representation in Israel has not been impressive. With religious and Arab parties not preferring women politicians, the task fell on mainstream parties. The current Knesset has the highest number of 30 women members (same as in the March 2020 election), and the new government has eight women ministers. Some of the key positions, such as interior, education and transportation, are held by women. The Cabinet also has two minority ministers and the Ethiopia-born Pnina Tamano-Shata as absorption minister.
Under the rotation agreement, Bennett would serve until September 2023, when Lapid, the alternate prime minister, would take over. Even though Netanyahu signed a similar agreement with Blue and White leader Benny Gantz following the March 2020 election, his going back on the agreement forced another election this March.
The coalition is an ideological hotchpotch, and its 61 members belong to eight different parties: three right-wing parties, namely, Yisrael Beitenu (seven seats), New Hope (six seats) and Yamina (six of its seven MKs); two left-wing parties—Labour (seven seats) and Meretz (six seats); two centrist parties—Yesh Atid (17 seats) and Blue and White (eight seats) and one Arab party (Ra’am, four seats). Interestingly, the leader of the coalition comes not from the two larger parties but from a smaller outfit, one of whose members has bolted out over Yamina abandoning Netanyahu.
By all accounts, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid wields the real power. Though the opposition made innumerable efforts to unseat Netanyahu, by conceding the prime ministership to Bennett, a former protegee of Netanyahu, Lapid could convince the right-wing parties about the idea that Netanyahu was dangerous to Israel and must be replaced.
Some of the measures in the agreed agenda of the new government are pathbreaking but controversial. While a developmental and inclusive approach towards the Arab population is long overdue, the coalition is also committed to bringing in far-reaching religious reforms. Among others, it promises to end the monopoly of the financially lucrative and politically important Kashrut services, which grant kosher certificate to foods consumed by religiously inclined Israelis; reform the process of selecting chief rabbis that is presently controlled by the ultra-orthodox segment; and decentralise conversion process to the local level. The coalition is committed to expanding and standardising conscription for Haredi men and bringing in an alternative national service for the minority population.
While promising to maintain the religious status quo, Yesh Atid’s agreement with other partners touches upon issues that are redlines for the Haredi community. Yisrael Beitenu, whose anti-Haredi posture was partly responsible for four elections in two years, wields a veto over any expansion of the current coalition. This, in practical terms, would mean no Haredi party could join the Bennett-Lapid government. Yisrael Beitenu and left-wing Meretz demand public transportation on sabbath. These two parties and Labour are committed to recognising and advancing the rights of the LGBT community in the country.
Given the composition and general agreement among the parties, the scope for expansion is highly limited, especially since the coalition promises religious reform measures that are anathema to the Haredi parties. Except for the Joint Arab List with six MKs, only right-wing and religious parties make up the opposition, and in recent decades, they have acted as a political bloc to maximise their influence. Even though staying out of government would be a financial liability, the religious parties will not give up their existing privileges and veto.
The fragility of the coalition was palpable even before the Knesset vote on Monday. The original support of 61 MKs could not be maintained when Ra’am MK Saeed al-Harum abstained due to concerns over possible demolition of illegal Bedouin houses in the Negev. Another MK from Yisrael Beitenu sulked over his portfolio, forcing Avigdor Lieberman to tap Druze MK Hamed Amar for a Cabinet position. The first test for the Bennett-Lapid government has come just a day after it was sworn in the form of the Jerusalem flag march by right-wing groups, which could not be conducted earlier due to rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip.
P R Kumaraswamy
Professor at JNU. Teaches contemporary Middle East there