After my last piece for the Witness, I had planned this week to detail the Israeli government’s actions throughout the Summer and into the Autumn. But no sooner had I metaphorically laid pen to paper, my attention was drawn towards a raft of articles suggesting the imminent collapse of the Bennett-Lapid coalition. I had only just remarked upon the relatively remarkable stability with which the 36th government has conducted itself, no small miracle considering its motley composition of conservatives, liberals, socialists and even a minor Arab nationalist party. However, this being Israel we’re speaking of, the ‘game’ of politics was quick to catch up.
Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked can be heard in leaked recordings implying that her Yamina co-founder, incumbent Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, will not honour his commitment to stand down in favour of Yair Lapid come August 2023. Shaked described the Yesh Atid leader as “shallow” and condemned fellow coalition big beast, Defence Minister Benny Gantz, as “even worse”. Bennett himself has expressed scepticism that the government can even last until then, citing “various reasons” – slightly rich coming from the man who did not even win 7% of the electorate’s backing, don’t you think? Whatever your views on the government and its constituent parties, it’s hard to disagree; it was 2006 when the Knesset (Parliament) last held out for a full four-year term.
It’s not all factionalism and infighting though. Indeed, this week saw the government force through next year’s budget plans by a mere three votes, something that Benjamin Netanyahu was unable to do by December of last year (or any of the last three years for that matter) which was the trigger of March’s round of elections. As one can imagine amidst such political turmoil, Haaretz, Israel’s most popular news outlet, described the country as “limping alone without an economic policy for almost two years”, in my opinion, a pretty fair assessment. The COVID-19 pandemic gave the Netanyahu government scope to extend previous budgets with no real mandate, but finally, after several days of night-long sessions in the Knesset, Israel is “back on track”.
Mr Netanyahu himself was indicted on corruption charges nearly two years ago now, but despite this, continues to lead the Likud party in the Knesset. Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar has proposed legislation that would see current and former indicted Knesset members banned from entering government, a less than subtle dig at the former Prime Minister. Until 2019 Sa’ar himself belonged to Likud and was widely seen as a potential successor to Netanyahu. His current party New Hope differs very little in terms of ideological platform, its only notable contrast being an outspoken commitment to governmental reform and a crackdown on corruption.
One of the few positives inherited from the last government has been a steady framework for handling the COVID-19 pandemic. Israel was praised for its swift and well-enforced lockdown, despite protests from the ultra-Orthodox Haredi community. Between March and April of this year, as the Netanyahu government wound down, weekly COVID cases dropped nearly 60% while the vast majority of other countries, including the UK, saw increasing figures. By June 15th, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz was able to repeal the mandatory wearing of masks in public and whilst this had to be reinstated weeks later with a surge in the delta variant, cases and deaths still remained low compared to Israel’s lesser developed neighbours. For example, cases remained over ten times lower than in Saudi Arabia over the last Summer.
Despite the conservative positions of Bennett, Sa’ar and others in government, the coalition’s liberal and social democratic elements will also be pleased by the High Court’s July ruling allowing same-sex couples entering into surrogacy arrangements – in part thanks to the tireless campaigning of the aforementioned Nitzan Horowitz, Israel’s first openly gay government minister. In August, education reforms saw Israel’s first private university established, named after its President Uriel Reichman, in a move to further drive academic research in the country.
By no stretch has this been plain sailing. Crises continue to mar Israeli life: August wildfires outside of Jerusalem, the controversy around the status of Moroccan Jews as Holocaust victims, the ongoing investigation into the Meron crisis, and I’ve barely touched upon the omnipresent and highly sensitive relationship with Palestinian authorities in both Gaza and the West Bank. But where the last four years of Netanyahu’s premiership were tainted by allegations of corruption, a constantly dissolving Knesset causing subsequent elections, and failure to drive through any meaningful policy, the unlikely duo of Bennett and Lapid – with the latter left to conduct foreign policy largely on his own – has avoided slipping into any ideological traps. If Israel continues moving towards a pragmatic and non-partisan road, maybe – just maybe – there’s scope for real change, for Jews and Arabs alike.
Image: 36th Government of Israel (June 2021)// Avi Ohayon, Government Press Office (Israel)//CC BY-SA 3.0