From Israel’s wildly diverse government, a surprise: (So far) it works

Amir Cohen/Reuters
People attend a rally in support of a so-called government of change, a day after far-right party leader Naftali Bennett threw his crucial support behind a unity government in Israel to unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Tel Aviv, Israel, May 31, 2021.

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Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s 4-month-old coalition government represents a historic first in Israel. Wildly diverse, it came together in rejection of Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-ruling prime minister and arguably its most divisive.

The new “government of change,” as it’s called, includes Islamists, Jewish nationalists, and progressives. It’s a coalition born of a pragmatic impulse to break the national political deadlock after four inconclusive elections, and it has been offering a master class in cooperation that is rare in our age of political fracture.

Why We Wrote This

Can political factions from across the ideological spectrum find common cause to overcome national gridlock? An unlikely Israeli coalition has been a surprising story of cooperation and consensus.

There’s much the coalition government does not agree on, but it has focused on rallying around consensus issues such as fighting the pandemic and a wave of crime afflicting Israeli Arab communities, and continuing outreach to the Arab world. It has even taken on the more ideologically fraught challenges of relations with the Palestinians, and rethinking Israel’s previous rejection of the nuclear deal with Iran.

Despite the government’s numeric weakness in parliament, its work is garnering praise, and its emphasis on consensus seems to have lowered the political temperature in Israel.

Says Allison Kaplan Sommer, a columnist for the daily Haaretz: “One of the reasons this government came together is that people were tired of screaming and disagreeing and wanted to get things done.”

Naftali Bennett was a young man, just 23 years old, when Israeli democracy experienced its darkest hour, the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

The lesson it taught him, Israel’s new prime minister said Monday at the state ceremony marking 26 years since that national trauma, was this: “Under no circumstances, no matter the situation, should the nation be torn apart. We mustn’t burn our house down. We are brothers.”

He was speaking of the past but making a point about the present.

Why We Wrote This

Can political factions from across the ideological spectrum find common cause to overcome national gridlock? An unlikely Israeli coalition has been a surprising story of cooperation and consensus.

The 4-month-old coalition government Mr. Bennett leads represents a historic first in Israel. Wildly diverse, it came together – and perhaps still stays together – in rejection of Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-ruling prime minister and arguably its most divisive, both internally and with the outside world.

The new “government of change,” as it’s called, includes Islamists, Jewish nationalists, and progressives. It’s a coalition born of a pragmatic impulse to break the national political deadlock after four inconclusive elections in quick succession, and it has been offering a master class in cooperation that is rare in our age of political fracture.

There’s much it does not agree on, but it has focused on rallying around consensus issues such as fighting the pandemic and a wave of crime afflicting Israeli Arab communities, and continuing outreach to the Arab world.

It has even taken on the more ideologically fraught challenges of relations with the Palestinians, and rethinking Israel’s previous rejection of a nuclear deal between world powers and Iran.

Despite its numeric weakness in parliament, the government’s work and its very survival are garnering praise.

“The consensus is [the impact] of this odd combination of diverse politicians is more sweeping than anyone could have anticipated,” says Nimrod Novik, Israel fellow at the Israel Policy Forum, a New York think tank.

When it came together with little in common beyond their loathing of Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. Novik says, “I don’t think anyone anticipated the comfort that the different streams of Israeli politicians [would] feel with one another when sitting together at the coalition table.”

In the Netanyahu years, political opponents were cast as enemies. Here, coalition partners are “finding out that the other’s approach is one you might not share, but to superficially dismiss it as unpatriotic is nonsense,” says Mr. Novik.

Ronen Zvulun/Reuters
Israel's Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, left, chats with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid ahead of a group photo with ministers of the new Israeli government, in Jerusalem, June 14, 2021.

“So something important is happening around the cabinet table and in coalition dynamics in the Knesset,” he says. “There appears to be far more openness to consider alternative approaches, to seek compromises.

“We are not fully there, though, just in early phases of this experiment, but at least for the moment it is happening,” he says.

An Israeli Arab Sadat?

Tal Shalev, chief political correspondent for Walla News, an Israeli news site, cites Mansour Abbas, head of Raam, the first independent Arab party in a governing coalition in Israeli history, for playing an essential role.

“It’s the first open sign that Arab politicians are really being part of decision making and having input on the agenda. Of course it’s only on civic issues, but even that is groundbreaking,” she says. “Every week they [the parties] have to overcome a challenge or barrier, and so far they have succeeded very much to overcome them, mostly because of Mansour Abbas, who some have started calling the Israeli Arab Anwar Sadat.

“Drawing lessons from that level of cooperation means everyone has to swallow a lot of bitter pills, because on every issue you can find divisions in this government, not just on the Palestinian front for example, but within the economy, since you have socialists and capitalists sitting together,” says Ms. Shalev.

Underscoring its fragility, the government is currently facing its biggest test of survival: It must pass a budget by mid-November, despite myriad internal disputes. By law, failure to do so means the government would fall, sending the country to yet another round of elections.

Allison Kaplan Sommer, a columnist for the daily Haaretz, says coalition members are well aware their individual political fates depend now on their staying in power. They “know they are in a lifeboat together. If they don’t stick together, they’re all going to drown.”

“Shrinking the conflict”

A key policy shift under this government has been the decision to bolster Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who had been demonized and sidelined during Mr. Netanyahu’s tenure. That policy, some analysts say, helped boost the popularity of the militant Hamas among Palestinians.

Kicking off a new policy dubbed “shrinking the conflict,” intended to decrease the impact of it on the daily lives of Palestinians, the new government has adopted a number of goodwill measures, roughly doubling to 10,000 the number of Gaza residents allowed to work in Israel, granting West Bank residency to thousands of undocumented Palestinians, and increasing the number of building permits for Palestinians in the part of the West Bank under full Israeli control.

Heralding the change, Defense Minister Benny Gantz recently traveled to Ramallah and met with President Abbas, the first such meeting in over seven years.

Adel Hana/AP
Palestinians apply for permits to work inside Israel at the chamber of commerce in Jebaliya, northern Gaza Strip. Israel said Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021, that it will increase the number of Palestinian workers it permits to enter its territory from the Gaza Strip by another 3,000, raising the total to 10,000.

Regionally, the government is also engaged in a full-court press to resuscitate ties with Jordan that has included a significant new water deal and a celebrated visit by Prime Minister Bennett to King Abdullah at his palace.

And there’s a consensus, too, to preserve and expand the previous government’s normalization of ties with the Gulf Arab states under the Abraham Accords. On Monday the United Arab Emirates’ ambassador invited Mr. Bennett for what would be Israel’s first official state visit to his country.

The Iran deal

In another vital area, Israel’s conflict with Iran, the government is signaling perhaps its most significant U-turn from the Netanyahu era, indicating it no longer views the 2015 nuclear deal as a historic mistake.

Defense Minister Gantz even said in an interview that he would be open to U.S. attempts to revive the agreement from which former President Donald Trump withdrew.  

Echoing the words of some Israeli security officials who have criticized Mr. Netanyahu’s handling of the nuclear issue, Mr. Bennett expressed regret that since the deal was canceled, the Iranians have been able to make what they say is great progress in their uranium enrichment capabilities.

Robert Danin, a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center and a former senior State Department official, says what has changed is the way Israel approaches its relationship with the United States.

“There is a pragmatic change in approach … the recognition that opposing the [nuclear deal] as a position has been a disastrous approach and they have come to recognize that Israel had dealt itself out of the discussion rather than put aside its disagreements in order to have influence,” he says.

Government limits

There is, however, a limit to how far this government can go.

Mr. Bennett, a former settler leader himself and leader of the nationalist Yamina party, has said outright there will be no negotiations toward a future Palestinian state. Addressing the United Nations General Assembly last month, he did not even mention the Palestinian issue.

Further, the government’s approval of settlement building in the Jerusalem area and pledges for additional West Bank building are major points of contention within the coalition, as is the impunity extremist settlers have enjoyed despite repeated acts of violence against Palestinians.

“If your new government seeks to ‘shrink the conflict,’ the evidence must be seen on the ground,” wrote Ali Awad, a Palestinian activist in +972 Magazine.

“You could authorize permits for houses and guarantee access to all the basic services and infrastructure that you are obligated to provide for Palestinians under occupation,” he added. “You could stop sabotaging our security and our freedom of movement. Instead, however, you have let settler violence spike seriously in recent months.”

Ms. Shalev, the Walla correspondent, says that by putting aside the most vexing issues on the conflict with the Palestinians and the future of Israel, the government is limiting the scope of its leadership. “It’s difficult for politicians to come out as leaders if they don’t deal with that question,” she says.

The government’s limitations notwithstanding, its emphasis on consensus seems to have lowered the political temperature in Israel.

“Compare the amount of people screaming at demonstrations during the Netanyahu era and now, and the level of discourse is calmer,” says Haaretz’s Ms. Kaplan Sommer.

“One of the reasons this government came together is that people were tired of screaming and disagreeing and wanted to get things done.”

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