No leader of another country was a bigger fan of former President Donald Trump, or indeed resembled him in more ways, than former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And in no country did Trump’s defiance of international consensus and convention strike a deeper chord than in Israel. Netanyahu milked his best buddy relationship with Trump for all it was worth, bolstering his status as the Israeli politician with the largest and most passionate mass following. After a dozen straight years as Prime Minister, however, Netanyahu’s flagrant corruption and pathological lying finally made it impossible for most members of the Israeli political class to trust him.
Now Israel has finally produced a new government, following four deadlocked elections in less than two and a half years despite Netanyahu’s desperate efforts to drag the country to another. The “coalition of change,” with its razor-thin majority in the Parliament, is comprised of eight political parties. Among them, they represent almost all-important positions in Israeli politics, except that of the ultra-orthodox.
Naftali Bennett will be the country’s Prime Minister for at least the next two years. He is the leader of the religious Zionist Yamina (“Rightwards”) party that is more right and ideologically extreme than Netanyahu’s Likud party. New Hope, the party of Gideon Saar, a renegade from Likud, sits in the government along with Avigdor Lieberman, head of a party representing mostly immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Lieberman’s fascistic, Putin-esque tendencies are held in check by political savvy and a visceral hatred of Netanyahu. The coalition is anchored in the center by Yair Lapid’s secularist Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”) party and Benny Gantz’s patriotic and vaguely pragmatic “Kachol ve’Lavan” (“Blue and White”) party. They are flanked on the left by the Labor party, which was traditionally dominant but is now a shadow-of-its-former-self, and the proudly liberal and dovish Meretz party to its left, which is led by Nitzan Horowitz, Israel’s first openly gay minister. Most surprising of all, this new coalition includes the Arab Islamist party of Mansour Abbas—Ra’am.
Almost all explanations for the rise of this eight-headed coalition monster – and its prospects for operating a stable government – have focused on the shared desperation to remove Netanyahu and the intricate horse-trading that brought this coalition to fruition. But there is a much bigger, more important explanation for the end of the Netanyahu era.
As is often the case, presence is absence. There is nothing so decisive for explaining the presence of this new ruling coalition than the absence of the possibility of a negotiated two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In fact, negotiating a peace agreement based on Israeli withdrawal from territories occupied in 1967 has been impossible for more than a decade. What has changed since the embarrassing collapse of the Kerry peace initiative in 2014, and the transparently phony Trump plan in 2020, is that now not only do all politicians and diplomats know that there will be no successful peace negotiations, they also know that they all know that they all know it.
The reality that there is one state between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, and that there will not be two, explains why a government could form in Israel totally reliant on an Arab political party – an Arab party with indirect ties to the Muslim Brotherhood movement as well as substantive political and material demands. Only now, because its support cannot enable withdrawal from “Judea and Samaria” (Israel’s official term for the West Bank) as part of a two-state solution could a ruling coalition form that relies upon an Arab party as a more-or-less equal partner. Thus does the complexion of this coalition reflect an end to five decades of an Israeli political system dominated by competition over what to do with territory occupied more than half a century ago.
For the past 12 years, the Netanyahu government has hawkishly opposed territorial compromise with massive settlement and stonewalling negotiation strategies. They did all they could to bind the occupied areas tightly under Israeli control. Two-state advocates sought to loosen those ties and preserve options for political separation and Palestinian independence. Israel’s new government marks nothing so much as it marks the historic victory of the hawks.
The West Bank, with its 3 million Palestinian inhabitants, and the open-air prison of the Gaza Strip, with its 2 million Palestinian inmates, are as fully part of the Israeli state system as the 2 million Arab citizens of Israel “proper.” No matter if they are Israeli citizens or not, Palestinians are all living within different zones of control within a state of Israel that subjects them to different rules depending on the geographical, national, bureaucratic, residency, and citizenship categories to which they belong.
In a few generations, the victory of the hawks may lead to just the sort of secular, effectively bi-national and democratic state most of them now find utterly abhorrent. However, in the next months or years, the coalition their victory enabled is likely to promote incremental improvements in the lives of Jews and Arabs and to calm or shrink the conflict. Such measures include fewer restrictions on Palestinian travel, more permits for Israeli employment outside the West Bank and Gaza, the release of prisoners, an end to home demolitions, the rebuilding of Gaza, permits for Arab construction in Jerusalem and Area C, and punitive steps against Jewish provocateurs and vigilantes. Measures such as these will help prevent more violence and enhance the coalition’s chances of avoiding crises capable of destabilizing its rule.
Fundamentally, however, the new government’s stability rests on three pillars—each firmly embedded in the one-state reality. The first is the coalition party leaders’ interest in controlling the ministries and policy domains assigned to them. Practical matters of importance— such as health care, education, religious affairs, environmental protection, corruption, crime, civil rights, etc.—can then be dealt with effectively and without the paralysis associated with anything linked to grand schemes for solving the Palestinian problem.
The second pillar is the knowledge that no member of the coalition risks their deepest ideological commitments by supporting the government. This is true not only because a “land-for-peace” deal with the Palestinians has been removed from the agenda, but also because the right-wingers within it have ceased calling for formal annexation as a means of blocking territorial compromise.
The Biden administration is the third pillar of this narrow government’s strength. Laser-focused on weighty domestic priorities, and fully aware of the impossibility of successful diplomacy toward a two-state solution, President Biden and his advisers cherish the emergence of an Israeli government that will stop embarrassing its only real ally with outrages against Palestinians, ramped up settlement projects, extreme and public challenges to US efforts to re-establish the nuclear deal with Iran, or demands that Washington approve formal Israeli annexation of the West Bank.
As long as the Bennett-Lapid government adheres to these principles—even if only to maintain its own unity—Washington will be happy to supply Jerusalem with as much military, economic, political, and diplomatic support as it needs.
In the long run, the emergence of this government in Israel highlights two principles: that politics makes strange bedfellows and that even very partial democracies, if they feature intense partisan competition, can make progress toward building a more inclusive and reasonable society. Now that Jews have shown they can rule the country with Arab political support, they may find they can no longer do so without it. In other words, the long road is now open to a future consistent with President Biden’s important vision for all those living in Israel/Palestine. “Palestinians and Israelis,” he said, “equally deserve to live safely and securely and to enjoy equal measures of freedom, prosperity, and democracy.”
Let that be so; and we might add, in Hebrew, B’ezrat HaShem (with the help of God) and in Arabic Inshallah (if God wills it).