Tonight (Wednesday) at midnight is the deadline for Yair Lapid to tell Israel’s president that he has formed a government. Negotiations between the eight parties – including Ra’am, an Arab Islamist party – that will be part of the almost wall-to-wall coalition are still taking place as I write this, so everything I say is subject to change. The coalition, if it comes to be, will be led by Naftali Bennett and Lapid, who will each be Prime Minister for two years, starting with Bennett.
So who will not be in the coalition? The single largest party, Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud, of course, two Haredi parties that have cast their lot with him, and Betzalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism party. If this coalition comes about as planned, it will be the first time in the history of Israel that there hasn’t been at least one explicitly religious (Jewish) party in the government, and one of the few times without a Haredi party. There will, however, be a fundamentalist Muslim party! And Mansour Abbas’ Ra’am party has already demanded that the government make no commitment in its platform to reforms favoring the LGBT community.
At first the idea was that Ra’am would not be a member of the coalition, but would vote for it from outside, so that it would have the 61 mandates necessary to come into existence. But at some point it was decided that it would be part of the coalition, although without any ministerial portfolios. This too would be a first in Israel’s history.
The idea of an Arab party as part of the government is not in itself a radical one. Arabs are 20% of Israel’s population, and have legitimate concerns, in particular about the allocation of resources to Arab towns and cities. But until now no coalition has included them – and no Arab party has wanted to be included – because of a fundamental disagreement between all the Arab parties and most of the Jewish ones over the question of whether Israel should be in some sense a “Jewish state.” Positions of the Arab parties range from the view that Israel should be a “state of all its citizens” to explicit Palestinian or pan-Arab nationalism. Yes, you read that right.
Indeed, if the conditions in Israel’s Basic Law for the Knesset were strictly applied, no Arab party could sit in the Knesset. The law excludes any party or person whose “goals or actions … expressly or by implication, include … negation of the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.” But Israel’s Supreme Court has always interpreted the requirement very liberally, at least when applied to the Arab members of the Knesset. On several occasions the Court has overruled the decision of the Central Elections Committee of the Knesset to bar an Arab candidate from running, as occurred in 2013 and 2015 to the Balad Party’s candidate, Haneen Zoabi.
Ra’am is ideologically aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood, (!) the parent organization of Hamas, but Mansour Abbas insists that his goals as a member of the government are only to influence practical issues affecting the Arab community, like the out-of-control crime rate in Arab towns and investment in infrastructure.
Coming immediately after a short but painful war with Hamas, and more importantly, after anti-Jewish riots by Arab citizens of Israel in which synagogues and Jewish homes were burned, the decision to include an Arab party in the government was met by many with shock and anger. Indeed, after the news of the riots broke, I concluded that even the idea of forming a government with outside support from an Arab party was dead.
But apparently the driving forces of the unity coalition, Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, believe that the need to form a government and avoid a fifth election in a bit more than two years is paramount.
Despite the large number of parties that run in Israeli elections and the fact that no party has ever gotten a majority by itself, there is usually a clear-cut contest between right-wing and left-wing blocs. Whichever bloc wins the most mandates then forms a coalition with other bloc members. But in the last few elections the split has been between pro- and anti-Netanyahu parties. The pro-Netanyahu parties could not obtain the required 61 mandates; but the anti-Netanyahu forces encompass such a wide ideological range that it has been impossible for them to form a coalition of 61 either. And that is why we have had four elections in two years.
And that is also why we have a situation in which, despite the fact that a solid majority of Israelis vote for right-wing parties – some 70 or 80 mandates worth – we can’t get a right-wing government. And why it appears that we are going to get a coalition that includes on the one hand the far-left Meretz party, the Arab Islamist Ra’am, the Labor Party, what’s left of Benny Gantz’ Kahol-Lavan, and Yair Lapid’s center-left Yesh Atid; and on the other, Avigdor Lieberman’s anti-Arab Israel Beiteinu party, as well as Gideon Sa’ar’s Tikvah Hadasha and Naftali Bennett’s Yamina, both solidly on the right of Netanyahu.
There is a great deal of anger at Naftali Bennett from right-wingers, both those that voted for Netanyahu and blame Bennett for Netanyahu’s failure to get 61 mandates, and those who voted for Bennett but think he is at best a fraud and at worst a traitor for choosing to give his seven mandates to the anti-Netanyahu side. The Shabak (internal security service) thinks that the threats against Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, also on the Yamina list, are serious enough to merit a 24-7 bodyguard.
Bennett has justified breaking his earlier commitments to not sit in a government with Lapid or to even depend on support from an Islamist party by insisting that there was no way that a government led by Netanyahu could get the needed 61. The alternative, he said, is a fifth election, which would be a disaster for the country. Netanyahu has said that if Bennett had fully committed to joining him rather than remaining on the fence, there could have been a right-wing government. I personally believe that Bennett is right: he did explore every possibility to squeeze out a few more mandates for a right-wing coalition before going to Lapid.
I also think Bennett is right about the consequences of a fifth election, which would entail several months of a paralyzed caretaker government, followed by yet another period of chaos as the parties try again to form a coalition. And there is no guarantee that the results would be more decisive than they were the last four times. The country is facing some very serious security issues today – the unrest among Israeli Arabs (which was incited by Hamas), the unfinished business with Hamas itself, the Iranian nuclear program, and – affecting all of the above – the pro-Iranian and pro-Palestinian polices of the Biden Administration. There is also a major unknown, which is the policy of China in a Middle East where American influence is waning. And of course there is the economic fallout of the Covid epidemic, and the continued need for vigilance against mutations of the virus. I could go on, and on.
We need a government and we need one now. It will definitely not be the one anyone hoped for, either on the Right or the Left, but the present instability is unacceptable. There is a good chance that the differences between the partners in the coalition are too great, and it will splinter, resulting in another election anyway. But if it does work, even for a year or two, it could be a path back to political stability.
Update [3 Jun 2021 12:06 IDT]
A few minutes before the deadline, Yair Lapid went to the President with a coalition in hand! Now we will see if it holds up for the two weeks until the official swearing in.