Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has lost his last-minute legal challenge to stall the formation of a government by opposition right-wing politician Naftali Bennett and his potential coalition partner, centrist politician Yair Lapid.
Bennett and Lapid have a Wednesday midnight deadline formally to submit their bid for the newly proposed government coalition before President Reuven Rivlin. Netanyahu is fighting a last-ditch battle to salvage his political career. His ouster from power would mean the end of the road for him.
As the hours tick down, Netanyahu and his allies have unleashed an intense pressure campaign. Netanyahu made a last-minute appeal to right-wing Israelis, characterizing Bennett’s coalition as a threat to Israel’s security and warning it will be a “dangerous, leftist government.”
He pleaded: “If you are a right-winger, you do not vote for a left-wing government. That is the simple truth.” The desperation shows, for this is by no reckoning an ideological struggle. Events seem to be inexorably moving toward the ouster of Netanyahu after 12 years in power.
In fact, what is playing out is an attempt to put an end to Netanyahu’s rule, which has brought together a surprising cross-section of left-wing and right-wing Israelis. Israeli media coverage shows that beyond the political class, there is a hankering for change from Netanyahu rule among everyday Israelis from across the ideological spectrum.
Bennett is putting together an improbable rainbow coalition of parties that normally disagree on a range of political issues but apparently found convergence on the need to move on from the Netanyahu era.
United Arab List holds the key
Having said that, the opposition bid is breathtaking in its sweep for the sheer historical fact that success may depend on the participation of the culturally conservative (Palestinian) Arab party known as the United Arab List, or Ra’am, the first Arab-led party to participate in a coalition government in Israel.
It is absolutely amazing that the leader of the Jewish state is going to be determined by a Muslim Brotherhood party, something that is inconceivable anywhere else in West Asia.
Indeed, the United Arab List shares ideological links with the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni movement, which is banned in many Arab countries, including Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. (Hamas, too, is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood.)
Thus Israeli politics is breaking the glass ceiling. Indeed, Israeli democracy has outlived Netanyahu’s cynical politics riveted on polarization, racial hatred and apartheid. This is a watershed event.
Much has been written about Bennett’s politics. Bennett, 49, has been a rising star in conservative Israeli politics for nearly a decade. He’s highly educated, a hugely successful entrepreneur and a self-made billionaire – and, previously a special forces commando, the prime minister’s chief of staff and defense minister.
Bennett made his name in politics with hardline right-wing rhetoric and had a meteoric rise. He leads the Yamina party, which has its base among settlers. Having said that, Bennett is intensely conscious of his dalliance with the left.
In a speech late on Sunday, he acknowledged: “The left is making far from easy compromises here, when it bestows upon me … the role of prime minister.” But he has also shown that at the core he is a realist.
Against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic raging in 2020, Bennett dampened his right-wing rhetoric to broaden his political appeal. He was quoted as saying over Army Radio in November: “In the next years we need to put aside politics and issues like annexation or a Palestinian state, and focus on gaining control over the coronavirus pandemic, healing the economy and mending internal rifts.”
A strategic stalemate
Implicit in Bennett’s willingness to head a coalition with groups representing progressive, centrist and Arab voters (which already amounts to a revolution) is his openness to consensual politics in the rapidly changing situation surrounding Israel.
He cannot but be aware that Israel is hurtling toward a strategic stalemate, especially with the US administration and large sections of the American elite, including among American Jews, who are losing conviction with Israel’s extreme right-wing policies.
Contrary to expectations, the recent conflict in Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem did not impact things much. Israelis really do not see that Netanyahu won a victory over Hamas.
Instead, what is on the Israeli mind is all that strife that has been ignited among Arab and Jewish citizens within Israel in recent weeks. Bennett has criticized Netanyahu for that.
Meanwhile, the conflict with Hamas has exposed that the underpinnings of Israel’s security are unraveling and the country’s overwhelming military superiority is losing relevance. Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi arrived in Cairo on Sunday in a bid to shore up a ceasefire with Hamas – the first visit by an Israeli FM to Egypt in 13 years.
Ashkenazi’s discussions in Cairo with his Egyptian host Sameh Shoukry focused on the need to refrain from all practices that might lead to escalation, especially in the Palestinian territories.
Shoukry called on Israel to consider the particular sensitivity associated with East Jerusalem, the Al-Aqsa Mosque and all Islamic and Christian holy sites. Shoukry also reiterated Egypt’s position on a two-state solution as “the only way to achieve a just and lasting peace.”
Ahead of Sunday’s talks, Ashkenazi said: “We will discuss establishing a permanent ceasefire with Hamas, a mechanism for providing humanitarian aid and the reconstruction of Gaza with a pivotal role played by the international community.”
Big changes coming
A prisoner swap could be on the horizon. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh is expected to visit Cairo this week.
Bennett has some tricky decisions to make. Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani has ordered the allocation of US$500 million for restoring infrastructure in the Gaza Strip after the recent hostilities.
The Qatari Foreign Ministry has announced plans to restore more than 45,000 destroyed houses in the Gaza Strip within six months. Clearly, the inhuman blockade of Gaza is no longer tenable.
Meanwhile, Bennett cannot but be aware that the ground beneath Israel’s feet is shifting. The US intends to reopen its Consulate General in Jerusalem, which is clearly a step toward restoring US-Palestinian relations.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last week: “The US administration believes all the steps it is currently taking should lead to the revival of the peace process and negotiations between the Palestinian and Israeli sides.”
The crunch time will come if the administration of US President Joe Biden takes practical steps toward the Israeli settlement policy and the displacement of families in neighborhoods of Jerusalem. That is when the resilience of Bennett’s coalition government will be tested to the core.
Under their power-sharing arrangement, it seems Bennett will serve as prime minister until the autumn of 2023, while Lapid will serve as foreign minister. In the second half of the term, the two would switch positions.
The fact of the matter is that if Bennett is to Biden’s right when it comes to Palestinian issues, so is the Israeli political spectrum, in general. That precludes the scope for any major moves (by either side.)
Therefore, the probability is that the efforts by the Biden administration will concentrate on “managing” the Palestinian problem rather than resolving it. But then there are the variables that have a tendency to end up “managing” all protagonists – the events on the ground.
At any rate, Bennett, Lapid et al have a lot of damage control to do to regain the verve of America’s traditional embrace of Israel. They will do well to pay heed to the late Margaret Thatcher’s wisdom: “I am extraordinarily patient, provided I get my own way in the end.”
M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.