Israel’s 36th government was sworn in this week as Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12 years in power came to an end. Netanyahu’s departure followed the new “change government” – an ideologically eclectic administration united by its desire to displace the long-serving former prime minister – winning a vital Knesset confidence vote on Sunday evening by a razor-thin 60-59 margin.
The coalition was painstakingly assembled by opposition leader Yair Lapid of the centre-left Yesh Atid party. He’ll become prime minister in two years, with Naftali Bennett of the right-wing Yamina party holding the premiership for the first half of the government’s term.
- The revitalised Labor party has joined the government, as has the left-wing Meretz party. It’s the first time Meretz has been in government since the fall of Ehud Barak’s Labor administration in 2001.
- The new government is the first in Israel’s history in which an Israeli-Arab party has formally participated. It also has a record number of women ministers, including Labor leader Merav Michaeli, who will serve as transport minister.
- Netanyahu, who is set to become opposition leader, bowed out with an ungracious speech after Likud and far-right MKs repeatedly attempted to disrupt Bennett’s speech to the Knesset as prime minister-designate. He also shunned the traditional ceremony handing over power.
- Thousands took to the streets of Tel Aviv to celebrate Netanyahu’s departure on Sunday evening.
- President Joe Biden called Bennett to congratulate him on Sunday evening, both the UAE and Bahrain have also welcomed the new government.
“Mend the rift in the nation”
Forty-nine year-old Bennett offered conciliatory words in his address to the Israeli parliament. “The government that will be formed represents many of Israel’s citizens: from Ofra to Tel Aviv, from Rahat to Kiryat Shmona,” he said “Precisely here lies the opportunity. Our principle is, we will sit together, and we will forge forward on that which we agree – and there is much we agree on … and what separates us we will leave to the side.” At the new government’s first cabinet meeting, Bennett called upon the coalition parties to show “restraint” over their many ideological differences and focus on their central goal: to “mend the rift in the nation”. Lapid echoed this message, suggesting that “friendship and trust” were the foundations upon which the government had been built.
After 12 years in power, Netanyahu and his Likud party bowed out of office without grace and vowed to be “back soon”:
- Bennett’s speech to the Knesset was repeatedly interrupted by Likud MKs and their allies branding him a “criminal” and a “liar”. As the prime minister-designate struggled to be heard, the speaker of the Knesset ordered security officials to remove several MKs from the chamber.
- Bennett thanked Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, saying: “You both sacrificed a great deal for the State of Israel”. The outgoing prime minister, however, assailed his successor saying he lacked the “international standing”, “knowledge” and “credibility” to tackle the threat from Iran.
- Netanyahu also vowed to unseat the new government at the earliest opportunity. “I will fight daily against this terrible, dangerous left-wing government in order to topple it,” he pledged. “With God’s help, it will happen a lot earlier than you think it will … We’ll be back soon.”
- On Monday, Netanyahu dispensed with the traditional public handover of power at the prime minister’s residence, opting instead to have a brief private meeting with Bennett. The normal photo-op ritual of a toast, handshake and good wishes was abandoned by Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. Instead, at a meeting shortly afterwards with other opposition party leaders, Netanyahu vowed to “rescue the people and State of Israel” from the new prime minister. He said the “change government” was based on “fraud, hate and power-seeking”.
- In a strongly worded opinion piece, Times of Israel editor David Horovitz said Netanyahu’s behaviour was “malevolent, disrespectful to the office of prime minister, and unpatriotic”. He compared it unfavourably to the manner in which Labor’s Shimon Peres handed over to Netanyahu, when he narrowly won office for the first time in 1996.
Lapid abandoned his pre-prepared speech at the Knesset and instead lashed Likud MKs for their behaviour during the confidence vote debate. “My mother is 86 years old and we don’t ask her to come to Jerusalem lightly,” the new foreign minister said, “but we did it because I assumed that you would be able to get over yourselves and behave with statesmanship at this moment, and she would see a smooth transition of government. When she was born, there was no State of Israel, Tel Aviv was a small town of 30,000 people and we didn’t have a parliament. I wanted her to be proud of the democratic process in Israel. Instead she, along with every citizen of Israel, is ashamed of you and remembers clearly why it’s time to replace you.”
A first for Israeli-Arabs
While Israeli-Arab parties provided Yitzhak Rabin’s Labor administration with a form of “confidence and supply” in the 1990s, it is the first time an Israeli-Arab party has formally participated in an Israeli government.
- For only the second time, an Israeli government will see an Israeli-Arab minister. Meretz MK Issawi Frej will serve as minister for regional cooperation minister.
- Mansour Abbas, head of the Islamist Ra’am, provided the new government with crucial votes in the Knesset. He is expected to become a deputy minister in the prime minister’s department.
- As part of its coalition agreement, Abbas won the pledge of an unprecedented $16bn in government funding for the Arab community over the next few years. The new government will freeze all home demolitions in the Negev for nine months while the government formulates a clear policy on this issue. The Kaminitz Law, which makes it easier to demolish illegal construction – and is seen by the Arab community as targeted at it – will be frozen until 2024.
- Bennett said on Sunday: “We understand the difficulties and needs of the Arab people.”
“Coalition of the courageous”
“Israel’s 36th government is a coalition of the courageous,” argued the Israeli writer Yossi Klein Halevi. “Each leader who has led his or her party into this strange and unwieldy government has taken a risk. The hard left Meretz has empowered the hard right Yamina, and Yamina has enraged much of its base by partnering with Meretz. Yisrael Beitenu, which not long ago accused Arab Israelis of treason, has embraced the Islamist party, Ra’am, as a coalition partner; and Ra’am, whose founding charter calls Zionism racism, has joined a Zionist government.”
New health minister Nitzan Horowitz’s first act on taking office was to begin lifting the remaining restrictions on gay men donating blood in Israel. Horowitz, the first openly gay leader of a political party in the country, heads the Meretz party. Meretz secured a clause in the coalition agreement pledging the government uses “all the tools at their disposal to advance the gay community’s rights”. Although Ra’am opposes gay rights and has secured agreement that it can vote its conscience on LGBTQ issues, “the fact that Yamina – a religious Zionist party – signed off on this language is in itself an achievement,” suggested Haaretz’s Michael Hauser Tov.
Seeking friends and allies
The coalition agreement says little about Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians and the wider world and is primarily focused on domestic issues reflecting the new government’s deep ideological splits. However, in remarks on Monday, Lapid, who has taken the post of foreign minister until he becomes prime minister in 2023, indicated a potentially more positive approach than that adopted by the outgoing government.
- He called for a shift away from Netanyahu’s embrace of the US right, urging a rebuilding of Israel’s bipartisan support. “The management of the relationship with the Democratic Party in the United States was careless and dangerous,” Lapid said. “We find ourselves with a Democratic White House, Senate and House and they are angry. We need to change the way we work with them.” Lapid has close links to the Democrats and has worked with Democratic party pollster, strategist and CEO of Democratic Majority for Israel, Mark Mellman since 2012.
- The new foreign minister is also keen to restore ties with European governments and the EU. “Our relationship with too many governments has been neglected and become hostile,” Lapid argued. “Shouting that everyone is antisemitic isn’t a policy or a work plan, even if it sometimes feels right.”
- On relationships with the Palestinians, Lapid said: “We might not be expecting a final status agreement soon but there is a lot we can do to improve the lives of the Palestinians and the dialogue with them on civil issues.”
- Lapid and Bennett have both made clear their opposition to the Iran nuclear deal and reiterated their determination that Tehran should not acquire new nuclear weapons. However, Lapid has also suggested that the issue – and Israel’s desire to normalise and deepen relations with other Arab states – can’t be separated from the plight of the Palestinians. “I believe that a breakthrough on the Iranian issue depends on the Palestinian issue,” he told the Mitvim think-tank. “We need to work to advance a diplomatic agreement with the Palestinians, only as part of a regional discussion. Can we separate the Iranian problem from the Palestinian problem? Without progress vis a vis the Palestinians, can we enlist the [support of] the Saudi public, the U.S. Congress, American Jewry, the European Union and the money from the Gulf states? Netanyahu says we can. I tell you we can’t.”
- Lapid spoke yesterday with UAE foreign minister Abdullah bin Zayed and discussed “mutual cooperation and [the] Abrahamic Accords,” according to the Emirati Foreign Ministry. Bahrain Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa also issued a statement congratulating Bennett and Lapid on the formation of a new government.
The White House calling
President Joe Biden called Bennett shortly after his confidence vote win on Sunday evening. The White House said the president had “highlighted his decades of steadfast support for the US-Israel relationship and his unwavering commitment to Israel’s security”. Biden pledged to “deepen cooperation between the United States and Israel on the many challenges and opportunities facing the region” and “conveyed that his administration intends to work closely with the Israeli government on efforts to advance peace, security, and prosperity for Israelis and Palestinians”.
What happens next
Haaretz columnist Noa Landau said that the new government was a “minefield” for the Israeli left given the presence in it of both the right-wing Yamina and New Hope parties. However, she ended on a more positive note. “The left also has some opportunities in this new government,” Landau argued. “There are topics over which there are no dramatic controversies … mainly on economic, social welfare and education issues, and in every area in which the emphasis is on improving service and civil life in Israel. There are also some historic moves in areas pertaining to state and religion, which can be implemented in the absence of ultra-Orthodox parties in this coalition. After years in opposition, a role drained of any content, the centre-left during the Netanyahu years, now has an opportunity to advance some real policies.”