Israel’s governing coalition––comprised of rightists, nationalists, religious nationalists, and liberal centrists––has entered into its first political crisis of significance. The ending of the brotherhood between Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett has been welcomed by some on the left and center as a boon to the peace process. Indeed, Netanyahu needs the dovish Yesh Atid, along with Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah, more than the religious nationalist Bayit Yehudi, who are opposed to a Palestinian state of any kind. But as events this week perhaps foreshadow, a Bennett exodus from the coalition may not be so good for the peace process after all.
The first question that must be asked is who will replace Naftali Bennett and Bayit Yehudi? The answer, according to most analysts, is the Labor party, headed by the recently-elected chairman Isaac Herzog. Labor commands fifteen seats in the Knesset, and would more than make up for Bayit Yehudi’s twelve mandates. But what these observers don’t appreciate is how much the character of the coalition will change with Herzog’s entrance and Bennett’s exit. Most critically, the center-left will make up the majority of the coalition. This will inflame already-existing tensions between Benjamin Netanyahu and the far-right bloc of his party, in itself already in conflict with the nationalist Yisrael Beteinu and their leader, Avigdor Lieberman.
Yes, it seems with all the attention being paid to Bayit Yehudi’s litany of undemocratic proposals we have forgotten that the hard-right still has a stranglehold on the Likud. Who can forget last year’s Likud primary, where the deluded Danny Danon placed ninth and the even more deluded and dangerous Moshe Feiglin was assured a place in parliament? Who can forget that Benjamin Netanyahu has since lost all control over his party’s internal institutions?
This ugly reality revealed itself again this week at the Likud Convention, where hardliners tried to scuttle any future attempt to merge the two parties. They fear, rightly, that Lieberman is a connoisseur of the back-room who may very well agree to support a peace agreement (and bring along the other ten MKs in his movement) in exchange for Netanyahu stepping aside at a future date and allowing him to take the reins of a new permanent Likud-Beteinu party. While their attempt to proscribe a future unification failed, it seems the hardliners have a strong enough presence in the Likud Central Committee to filibuster any such merger. Lieberman’s political calculations on the peace process are, therefore, up in the air.
What has kept the hardliners, well, in line, is the very fact that Bayit Yehudi is in the coalition, and that any attempt to pass a two-state agreement in the current cabinet stands little chance. This will change if Bayit Yehudi leaves and Labor comes in. The inevitable Likud civil war will commence much earlier than previously predicted, fomenting unacceptable instability in the Israeli government during a time of negotiations. It would be prudent for us all to remember that the Camp David and Taba talks took place against the backdrop of political precariousness.
Isaac Herzog, in an interview on this website, said that Netanyahu must bring along more members of the Likud to support any agreement. The reason for this being that a broad coalition of right-left-center, rather than one of left-center-Arabs-Bibi-Steintiz, is needed to earn the confidence of weary Israelis. This is true, but the solution Herzog proposes is unrealistic.
It is in the best interests of peace that the Lapid-Benentt feud dies down, and the paradigm of relatively secret negotiations continues. When the time is right and an agreement is proposed, a slim majority of MKs, including leftists and Arabs, will schedule a referendum. At that point, Bennett’s certain departure and Lieberman’s calculations become irrelevant. I once believed a plebiscite to be the wrong route, but it is the only way the necessary broad coalition Herzog speaks of will be built. For there are enough members of the Knesset to approve of peace, but not enough to sustain the kind of peace-seeking government that will freeze settlement construction and create a better environment for talks with the Palestinians.