Party leaders Naftali Bennet and Gideon Saar are at a crossroads in their political lives. They are faced with a choice between two alternatives:
- Despite having concerns about Netanyahu’s moral propriety, do they stay within the right-wing-Haredi bloc, which suits and advances their political agenda?OR
- Do they abandon their political home base to join the “change bloc “ to form a pluralistic government which includes others whose political goals differ from their own for the sake of strengthening the courts, police and promoting integrity in Israeli politics, In a remarkable parallel, supporters and politicians within the US Republican party are facing a similar dilemma: Many Republicans agreed with Donald Trump’s political agenda and supported the Republican Party, while at the same time harboring grave reservations about Trump’s propriety. In terms of election results, the Democrats won four million more popular votes in 2020 than in 2016 – enough to tip the balance in the Electoral College and usher in a Democratic president. We may presume that some of this increase at the expense of the Republicans can be attributed to Republican voters who were disenchanted with Trump’s behavior, rather than with his policies.
We might note that, since the elections, most elected Republican politicians have continued to toe the party line of blind support for Trump – one example being his claims of widespread voter fraud, which, so far, have been shown to be factually baseless. Most of these Republicans appear unwilling to support any activity which, even if morally desirable, will undermine their party. This pattern is now conspicuous in the debate on investigation of the assault on the Capitol on January 6th. The GOP is fighting to block an independent inquiry that could make Trump look bad. In other words, rather than opting for an independent inquiry, which would have a greater chance of uncovering the truth, they prefer to limit the investigation as much as possible in order to minimize damage to Trump’s reputation and the Republican party.
Just as there are enormous pressures on Republican politicians not to capitulate to demands that could undermine the strength of their party, so, too, Bennett, Saar and their parties’ members of Knesset are under pressure not to jump ship and weaken the right-wing agenda. Some of this pressure is very personal and includes verbal assaults on family members. It touches a sensitive nerve for the right wing.
For the Democrats in the US and for center and left-wing politicians in Israel, the situation is a no-brainer. By insisting on a morally upright approach, they stand to win twice: by strengthening government institutions and the independence and clout of the judiciary and by acquiring increased opportunity to promote policy that suits their political agenda.
If Bennett, Saar and their party affiliates opt for joining the change bloc they run the risk of being accused of betraying their support base, reneging on their election promises and zigzagging rather than consistency in pursuing their political ideology. On the other hand, Bennet, Saar and other politicians who have worked and clashed with Netanyahu have firsthand concerns as to Netanyahu’s motives for pursuing his policies: Is he acting for the betterment of the country or serving his own best interests?
Because of the democratic nature of Israeli parties, even if Bennet and Saar do reach a personal decision to join the change bloc, they need to convince their respective party members of Knesset to support that decision too.
The dilemma can be expressed succinctly as follows: Should Bennet and Saar shift their party allegiance from exclusively right wing (+ Haredim) and risk interfering with their ideological agenda, for the good of the country as a whole? Will they adopt an approach of “more of the same” or change direction?
Having the prime minister address corruption charges while at the same time running the country, while legal, is distracting. Even if Netanyahu believes he is acting in Israel’s best interests, this is not necessarily how his behavior is perceived by those around him. Furthermore, even the most morally upright person has difficulty being objective and professional when under extreme personal subjective strain.
The distraction caused by the corruption charges and the attention they attract goes beyond the pros and cons of the cases against him and has influenced the conduct of recent Israeli governments. As an outside observer, I feel that policy implementation in general has become more autocratic. This autocratic approach has served Israel well, for example, in dealing with COVID. When the minister of health was barely functioning, when no one else knew in the world knew quite what to do, Netanyahu seized the reins and obsessively did what was necessary to obtain as many vaccines as he could, as early as possible. Yes, at the outset of the pandemic, errors were made. Nonetheless, although other factors – such as the cooperation of the health funds – were involved, today we can thank Netanyahu for much of Israel’s current freedom from COVID.
On the other hand, on divisive issues related to the pluralistic nature of Israeli society, such as the well being of Arab Israelis, an autocratic approach is counterproductive. The Israeli government has unduly neglected these and similar matters, preferring to parochially emphasize the agenda of the coalition partners. While politicians certainly have a right to pursue their ideological agenda, a well-functioning government also has an obligation to serve all the country’s citizens, even those who voted against it. Striking the right balance and doing the right things in the right way can be the determining factor for successful government. While it may have been easier to make policy decisions that suited the coalition partners, the negative implications of those decisions were probably not adequately addressed within the cabinet. In contrast, a government composed of a pluralistic cross-section representative of a population free of distraction by the prime minister’s legal problems, has, in my view, a better chance of formulating more effective policy.
It should be noted that not only are Bennet and Saar willing to compromise their political ideology for the sake of bringing about an improved change. Credit must be given both to Michaeli and Horowitz on the political left who are willing to work together with those on the political right wing. Special mention and credit should be given to Abbas who as an Arab member of an Arab party is willing to make the turnaround and begin to participate actively in Israel’s political process even if he only supports and stabilizes the government from the outside. In fact, his switch may be the most poignant of all.
Let us presume that a Change Bloc government is formed. On one hand it will be a hybrid of differing views and ideologies. On the other hand, it will better represent the full spectrum of the Israeli political landscape. If, as a government they pursue their declared intention of attempting to work in harmony with one another seeking common ground to both doing things right and doing the right things, it may well lead to both a better functioning government, and even to a lessening of their ideological differences.