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The outgoing government’s unsung right-wing virtues

What could explain the right's failure to laud the Lapid-Bennett team for increasing security, blocking the Iran nuke deal and curbing inflation?
US President Joe Biden shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett as they meet in the Oval Office of the White House, Friday, Aug. 27, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
US President Joe Biden shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett as they meet in the Oval Office of the White House, Friday, Aug. 27, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

After a year of viciously attacking the “left-wing” government of Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid followed by an ultimately victorious four-month election campaign, prime minister designate Benjamin Netanyahu is finally set to retake the Prime Minister’s Office in the coming days. With the end of the Bennett-Lapid government imminent, it is worth taking another look back on the past 17 months and examining what the experimental coalition managed to attain but from the perspective of the traditional Israeli Right.

While the outgoing opposition did everything it could to stonewall anything and everything put forth by the outgoing government, the government proved accomplished in areas generally supported by the Right and even, at times, despite it. For a government relying on the support of Ra’am, an Arab Islamist Party, even a right-wing voter in Israel would have to admit that the outgoing government achieved a certain measure of success.

As prime minister, Naftali Bennett oversaw the quietest year on record at the Gaza border since the 2005 Israeli disengagement. Following months of incendiary balloons floating into Israel from Gaza, Bennett promised that any such balloons would be met with significant force and stood by his word. Almost immediately upon taking office, these attacks ended. Bennett’s government also successfully kept Hamas out of the controversy surrounding the Jerusalem Day Flag March, which Hamas had used as an excuse to fire rockets a year earlier, and prevented Hamas from weighing in violently following the death of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh last May.

Shortly after handing over power over to Lapid, the government dealt a swift and decisive blow to Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the three-day Operation Breaking Dawn in response to rockets launched from Gaza. Not only did the operation severely damage Islamic Jihad leadership and capabilities, the government also effectively kept the war from escalating by keeping Hamas out of the conflict.

Regarding Iran, Bennett’s shift in the approach towards lobbying the American government against a return to the JCPOA bore fruit. Bennett took a much more subtle path than his predecessor in efforts to persuade the Biden administration and kept any differences on the issue behind closed doors. Bennett’s strategy was a stark contrast to that of Netanyahu who publicly told anyone who would listen, including his (in)famous 2015 address to a joint session of Congress, why the JCPOA was a bad deal. However, despite criticism from Netanyahu accusing Bennett of not doing anything to prevent a return to the deal, the results of their respective efforts tell a different story. Bennett’s quiet diplomacy successfully dissuaded the Biden administration from removing Iran’s Revolutionary Guard from the US list of terrorist organizations, and just days ago President Biden was quoted as saying the JCPOA is “dead.”

While it may very well be that the reasons for Biden declaring the JCPOA dead are unrelated to the policy of the outgoing Israeli government – despite Bennett taking credit for it – the deal died on Bennett’s and Lapid’s watch without either of them creating a diplomatic crisis with the United States. This stands in sharp contrast to the efforts of Netanyahu in 2015, which not only did not prevent the signing of the JCPOA, but significantly contributed towards the rift between Israel and the Obama administration and drove a wedge between Israel and portions of the Democratic Party.

The outgoing government also recorded other accomplishments its opposition would be hard-pressed to oppose. On the economic front, it successfully kept inflation lower than the high rates seen across much of the western world in the past year, continued the economic growth that began under the previous Netanyahu administration, achieved an increase in Israel’s credit rating from Moody’s, and reduced unemployment. The Economist recently rated Israel as one of the top-performing economies in the OECD in 2022. The Bennett-Lapid government also managed to strengthen the Abraham Accords with the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco, pass a budget for the first time in three years and four election cycles, warm relations with Turkey, Jordan and Egypt, and end Covid restrictions despite the omicron outbreak.

It’s also worth noting that some of the failures of the outgoing government are partially the fault of the outgoing opposition. For the past eighteen years, the parties in the outgoing opposition supported the annual renewal of the 2003 Citizenship Law prohibiting Palestinians from becoming Israeli citizens by marrying an Israeli citizen based upon the claim that such a law was necessary for Israel’s security. However, the Bennett-Lapid government failed to renew the law in July 2021 not only because of ideological opposition within the coalition’s left fringe but also because the opposition opted to vote against the law thereby placing its political goal of embarrassing the coalition ahead of what it had traditionally considered a law vital to national security (the law was finally approved in March 2022 with the support of opposition MKs).

Additionally, the proposed Metro Law, which would streamline state resources and regulatory approvals for a planned metro system in the Gush Dan area and enjoys wide-ranging support across the political spectrum, was and still is stalled arguably because the outgoing opposition did not want to hand the outgoing coalition a win even after the government fell and new elections were called.

Of course, none of this is to say that the government was anywhere close to perfect or at all reflected the will of Israel’s right wing. For starters, Netanyahu overwhelmingly was the Right’s preferred candidate for prime minister, and Naftali Bennett, who ran on a staunchly right-wing platform, conceivably betrayed his voters when he joined the outgoing coalition. Furthermore, the coalition had many problems largely stemming from the ideological diversity of its various members unified by the single political goal of keeping Netanyahu out of the Prime Minister’s Office thereby stunting its ability to legislate, and many of the actions its supporters tout as a success such as the maritime agreement with Lebanon or the reforms to the kashrut and cell phone industry were vociferously opposed by portions of the opposition ostensibly on ideological grounds. Also, and most significantly, ongoing terror attacks emanating from the West Bank required Israel to embark on Operation Breaking Waves at the end of last March. Finally, for many of those on the right, the mere fact that the government required the support of the Islamist Ra’am Party in order to survive or even just that of the far-left Meretz Party, is going to be justifiably suspect.

Despite these issues, the political right’s dismissal of the accomplishments of the Bennett-Lapid government is political posturing at best and intellectually dishonest at worst. All this begs the question of what does it mean to be right-wing in Israel? Does it mean supporting political positions traditionally identified with the political right or does it simply mean supporting Netanyahu at any cost? Conversely, with Netanyahu set to make significant concessions to his new coalition partners and changing the rules of the game so to speak in order to do so, do his opponents, who have left him little choice in the matter, have any real ideology other than opposing Netanyahu?

About the Author
The writer worked as a foreign law clerk for the Deputy Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Israel and is now an attorney based in Chicago and New York.