Jim Shalom
A semi-retired physician

Hubris and Changes in the Israeli Political Landscape

There are 8 parties involved in the present Israeli coalition government. Along with Naftali Bennett, in 5 of them the party leaders have aspired to being prime minister:  Yair Lapid, Gideon Saar, Avigdor Lieberman and Benny Ganz.  These were not simple fantasy aspirations: As an example, Saar had left the Likud party to wrestle control over the Likud and right-wing and failed.  Lieberman who has been both defense and foreign minister, has felt entitled to the role for years. In the last election Ganz ran as an alternative to Netanyahu.  Both in the previous and present election, Lapid’s declared goal was to form a government under his leadership.  Even though these political leaders each view themselves as the best ones to lead the country, to form the Change Bloc, not only have they had to put their ego issues aside but also compromise significantly on their political agenda. This shift is unusual in Israel where ego and ideological issues tend to play a paramount role in the political process as epitomized by Netanyahu’s style of leadership.

In all fairness to Netanyahu, in previous governments he has been the one who has had to browbeat coalition parties into compromise. Otherwise, a government would not have been successfully formed.  In other words, each party leader tended to primarily address their own agenda while Netanyahu was preoccupied with what it would take to form a government formed by parties with different priorities and sensitivities.  This time around, rather than being bludgeoned into cooperation, the various parties have all done so voluntarily with the realization that if they do not cooperate, not only will they not be part of the new government, but that there will be no new government.  If, in the past, politicians successfully advanced themselves because of their dogged assertiveness to promote their position and ideology, now willingness to compromise and the well being of colleagues are what is being demanded of them. The tone for this was set by Lapid, who despite his party receiving many more seats than Bennett’s, offered Bennett the opportunity to be prime mister first in their rotation.  This altruistic shift, one that both looks at the larger picture and puts faith in the long run, if it persists, will change the dynamics of Israeli politics.

In terms of compromise, on the surface, Netanyahu and Lapid’s approach appear as if the two situations are one and the same: the various sides disagreeing and then compromising.  But the dynamics are qualitatively different.  In one, the compromise is reached mainly confrontational; in the second instance mostly harmoniously. One might speculate that the inimical relationship that Netanyahu has with many politicians who in the past worked closely with him such as Bennett, Saar, Liberman and Ganz, are in part the scars of past accrued hostile confrontations. The present (partially) voluntary accommodating shift is a refreshing change in the Israeli landscape.  One wonders whether this new spirit will persist as the new government deals with its litany of controversial issues.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett:
People are speculating how Bennett will turn out as a prime minister with Netanyahu. the Likud and the Haredim writing him off and predicting that the government will fall soon.  Bennett certainly has challenges awaiting him:  a relatively inexperienced leader of a small right-wing party with a hair slim government majority composed of parties of conflicting agendas, leading at a time when he will have to deal with multiple controversial issues simultaneously including the flags march, how to deal with Gaza restoration, the peace process, the hospital crisis to mention a few.  We should note though, that history has shown, that based on previous behavior, one cannot know for certain how an Israeli politician will turn out when they become prime minister.  Rabin and Sharon for example, functioned completely differently as prime ministers than they did prior as party leaders.  Golda Meir was asked to come out of retirement and selected as prime minister in 1969 to prevent a conflict with the potential of tearing the Labor party apart, between the two leading candidates at the time, Moshe Dayan and Yigal Alon.  She was deliberately selected because it was thought that she would be a weak leader – an unremarkable interim choice until the Labor party could resolve their leadership issues between the two charismatic candidates.  Reality was the opposite.  She turned out to be a powerful effective prime minster.  Neither Dayan nor Alon ever did become prime ministers. One can surmise that while the challenges facing Bennett appear overwhelming, and while the odds are against him, that it is too early to write him off.

Will there be a policy shift of right-wing ideology?
The Likud and right-wing supporters are calling Bennett and his right-wing coalition partners traitors to their cause.  The change bloc right-wing leaders, in response, are denying this allegation and insisting that they continue to be committed to their ideology.  They further insist that they have the majority say in the new government.  One speculates what will be?  It does appear as if there are already some hints of changes within the new government though not in ideology per se but rather in approach.   A characteristic of the Israeli right-wing ideology is its zealot like singular commitment to a greater Israel ideology irrespective of the consequences of pursuing such policy including blocking out real dialogue with anyone whose views differ from their own. This was the case in Netanyahu’s government which was composed either of parties with this view or partners such as the Haredim who went along with this approach as long as their own needs were met.  While neither Bennett nor Saar, nor Lapid nor Ganz, for that matter have changed their right- wing ideological commitment, they appear to have dropped this singular rigid commitment to it, in favor of pragmatic compromise.  They have shifted to making room for a pluralistic approach to dealing with divergent issues. This is qualitatively different from what used to be.  So, for example, they do not see a problem of addressing Israeli – Arab issues that Mansour Abbas has insisted be part of the government agenda.  Even if the importance of the right-wing ideology is not changed, this more flexible approach, if implemented, will provide the government with more political latitude and is likely to elicit cooperation rather than resistance from non-right-wing factions within the government and people.

Active public involvement of Abbas in the political process:
Three conditions were necessary for Abbas being able to join the government.  The first one was necessity.  If political success is characterized by doing the best you can, in a given situation, in this case, a new government, certainly without Netanyahu and his Likud party, could not have been formed without the active support of at least one of the Arab parties.  The second condition was that those on the right had to be willing to even consider inviting an Arab party into the political process of forming a government. They were not willing to do so after the previous election.  Credit for this goes primarily to Lapid for his perseverance but also to the others for their willingness to go along with it despite their long-standing adamant previous opposition.  One could cynically assert that the motivation was selfish – to play a major role in the government.  But all of them turned down Netanyahu’s generous overtures to play a role in the government he was trying to form.  Furthermore, even if there was a selfish component, this is nevertheless a dramatic attitudinal shift; one which has the potential risk of harming each of their political bases and destroying their reputation which they have all nevertheless adopted.

The third condition is the willingness of an Arab party to enter the government.  Until the previous election and since Israel’s independence in 1948 this was simply not the case.  It is not a question of reaching a fair compromise. Israel’s enemies adamantly refused and refuse to accept any recognition of Israeli sovereignty whatsoever. While there have been Arabs in the government, peace treaties with Jordan and Egypt, and Arab emirate countries recognizing Israel, having an Israeli Arab party be part of a government coalition will further weaken and contradict pan Arab denials of Israeli legitimacy.  Until now, the Israeli Arab parties desisted from active participation. Therefore, the implications and courage of Abbas’ willingness to join a government, especially one composed of several right-wing parties cannot be overemphasized. While it is unclear how much say he will be given, he holds an important card – without his support, the new government will likely fall.  Those proponents of change look upon the simultaneous timing of both sides receptive to cooperating at the same time as fortuitous.

Implications for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict:
Until now the Palestinian Israeli conflict has been at an impasse. Acceptable resolution of this conundrum seemed out of reach.  The forceful approach to demanding compromise simply has not worked (on either side). While it is too early to know for certain, the new Israeli government declares itself to be characterized by taking a more pragmatic tolerant approach to resolving differences among themselves; taking into consideration the different views of the various parties involved.  Perhaps progress could be made if this approach is adopted by the main opposition players to the Palestinian Israeli conflict.


About the Author
Jim Shalom is a specialist in family medicine, with interests in end-of-life care and the Israeli political scene. He resides in Galilee. He has spent most of his adult life living and working in Israel.