International reaction to the new Israeli government predictably coalesced into outrage that ‘far-right’ Naftali Bennett will be the titular head of the latest solution to Israel’s political paralysis.
‘Nafali Bennett does not believe in a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis’ claimed the Guardian. Calling him a ‘hard-line religious nationalist’ ‘with unabashed pro-settler, biblically inspired zeal,’ the headlines might start with the history-making replacement of Netanyahu, but the articles devolve into shock about the incoming ‘ultranationalist’ prime minister.
The man who put the coalition together and will serve as alternate prime minister, Yair Lapid, is dismissed as a ‘self-proclaimed centrist,’ even as Netanyahu’s foreign backers attack the incoming government as ‘being in bed with the Muslim Brotherhood and Leftists.’
So what should be made of the ‘change government’ that is replacing 12 years of Netanyahu coalitions and temporary governments? Behind the headlines, Israel has actually inaugurated its most progressive and diverse government in decades, if not in history.
Israel now has an Islamist party sitting around the coalition table. It was an unthinkable scenario not so many years ago, when the Joint List party became the third-largest faction in the Knesset after the 2015 elections. The political power of uniting the mainly secular Arab parties and Communists with the religious Ra’am sent shockwaves through the establishment, putting Netanyahu on notice that his driving ambition for narrow right wing governments would soon hit the bumpers of Israeli’s multi-ethnic democracy.
In the days following this year’s stalemate elections, Netanyahu openly courted the Islamist Ra’am, who’s decision to split off from the Joint List established the four seat party as kingmakers. Party chief Mansour Abbas deftly played Netanyahu and Lapid in order to get the best deal for his constituency, mainly the Bedouin community living in Israel’s periphery.
Alongside billions more shekels in spending for the Arab sector, Abbas also secured formal recognition of various Bedouin settlements in the south of the country and the freezing of laws which penalized illegal construction in unrecognised towns. Yet it’s only the Jewish communities that get called out as ‘illegal settlements’ while investment in infrastructure is labelled as ‘apartheid.’ The white minority run South African apartheid regime wasn’t exactly seeking out coalition agreements with Nelson Mandela during the 27 years he was imprisoned.
Those who say Israel is ‘apartheid’ or undemocratic distort the true nature of Israel’s multi-cultural democracy. The Israeli political system is the purest form of proportional representation, with parties requiring at least 3.25% of the national share to enter the 120-seat Knesset, or around 160,000 votes in the last election.
The lack of constituencies, tactical voting or even manifestos (Likud hasn’t published one since 2015) mean Israeli elections, at least the last four, aren’t so much about winning the argument as they are about which faction can turn out their voters, or steal another party’s natural supporters.
Former Likudnik Gideon Sa’ar accurately calculated he could siphon off a portion of centre-right Likud voters who are fed up with Netanyahu. Left-wing party Meretz was predicted to be facing annihilation in the early stages of the campaign, before turning around their fortunes and winning six seats by successfully leveraging the fear that without Meretz in the Knesset, Netanyahu would have 61 seats.
The nuances of Israeli democracy are completely lost on those who accuse Israel of being anything but. In the US and Britain, presidents and prime ministers can seize control of the state with barely a plurality of votes, or in Trump’s case an outright minority. In Israel, if a majority of the factions can’t agree, there’s no government. We’ve been through four elections in two years to prove that.
These last four votes have delivered essentially the same result. Grouping the factions into right or left is not so useful when the central divide in Israeli politics comes down to pro or anti Netanyahu. Even Netanyahu’s so-called ‘natural allies’ in the Haredi parties of United Torah Judaism and Shas have never been exclusively right wing. They supported the governments of Shimon Peres in the 1990s because Peres delivered on their agenda of exemptions from army service and high child benefits. The Haredi parties have stuck with Netanyahu in the last decade because he delivers. Once Netanyahu no longer has the power to deliver, either because he’s been relieved of his role as leader of the opposition, or relieved of his liberty due to criminal trials, those ‘natural allies’ will likely part ways. Yair Lapid hopes to bolster the coalition with their inclusion, and which parties they might replace remains to be seen.
But in the meantime, this new government will do some governing. The Lapid-Bennett leadership has a wide-ranging agenda from legalising cannabis to creating an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. Various ministries, complete with regulation and decision-making powers, are distributed among the eight parties of the coalition, with some very clear differences from the previous occupants.
Health minister in the early months of the pandemic, the now indicted Yaakov Litzman of United Torah Judaism has been replaced by Nitzan Horowitz of Meretz, the first openly gay man to lead a political party in Israel. Serving as deputy foreign minister is Yesh Atid’s Idan Roll, also openly gay who recently married Israeli pop star Harel Skaat after a decade together, despite the (previous) Interior Minister Aryeh Deri of Shas trying to forbid the registration of online weddings conducted during the pandemic.
Israel gets another Muslim cabinet minister, Issawi Frej who takes over as regional cooperation minister, while thejudiciary-baiting public security minister Amir Ohana is replaced by Labour’s Omar Bar-Lev. Likud’s right-wing iconoclast Miri Regev departs as head of the transport ministry for feminist icon and Labour party head Merav Michaeli.
The delay in forming the coalition actually stemmed from which secular woman, Merav Michaeli or Ayelet Shaked,would get to sit first on the judicial selection committee and oversee judges who rule on cases of halacha and sharia law. Yet accusations against Israel as being a ‘non-democratic apartheid regime’ are still not retracted.
In Israel’s vibrant, full-frontal democracy, the new government is as multi-ethnic as it is multi-party. It brings together factions from the left, right and centre. Religious and secular Arabs and Jews, Ethiopians, Islamists, gays, straights, women, men. The government is formed by a cross-section of society because Israeli democracy represents that society. Under Netanyahu, governing Israel felt like a zero-sum game. Politicians were with him or against him, and it was his way or elections. But actually, Israel’s democracy is designed to bring representatives from diverse communities together to discuss, debate and compromise. No one knows how long this latest incarnation will survive, but just by being sworn-in, this government has made history. Its very formation makes significant, progressive strides for Israel’s minority groups, who have a seat at the table because of the very democracy they serve.