Jim Shalom
A semi-retired physician

The Tectonic Changes in the Israeli Political Arena

These are hectic times associated with extraordinary changes in Israel’s political arena. Furthermore, additional dramatic developments await us if the “change bloc” succeeds in forming a government and functioning effectively. I will try to separate the wheat from the chaff and identify what I believe to be the salient developments along with potentially long-term ramifications.

The disarray within the right-wing camp:
Over the last decades there has been a gradual shift to the right in terms of asserting Jewish sovereignty over the land of Israel. Within the right-wing camp is a subgroup of zealots – people who for religious-divine, historical or security minded reasons have been singularly and tenaciously pursuing the extension of Jewish sovereignty, regardless of the consequences. They are the proponents of expanding Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) along with pursuing laws which give preference to Jewish rights over those of the Arabs.

As one inconclusive election campaign led to another, like the parties on the left of the political spectrum, some of the right-wing camp, including members of Bennet’s and Saar’s parties, became sufficiently disturbed about Netanyahu’s leadership, or the undesirable likelihood of yet another election, that they were determined to seek out an alternative. Since there is no right-wing majority large enough to form a government, the alternative to the status quo was forming an alliance with “the other side”. Cracks in the impenetrable wall of the single-minded agenda of the right began to appear. Reality was such that to attain a majority, not only did they need to cooperate with centrists like Lapid and Ganz, whose views are not far from their own, but also the left Labor party and the far left Merez party which is opposed to this right-wing agenda. Traditionally in Israel, except in dire national emergencies, both the left and the right have sought any alternative, such as cooperating with the Haredim, in order not to form a coalition with one another. One should appreciate that the current potential marriage of “strange bedfellows” is mutually distasteful, or both left and right.

And finally, like a suspense novel which takes the reader to the very limit, even with support from both the center and left, the “change bloc” could not put together a majority without the support of one of the Arab parties. Bennet and Saar decided to push their foray into new territory even further by inviting Mansour Abbas, the leader of the Islamic Movement Party, RAM, into the bloc. The audaciousness of this move cannot be overstated. It is of tectonic dimensions. Those in the right-wing camp who remain resolute in their commitment to their traditional agenda, look upon Bennet and Saar as traitors to their cause.

For Abbas the situation is no simpler. The Arab world has traditionally refused to acknowledge any claims of Jewish sovereignty whatsoever. The fact that Abbas and his RAM party have decided to throw in their lot with the “change” government is equally tectonic. Abbas’ base is the Islamic Movement, considered by many Israeli Jews as anti-Israeli. Yet, Abbas has been careful and sensitive.  His declared agenda only relates to Arab Israelis and focuses on social policy change such as improved funding for Arab municipalities and for dealing with the violence within the Arab towns and villages. Whether Jewish Israelis agree with his views or not, this agenda is well within the Israeli consensus as a legitimate issue, in contrast to the Hamas demand for dismembering Israel.

Less than one month ago there were Jewish-Arab riots in some of Israel’s mixed cities.  Who would have dreamed that within less than a month great advances would be made in Arab-Jewish political reconciliation, and that the right wing callers for change are willing to participate in a new coalition government that requires the support of an Islamist party?  Looking back on the 73 years since Israel’s establishment, it has often been the extremists on either side who have advanced their political ideology.  At least for now, it is the moderates who have taken the reins and are setting the tone.  It is a welcome and refreshing change.

Selection of Naphtali Bennet as Prime Minister:
No political pundit in his wildest dreams could have predicted this development before the election: the appointment of a prime minister from a small, extreme right-wing party to lead a coalition that includes two left wing and one Arab party. His Yamina party almost did not pass the threshold to enter the Knesset and has only 7 seats in the Knesset, yet their leader is the proposed candidate for prime minister.

Despite having won 17 seats to Bennet’s 7, his new partner Lapid was willing to forgo the tradition of having the leader of the party with the most votes appointed as prime minister. He ascertained that for Bennet to survive the “perceived desertion” of his home camp, he would have to show a significant measure of Yamina’s stature and influence within the new government. It is rare to find Lapid’s gesture of pragmatic generosity in Israeli politics.

Bennet will also be the first prime minister who wears a yarmulke. It will be interesting to observe what path he takes, and how he reconciles his fervent right-wing religious outlook with the need to work cooperatively with left wing secularists and Arab Islamists on the other side of the political spectrum.

The battle over membership of the committee for the judicial appointments:
In the coalition discussions it was agreed and signed that Labor leader Meirav Michaeli would be one of the two appointed MK’s on the committee which selects new judges.  However, Ayelet Shaked of Bennet’s Yemina Party insisted that in addition to being a minister, she would be appointed to the committee instead of Michaeli. Shaked was willing to torpedo the formation of an alternative government if her demand was not met. The situation of two high profile women competing to be members of an appointment judicial committee contrasts sharply with the reality in all neighboring Arab – Muslim countries, which have neither an independent judiciary nor permit such opportunities for women. In the end a compromise solution was reached between Shaked and Michaeli.

The “change bloc” actors and their relation to Netanyahu:
One might note that the right-wing participants Bennet, Saar, Liberman, Ganz and Lapid, who since the last elections have opposed participating in any government led by Netanyahu, have all worked with him closely in the past, such that their anti-Netanyahu stance is based on personal firsthand experience.

Gaza battle:
Even though over 4,000 rockets were fired into Israel by Hamas and Israeli planes pummeled Gaza in return, events relating to the very recent 11-day conflict with Gaza has been relegated to the back pages of the newspapers. It is a comforting relief that those hostilities have for the most part become a non-event. The process of investing time and effort to reach a conciliation with a ruthless autocratic neighbor is useless.  Hamas prefers keeping its citizens poor and inadequately served by diverting resources such as cement and money to build rocket arsenals and launchers which are placed in civilian surroundings. They fully know that if they fire enough rockets upon Israel, they are putting their own civilians at risk because Israel will have no choice but to retaliate, causing the civilian population further despair.  Even Israel’s other arch-enemies, Hezbollah and Iran, who are allies of Hamas, see the idiocy of Hamas’ actions and care enough for the welfare of their citizens so as not to provoke Israel into retaliation.

Israel has a new President:
In addition to selecting a prime minister, Israel also has a new President.  While it is mostly a ceremonial role, the president has some political tasks. It is the president, for example, who selects the candidate to try to form a government post-election. Parallel to the crisis of trying to form a new government, the conclusion of President Rivlin’s term of office mandated the election of a new president by secret vote in the Knesset. There were two excellent candidates, Isaac Herzog and Miriam Peretz.  Perez is an Israeli educator who became a lecturer on Zionism and living with loss after the deaths of two of her sons during their service in the Israel Defense Forces. She is a recipient of the Israeli Prize in 2018 for lifetime achievement.  Herzog has participated in the Israeli political scene for decades in many capacities including being former head of the Labor party.  His most recent position was as international head of the Jewish Agency.  He is hardworking, articulate, tolerant, and widely respected for his basic human decency. There is every reason to believe that the Knesset members made a good choice, and that Herzog will make an excellent President, on both the local and international scene.

The only predictable aspect of Israeli politics is its unpredictability. Until recently, it appeared as if the political scene was at an impossible impasse. There had been 4 inconclusive elections, with a fifth one appearing to be imminent.  The country had never been more polarized between Jews and Arabs, right and left, and religious and secular. Now, just over the horizon is an opportunity for cooperative change. In what psychologists term a parallel process, if a change government is formed and succeeds in functioning despite the disparate ideologies within it, so too can the various factions comprising Israel’s tapestry, collaborate with one another.

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.
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