Naomi Chazan
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What if Israel’s diverse new coalition faced its disagreements head-on?

The government has begun shoring up its own instability, improving citizens' daily lives, and stopping its member parties from going too far. It can do more
Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid (L), Yamina leader Naftali Bennett (C) and Ra'am leader Mansour Abbas sign a coalition agreement on June 2, 2021. (Courtesy of Ra'am)
Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid (L), Yamina leader Naftali Bennett (C) and Ra'am leader Mansour Abbas sign a coalition agreement on June 2, 2021. (Courtesy of Ra'am)

The Bennett-Lapid unity government has been in office for scarcely a week, and of course its sustainability depends on how its divergent components succeed in managing their obvious differences. Beyond a common desire to bring an end to the increasingly authoritarian and personalized rule of Benjamin Netanyahu and inject some order into the affairs of state, little connects the various factions that make up this coalition. The worldviews, aspirations, styles, and objectives of its constitutive elements vary, as do their interests, needs, and concerns. If anything, the ingrained contradictions the coalition incorporates make it that much harder to induce substantive change.

The key question facing the coalition, therefore, is how to lay the groundwork for effective governance for its successors. This task involves focusing as much on the maintenance of the coalition as on what can be achieved under present conditions. The different parts of the government will have to find ways to work together without compromising their most fundamental beliefs. If they succeed, they will have made a major contribution toward democratic recovery. They would be reinstating some guiding norms and anchoring their institutional platforms, which in turn would improve the prospects for significant structural modifications down the line.

The most immediate and eye-catching aspect of this task — although probably the least important — relates to the area of most apparent governmental consensus: the need to ensure that the previous administration does, indeed, relinquish the reins of power. Much attention has necessarily been drawn to the now leader of the opposition’s failure to evacuate the Prime Minister’s Residence in a timely fashion, to his continued use of “Balfour” to host visiting dignitaries, to his outrageous refusal to brief Naftali Bennett upon his assumption of office, and to widespread rumors regarding the shredding of critical documents prior to the transfer of power.

The media and the public, as well as portions of the coalition, have been obsessed with these stunts, apparently motivated by revenge coupled with a burning need to demonstrate that the old order is over. Yet this attention does little to strengthen the incoming government or to reduce the dangers of a political comeback by an avowedly pained and combative Netanyahu and his ultra-Orthodox allies. For that, arrangements must be made to deal with disagreements.

Three approaches have begun to emerge even in the brief first days of this coalition, none of which has yet coalesced into a clear strategy. The first concentrates on efforts to restore the status quo. In real terms, this means resurrecting institutional procedures and making these more transparent: regular weekly meetings of the government, of the security cabinet, and of the leaders of the eight political parties composing the coalition. It also implies a change in tone: from one that for years was crisis prone to a substantive one that projects a business-like atmosphere, and instills a modicum of predictability and transparency. It also introduces some correctives, most notably the decision to establish a state commission of inquiry into the Mount Meron tragedy and the intention to officially probe the contentious submarine affair. Planned are additional measures, such as changes to basic laws that would impose term limits on prime ministers and deny those indicted on criminal charges from holding public office, as well as other ideas that still need to be ironed out (fortifying the Knesset, delineating clear lines between the three branches of government, updating some other basic laws).

These institutional measures, however, rarely touch on matters of policy. Here, the first week of the incoming government hinted at a preference for more of the same: the continuation of an overriding military orientation on critical security questions, such as Iran, Hamas, Jerusalem, the Palestinian Authority and even the flag parade in Jerusalem. Though there are real disagreements between the partners, they have yet to be discussed in any serious manner. These differences will come to a head sooner rather than later with the commencement of preparations for the adoption of the first state budget in over three years. Budget principles, priorities, and concrete items mirror much more than fiscal necessities; they reflect values, ideologies, and norms. No mere status quo based-orientation will suffice.

A second approach that is beginning to develop revolves around promoting improvements — mostly in civilian fields that evoke little dissent. Newly appointed ministers have begun to air some directions. These include, but are not limited to, increasing public transportation, changing emission standards, curriculum reform, updating pension provisions, modifying government subsidies to small businesses, expanding health allocations, revising electronic carrier agreements, bolstering infrastructure in the Arab community, containing the spread of violence, and instituting new policies to combat gender violence.

Even though many of these plans may fall by the wayside for budgetary reasons, any progress in these areas will go a long way towards boosting citizen security and trust, while simultaneously increasing governmental credibility. But this approach, too, has its limits. It does not really address structural problems of existing inequalities domestically, nor does it confront the real roots of ongoing divisions within Israeli society which relate to identity, religion, and foundational values.

On these issues, a third, multi-layered, change-directed, approach has begun to emerge. The first part of this strategy is a spillover from years in the opposition and focuses directly on prevention. It is most apparent in the ranks of the left segment of the coalition, especially in Meretz, but extends to some portions of Labor and beyond. The present disagreement over the renewal of the prohibition on family reunification is one example. So, too, are attempts to oppose ongoing policies in Gaza, continued construction in the West Bank (the case of the delay in dismantling the illegal settlement in Evyatar is a case in point), the effort to expel asylum-seekers from Eritrea and Sudan, continuous displays of racism and discrimination, persistent religious coercion, thwarting gay rights, ignoring the deeply inequitable effects of neoliberalism, along with, needless to say, constant efforts to end the occupation.

No formula has yet been found to deal with in-house disagreements on these fundamental questions. The vote on the extension of the family reunification prohibitions will in all probability provide a precedent. Abstention or absenteeism will delineate the parameters of coalition cohesion and hence maneuverability. It will also determine the extent of proactivity available to the various parts of the government.

It is not inconceivable that Members of the Knesset from the left, center and right will use the parliamentary tools and visibility at their disposal to suggest changes that have structural significance. These include initiating bills on everything from dealing with the rights of those accused of security violations and the treatment of prisoners to entrenching settler entitlements throughout the West Bank. MKs might also convene conferences in the Knesset on human rights violations, as well as on Jewish sovereignty over the land from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River, or religious pluralism. And, significantly, members will also use their standing to support public activities, as they already have in Sheikh Jarrah and the Old City of Jerusalem.

These actions accentuate the splits within the government. They are much more difficult to manage or to control. One way of handling them is to reach understandings on their frequency and extent. Another is to be much more creative: to identify niches for the promotion of alternatives — in relationships, in practical options, in discourse — which may pave the way for profound structural shifts in the future. Admittedly here the challenges are the most daunting and the possibilities most constrained.

The main approaches to operating within an extraordinarily diverse coalition are not mutually exclusive. They will be used, to some extent or another, by all parties. These constantly moving parts may, however, be both balanced and partially contained. This requires a great deal of good will and coordination — precisely the ingredients that enabled the formation of the new government in the first place. If it succeeds in registering some achievements on procedural and civilian matters, it will be able to extend its durability for quite some time. While the hope for the implementation of more basic changes might have to be postponed for another day, that itself would be a major achievement.

About the Author
Naomi Chazan is professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A former Member of the Knesset and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, she currently serves as a senior research fellow at the Truman Research Institute at the Hebrew University and the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
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