(July 8, 2021 / JNS) I have previously written my cynical take on Israel’s elections. They were heavy on personality and light on substance, and it is easy to predict that the current government will fall quickly under the weight of its own ideological contradictions.
The primary purpose of the current coalition was, and remains, removing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from power. Netanyahu served as prime minister for longer than anyone before him. He is a singularly talented politician and, if it turns out that he has served his last day in the prime minister’s office, then he will have left behind a legacy of significant accomplishments for the State of Israel.
Despite this, or perhaps because of it, a national obsession has developed around his rule. Israel has reached a point where neither Netanyahu’s supporters nor opponents are able to objectively analyze his leadership or actions. No matter how brilliant, how committed or how capable, it is highly problematic for any democracy to have a leader become the sole focus of public debate.
There are those who honestly believed that Israel would have failed as a democracy, and potentially as a state itself, had Netanyahu won another term. And there are those who genuinely think that Bibi—and only Bibi—can lead.
Israel will go on without him, even if it is difficult to imagine the country without the man who has dominated its politics for 12 years. Israel survived when David Ben-Gurion left, when Menachem Begin left, when Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated and when Ariel Sharon suffered an incapacitating stroke, and it will survive the generation of leaders who will follow Netanyahu, beginning with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.
The new Bennett-Yair Lapid government makes little sense on paper. It’s a combination of right-wingers, left-wingers, religious Jews, secular Jews and an Islamist Arab party (Ra’am) most closely aligned with the far left on security and with the ultra-Orthodox on social issues. Bennett must find a way to navigate all those differences with the slimmest of majorities, 61-59. Using even the most generous analysis, the coalition may very well quickly fall, sending Israel back to the divisive business of electoral politics.
But what if it doesn’t?
If this coalition can defy the odds and govern effectively, then it might be the harbinger of a new political reality. The entire world, Israel included, has reached a point of ideological absolutism. The ideological poles are further apart than at any time in recent memory; those on opposite sides of the spectrum can barely maintain friendships or have a civil conversation, let alone run a country together. But in Israel, the right-wing, religious, former head of the Yesha Council (the umbrella organization of Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria) is leading a coalition that cannot stand without the participation of Israel’s most left-wing and devoutly secular party (Meretz).
When the government was announced, and it became clear that Israel would have its first religious Zionist, kipah-wearing leader, right-wing religious Jerusalem mourned, while left-wing secular Tel Aviv celebrated. This can largely be attributed to the horror (or euphoria) of Netanyahu leaving office, but it also speaks to the confusion and uncertainty over what this government might be.
It is still entirely unclear. However, if the coalition is successful in managing COVID-19, bringing down housing prices, improving the economy and healing some of the divisions between Jewish and Arab Israel, among many other issues, known and unknown, it could have an impact on how Israelis of different ideologies and backgrounds view one another.
At present, right-wing and left-wing Israelis tend to see the other’s worldview as an existential threat. The right and left governing together could change that. It is very unlikely that there will be breakthroughs on major issues related to the Palestinians or the fundamental divisions between religion and state. But working constructively together for the first time in a generation would hopefully bring the right and left to a point where they can acknowledge that political opponents, extremists aside, are not looking to harm the country.
Israeli Arabs generally view the government with suspicion at best and outright hostility at worst.
If Ra’am can achieve results on economic development, education and bringing down the rate of crime in Arab communities, it would begin to remove the view of many Arab Israelis that they have nothing to gain from working with the Jewish majority and fully participating in the political process. And if Jewish Israelis see an Arab party playing a constructive role in governing the country, it could lessen some of their trepidation related to the goals of Arab political activism and leadership.
I personally don’t believe this coalition will last. However, despite my strong misgivings about at least half of its parties, I hope it does. Israel has had enough elections. Israel has had enough of the perpetual divisions between right and left, religious and secular, and Jewish and Arab.
Israel has never had a government quite like this. Previous governments—left-wing, right-wing and unity alike—have succeeded in building the world’s sole Jewish state into an economic and military power, but they have not managed to heal Israel’s internal divisions. Maybe this one can. The opposition should be vocal and demanding, but this government has the backing of a majority of the Knesset, making it as legitimate as any other. It has earned the opportunity to prove what it can do.
Justin Pozmanter is a publishing adjunct at The MirYam Institute. Justin is a former foreign-policy adviser to Israeli politician and national-security expert Tzachi Hanegbi. Before making aliyah, he worked at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and practiced law.
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