Israel’s improbable “change government” has been in power exactly one year this week, a landmark that is primarily a tribute to how its various leaders’ contempt for former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu marginally exceeds their antipathy for one another. The government is a coalition of two blocs: three rightist parties, managed by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, the leader of the Yamina party, representing Land of Israel hard-liners; and four center and left parties, managed by Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, the founder of the Yesh Atid party, which appeals to Tel Aviv’s bourgeois intelligentsia. The two blocs, with the support of a moderate conservative Islamist party led by Mansour Abbas, whose explicit aim was to increase investment in Arab-Israeli communities, initially held a bare majority of sixty-one seats in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. According to an agreed-upon rotation plan, Bennett and Lapid were scheduled to switch jobs in the summer of 2023; all leaders had agreed to avoid tackling the most divisive issues, especially those dealing with the occupation of Palestine. But a vote in the Knesset on the night of June 6th suggests that division is inescapable and that the government’s run may come to an end, in months, if not weeks. Israel would then face a fifth general election in three years and, once again, as the Haaretz editor, Aluf Benn, told me, “the campaign will largely be about Bibi, who remains the dominant figure in our politics.”
What has the change government changed? To judge from recent international headlines, not much. Hamas, which launched more than four thousand rockets at Israeli cities a year ago, still rules Gaza, which Israel has kept under siege. The World Bank worries that, despite signs of recovery last year, the Palestinian Authority’s fiscal situation remains “highly challenging.” The U.S. State Department offered to convene a summit with Jordan and Egypt, which would have bolstered the P.A.’s diplomatic standing, but Israel reportedly rejected the idea. In East Jerusalem, during Ramadan, Israeli police forces and Palestinians clashed at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, known to Jews as the Temple Mount. After Ramadan ended, amid continued disturbances in the West Bank, the Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was shot and killed, likely by an Israeli soldier, according to a Washington Post analysis. (The Israeli government walked back an initial statement that Abu Akleh had likely been killed by a Palestinian gunman.) The funeral compounded the horror: in an effort to keep pallbearers from carrying her casket into the street, presumably to keep the procession from turning into a mass demonstration, Israeli forces created a grotesque melee during which the casket was almost dropped. The United Nations data shows that from June, 2021, to May, 2022, seventy-nine West Bank Palestinians died in conflict-related confrontations with Israelis. The government is currently planning to move about thirteen hundred Palestinians from their homes in Masafer Yatta, in the South Hebron Hills, to make way for a military-training zone.
Netanyahu’s strategic policies live on, too. The government has continued a bombing campaign on Iranian convoys in Syria, and so to engage with Vladimir Putin, who backstops the Syrian regime, Bennett, turning aside direct appeals from Volodymyr Zelensky, has affected a kind of neutrality in the Ukraine war. The government has capitalized on Netanyahu’s Abraham Accords and concluded a ten-billion-dollar free-trade deal with the United Arab Emirates. Like Netanyahu, Bennett and Lapid have resisted, albeit more tactfully, Washington’s eagerness to renew the Iran nuclear deal, insisting, as the Likud leader has, on the need to find a “good” agreement, and there are still reports tying Israel to the assassination of Iranian military officers and nuclear scientists, and that it is preparing contingency plans for a preëmptive strike against Iranian nuclear installations. (Iran, for its part, is removing twenty-seven U.N. surveillance cameras from key nuclear facilities.) And Bennett and Lapid are still working with the U.S. to create a strategic alliance against Iran with Egypt and the Gulf states, implicitly aiming to include Saudi Arabia.
The change government has had its better moments. Netanyahu, furthering nakedly political ends, delayed the passage of a national budget for more than three years, depleting funds in the public sector. Last November, the change government passed a budget specifically allocating new funds for transportation, health care, law enforcement (especially in poorer Arab-Israeli cities, where crime rates are high), and education. It also nudged ultra-Orthodox schools for boys to teach core subjects, including English and math, which eighty-four per cent of the secondary students in those schools did not learn, according to a 2020 report. Economic growth surpassed eight per cent in 2021 and is expected to run at more than five per cent this year. And the government has raised the number of work permits for Gazans to twenty thousand, marginally improving conditions in the Strip.
Arguably, though, the change government’s most transformational moment was its swearing-in: the sight of annexationists and two-staters saluting one another as the guardians of democratic citizenship, and sitting with an Arab-Israeli party that was wielding real power for the first time. The government could certainly take credit for a change of mood, at least in its early months, after two years of Netanyahu’s installing sycophants and relentlessly attacking the judiciary, the press, retired military leaders, and élites. “This government has been a contraceptive,” Amnon Abramovich, a TV commentator on Israel’s Channel 12, told me. “It aimed to prevent a fifth, sixth, or seventh stalemate election, or one in which Bibi finally wins his sixty-one-plus seats and becomes Viktor Orbán the Second.”
Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s trial, for fraud, bribery, and breach of trust, plods on; even more awkward for the former Prime Minister, a state commission will investigate alleged conflicts of interest, between 2009 and 2016, from procurement deals, under his government, for naval vessels and submarines with the German company Thyssenkrupp. (Netanyahu’s national-security adviser until 2011, Uzi Arad, told me that he had warned Netanyahu about “an obvious conflict of interest.”) Nevertheless, Netanyahu is hardly fading in a nation where, according to a 2018 study, sixty-four per cent of young Jews identify as “right-wing.” Netanyahu’s opposition bloc, the “national camp,” which draws support from ultra-Orthodox communities and settler zealots, among others, now has, by some estimates, fifty-four seats in the Knesset, and most recent polls have it creeping up to a projected sixty, if an election were to be held.
The change government, for its part, has been struggling to hold ranks. In early April, the coalition was reduced to sixty seats, when one of Bennett’s allies defected—because, she complained, the left-wing Health Minister, Nitzan Horowitz, had refused to prohibit leavened bread from being brought into hospitals on Passover. (Another Yamina member had defected even before the government launched, which is why its majority was sixty-one in the first place, not sixty-two.) After the violence at Al-Aqsa, a number of Arab-Israeli coalition members announced an unwillingness to continue, but then relented. The loss of a majority left the balance of power in the Knesset in the hands of the Joint List, an alliance of three Arab parties, which has six seats, led by Ayman Odeh, a progressive strongly identified with Palestinian civil and national rights. Odeh told me that he would “not want to hasten Netanyahu’s return,” and would potentially act as a coalition ally on social issues. But his alliance would certainly not act to support the current government, which, Odeh believes, undermines Palestinian Arab standing—in Israel or the occupied territories.
Which brings us to last week’s vote in the Knesset. The issue, though hardly inconsequential, initially seemed routine: the rightist Justice Minister, Gideon Sa’ar, sought to pass legislation to extend Israeli criminal and some civil law to settlers in occupied territory, provisions that were first included in “emergency” legislation after the 1967 war and have been renewed every five years since. They mean that settlers, unlike Palestinian residents under occupation, pay income tax and qualify for public-health insurance and subsidized mortgages. And, unlike the Palestinians, the settlers are patrolled by the police, not the Army. The police, it must be noted, regularly fail to properly investigate Palestinian residents’ complaints of harassment by settlers; the human-rights organization Yesh Din reports that more than thirteen hundred such complaints have been filed since 2005, and that more than twelve hundred of these were closed without an indictment being filed.
Arab-Israeli coalition members could hardly be expected to back the renewal, but that is what Sa’ar demanded. He may have anticipated that Netanyahu would urge his bloc to vote against the renewal, preferring to see the settlers, who will always return to him, be left temporarily unprotected, if this meant that the government might fall. Yet Sa’ar warned that the vote, on what for years had been a routine measure, would “determine whether the coalition will exist or not.” The vote was predictable: the two Yamina defectors would not support it, effectively joining Netanyahu’s bid to topple the government. The Joint List also voted against. And so, finally, did two Arab-Israeli coalition members, including one from Abbas’s party, the rest of whom absented themselves. The measure failed, fifty-eight to fifty-two, after which yet another Yamina member announced that he was headed out the door.
The coalition can, and apparently will, bring up the measure for a second vote. Sa’ar emphasized that the current renewal runs until the end of June. Nevertheless, the contradictions within the change government are showing. Sa’ar is one of the rightist leaders who joined it not necessarily because they disagreed with national-camp principles; he has a complicated history with Netanyahu, and he made it clear last year that an indicted person should not become Prime Minister. It wasn’t business, it was personal. Sa’ar now seems to be signalling that he wants to get back to business.
He has reportedly been in negotiations with Netanyahu’s party to serve in a national-camp government, possibly as the Prime Minister in a rotation agreement like the one Bennett and Lapid made. Sa’ar adamantly denies the reports, yet his warning that the coalition’s existence may be in doubt should be taken as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Before the vote, a Jerusalem Post poll found that sixty-nine per cent of Israelis “do not want an Arab party in the government next time.” “Sa’ar is simply scapegoating Arab members of the coalition to try to position himself for what’s next,” Aluf Benn told me. Indeed, the Justice Minister’s speculated gambit reflects how mainstream national-camp ideas have become. In March, the Knesset resurrected a law denying Israelis the right to naturalize Palestinian spouses from the West Bank. Meanwhile, the government approved more than four thousand previously planned settlement housing units in the West Bank.