Wed, Jun 2, 2021

FAST THINKING: Israel after Bibi

Fast Thinking by Atlantic Council

Related Experts: Carmiel Arbit, David Daoud, Shalom Lipner,

Elections Israel Politics & Diplomacy

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seen during the the 2016 Genesis Prize award-ceremony in Jerusalem on June 23, 2016. Photo via REUTERS/Amir Cohen.

JUST IN

Bibi might finally get the boot. A group of Israeli political parties led by right-winger Naftali Bennett and centrist Yair Lapid announced today that it would form a new government, potentially ending the twelve-year reign of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The “Change Government,” which must still be confirmed by a vote in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, would bring together a broad array of Netanyahu foes from the far left to the far right. What can we expect from a Prime Minister Bennett? Can a new government really end the political chaos of recent years? What tricks does Netanyahu still have up his sleeve? Our experts forecast what’s next.

Today’s expert reaction courtesy of

  • Shalom Lipner (@shalomlipner): Jerusalem-based nonresident senior fellow in the Middle East programs and former advisor to seven Israeli prime ministers
  • Carmiel Arbit (@c_arbit): Nonresident senior fellow in the Middle East programs and former director of strategic engagement at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee

IT AIN’T OVER ’TIL IT’S OVER

  • After four elections in two and a half years, this new government will aspire “to inject a degree of stability into Israel’s tumultuous politics,” Shalom says.
  • But to actually enter office, it still needs to maneuver around Netanyahu. “He has limited, but highly disruptive, options to derail a ‘Change Government,’” David says of the prime minister.
  • With a Knesset vote to approve the new government not likely until next week, Netanyahu could use the time to try to “exploit” the coalition’s “ideological fault lines” and peel votes away, David tells us. “Alternatively, many [coalition members] could succumb to the threats and harassment directed against them by hardcore Netanyahu supporters, whom the premier refuses to calm,” he adds.

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TEAM OF RIVALS

  • This government “would be the most ideologically diverse in Israel’s history,” David says, and thus cannot mount a grand ideological project. Shalom says the coalition has “pledged to focus their efforts narrowly on a modest ‘technical’ agenda” including “restoring effective governance and civil discourse to the country.”
  • "Most remarkably,” Carmiel notes, “Arab legislators will have a proper seat at the table not only supporting a government from the inside, but also championing the needs of their constituents."
  • That said, Carmiel points out that Bennett, a longtime champion of expanding Israeli settlements in the West Bank, is unlikely to give concessions to Palestinians. “While the international community lines up to write political obituaries for Netanyahu, they will be appalled to discover that Bennett shares equally—if not more—troubling views [with] his predecessor and one-time mentor,” she says. "He may support greater autonomy in the West Bank, but he is unlikely to pursue a two-state solution."
  • But David argues that fears of a right-wing government may be “overblown” simply because Bennett must retain support from the left, right, and center, including Arab parties, in order to keep the coalition together. Preventing the incoming government’s dissolution and a fifth round of elections will likely be Bennett's priority—both because it would be inherently disruptive for Israel and because it risks bringing Netanyahu back to power. “Therefore, a ‘Change Government’ will likely maintain the status quo,” David says. “It may fail to make significant advances on the critical issues, but its fragility will constrain it from doing harm.”

WASHINGTON IS WATCHING

  • The recent Israel-Hamas hostilities inflamed a growing partisan rift in Washington, with many Democrats voicing increasing criticism of Israeli policies and actions. “A new Israeli government has the opportunity to reset the relationship, particularly with Congress,” Carmiel says, noting Netanyahu’s particular closeness with Republicans. “And if Lapid is foreign minister, his moderate views will be greeted warmly across the Beltway.
  • Much will depend, Carmiel says, on how Israel deals with the Palestinians. But what about the other major flashpoint in Israel-US relations: negotiations to revive the nuclear deal with Iran? Carmiel expects the potential new government to roughly maintain Netanyahu’s course. “They will continue to push for greater international oversight of Iran's nuclear programs, and urge the US and international community to address Tehran’s ballistic-missile program and support for terror groups,” she says. “At the same time, they will continue to respond aggressively to what Israel views as Iranian provocations—be it on the ground in Syria or in the cyber world.”  

RAYS OF LIGHT OR STORMY SKIES?

  • Carmiel says Israel may now experience something similar to what the United States witnessed when President Joe Biden took over from Donald Trump. “If Israelis are lucky, after years of hysteria, they will be rewarded with the same technocratic tranquility that has returned to Washington,” she tells us. “If they are less lucky, the calm will be short-lived.”
  • Who could break the calm? Netanyahu, who rather than decamping to Israel’s equivalent of Mar-a-Lago will likely be leading the opposition in the Knesset. “Forcing debate on questions such as the fate of the settlement enterprise, the role of Israel's judiciary, and the place of religion in public life, the government's opponents will test its endurance relentlessly, hoping to provoke its implosion,” Shalom says.
  • What we do know, Shalom adds, is that we’re now in uncharted waters: “This is a paradoxical moment for Israelis, full of both hope and apprehension, as the country stands poised to embark on an experiment with a new kind of politics.” 

Further reading