Australia/Israel Review, Featured
Editorial: The Legacy of an Experiment
Jun 28, 2022 | Colin Rubenstein
On June 20, a year and one week after it was sworn in, Israel’s 36th government ended with a press conference. Embattled Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, by now the head of a broken and divided Yamina (“Rightwards”) party, announced that he would be stepping down as PM. He further announced that his coalition partner and current Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, the chairman of the Yesh Atid (“There is a future”) party, would become Israel’s interim PM until an election is held.
Opposition Leader Binyamin Netanyahu was trying to avert this outcome by attempting to build an alternative majority to support his own leadership without an election but, at press time, he looked unlikely to succeed.
In any case, many Israeli analysts and politicians are now referring to the outgoing eight-party ruling coalition as an “experiment” which failed.
However, despite the Government’s short lifespan, there is a case to be made that this political experiment achieved some positive and important outcomes.
The experiment was principally about Israeli identity. The eight different parties in the coalition stood for ideologies covering the entire political spectrum from left to right. They represented at least three of the four major “tribes” of Israeli society, as identified by then President Reuven Rivlin in a famous 2015 speech: secular, national-religious and Arab (the fourth “tribe”, the ultra-orthodox, did not join this Government).
Particularly ground-breaking was the inclusion in the Government of the Islamist Ra’am party. Much has been said about the decision of leader Mansour Abbas to boldly go where no Arab party leader had gone before, and be the first to join an Israeli government. The ongoing implications of this move should not be underestimated.
It legitimised full Israeli-Arab political participation in governance – after all, Abbas was also courted by the right-wing Likud after the last election. It proved yet again that Arab Israelis, who constitute 20% of Israel’s citizens, have the potential to be an important and integral part of the Jewish state, without endangering either Israel’s identity or security. Finally, it offered a model for mutually respectful and beneficial relationships between the state and the Israeli Arab sector of society, including serious, joint efforts to tackle the major problems afflicting that sector, such as crime and inadequate infrastructure investment.
The outgoing Government can also point to other important practical achievements. After almost two years of political paralysis, and four election campaigns in 24 months all ending in deadlock, the Bennett-Lapid Government was able to govern reasonably effectively for that year, including passing a budget in November 2021 – the first in almost four years – and keeping the economy on an even keel.
Following the path laid down by previous PM Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel continued to be at the forefront of the fight against coronavirus, becoming the first country to administer COVID-19 boosters.
In foreign policy, the Government continued the momentum created by the former PM and extended the 2020 Abraham Accords with a series of significant new agreements and meetings with the UAE, Morocco, Bahrain, Egypt and Jordan. Ties with the US Biden Administration improved, and the long shadow of Iran’s terror and sprint toward nuclear weapons led to closer strategic cooperation with the US and important regional allies, spearheaded by Saudi Arabia.
A final point often missed by analysts is that this Government’s rise and fall in fact provides evidence for the strength and vibrancy of Israel’s democracy.
While there has been criticism of the divisive behaviour and illiberal rhetoric of some actors in the Israeli political system, including Netanyahu’s verbal attacks on the media and law enforcement, overall, Israel’s unique democratic system represents the diversity of a highly complex society well – admittedly at the cost of some worrying political instability. Furthermore, democratic transitions are routine, constitutional, and never contested. Israel has never experienced anything like the Jan. 6 Capitol invasion crisis in the US, or former US President Donald Trump’s ongoing claims that his supposed victory in the 2020 election was stolen from him.
Thus, it is thoroughly ironic when Israel’s enemies gloat over its supposed political weakness, as Hamas spokesperson Fawzi Barhoum recently did, declaring that “The collapse of the Bennett government is a testament to the fragility and weakness of the Zionist entity.” The last elections held in the Palestinian Authority (PA) were in 2006, and they resulted in a bloody Hamas takeover of Gaza. Since then, internal rivalry has only intensified.
What Barhoum cannot comprehend is that, by making sure state leaders can be replaced in an orderly and legitimate fashion, Israel’s well-functioning democracy limits corruption, nepotism, civil strife and abuse of power – problems which severely plague both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas-run Gaza.
Obviously, sustained political continuity is also important, so there is every reason to hope that the upcoming election – if that is what indeed eventuates – leads to a long overdue period of stable majority government.
This would allow the next Israeli government to devote more sustained effort and attention to tackling Israel’s multiple serious challenges, including: numerous necessary domestic reforms; the ongoing threats from Iranian proxies in Lebanon, Syria, and Gaza; confronting and containing Iran’s dangerous and illegal nuclear program; pushing back against ugly and discriminatory demonisation of the Jewish state by both the broken UN system and increasingly ideological NGOs; preserving the possibility of resuming negotiations towards a two-state outcome if the Palestinians decide to reverse course and come to the table; and further developing the almost limitless economic, cultural and political potential of the Abraham Accords.
But while hoping for a period of stable governance, there is also good reason to anticipate that Israel’s next government will also preserve some of the breakthrough achievements of its predecessor, in terms of inclusive cross-party comity, an enhanced place for the Arab minority in Israeli governance, and a focus on shared goals and interests rather than differences.