Like No Other
Jun 28, 2021 | Amotz Asa-El
Israel’s uniquely diverse new government
It’s a political specimen even Israel has never seen before. After having invented the idea of rotational government, and then perfected it with the idea of a “parity” coalition – whereby two blocs in the government each have a veto over all decisions – Israel’s 13th prime minister is the head of a minuscule Knesset faction that won barely 5% of the vote.
The rotation part means that Naftali Bennett, who heads the Yamina (“Rightward”) party, has become prime minister while his ally, Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”) leader Yair Lapid, has taken over as foreign minister. However, in August 2023 the two will swap positions, the way Labor’s Shimon Peres and Likud’s Yitzhak Shamir did way back in 1986 under Israel’s first “rotation” deal.
The parity part of the deal means that Bennett and another right-wing party, Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope, will control half of the Government’s 12-person inner cabinet, while the coalition’s six other parties will make do with the remaining six seats. This is despite the fact that Bennett and Sa’ar collectively won a mere 13 of the 62 seats gained in the March election by the eight parties making up the governing coalition. Parity means that each of the new Government’s two blocs can veto any of its proposed decisions. This is the same consensus-building mechanism that was supposed to guide the outgoing coalition between Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud and Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party, under the deal they reached in May 2020.
This already fragile structure has become even more shaky due to defections. Prime Minister Bennett’s faction won a mere seven of the Knesset’s 120 seats, yet that number shrank even further when one of Yamina’s lawmakers announced his opposition to Bennett’s move and voted against the new Government.
That left the new coalition with a mere 61 seats, yet this already minimal majority shrank even further when a member of the Ra’am party abstained in the vote establishing the Government. Israel’s 36th Government thus won the Knesset’s approval with a razor-thin 60:59 majority that technically ended a two-year-long political deadlock, featuring four inconclusive elections, as well as unseated Netanyahu after a 12-year premiership.
One change that the new Government has already contributed is in its style.
In recent years, Netanyahu had increasingly become a political soloist who saw little need to collaborate with or consult colleagues – he even failed to discuss it with any other ministers when he negotiated and finalised peace deals with four Arab governments last year. The new Government is the antithesis of this attitude, a collective of equals in which no one can do anything on their own.
This was demonstrated early on when, two days after the new Government was sworn in, it had to decide whether to allow right-wing activists to march through east Jerusalem at a time when Hamas threatened to respond to this march with renewed rocket attacks on Israeli cities.
Bennett tackled the situation by consulting Foreign Minister Lapid and the new Internal Security Minister, Labor’s Omer Bar-Lev, a threesome that represents, respectively, the Right, the Centre and the Left. The three decided to allow but reroute the march, and more important than the decision itself was the dynamic of teamwork, which will need to be this Government’s hallmark if it is to endure.
It was in that same spirit that Bennett announced that the Government’s security cabinet will meet every week. This is a departure from Netanyahu’s much less frequent convening of that forum which, by law, is entrusted with making policy and taking decisions concerning military and diplomatic affairs.
For the 49-year-old Bennett, a hi-tech entrepreneur who became a millionaire at age 33, such consultative managerial norms likely come naturally – but in his difficult political situation they are also an imperative.
Not only does Bennett lack the authority of past prime ministers who headed large parliamentary factions, even the largest party in the new governing coalition, Lapid’s Yesh Atid, is only a midsized faction of 17 lawmakers, as compared to the Likud’s 30. The coalition’s other six factions range in size from four to eight lawmakers, meaning it lacks an obvious centre of gravity. The only way it can harmonise will be through daily compromises.
This task would be daunting among any eight political parties, but in this configuration it will be doubly challenging. Its members range from the Islamist Mansour Abbas of the Ra’am party, to Bennett, a former head of the Judea and Samaria Settlement Council, and from the ultra-dovish Nitzan Horowitz of Meretz, who is the new health minister, to Yisrael Beteinu’s (“Israel is Our Home”) hawkish populist Avigdor Lieberman, the new finance minister.
Lapid and Bennett thus devised a formula whereby the new Government will make do with maintaining the status quo on prickly issues like settlements and peace talks, and instead focus on those things the coalition’s collection of political antagonists can do together.
The eight party leaders – Bennett, Sa’ar and Lieberman from the Right, Lapid and Defence Minister Gantz from the Centre, Labor and Meretz from the Left, along with Arab Islamist Abbas – believe this can actually add up to quite a bit. Together they can build new schools, hospitals and roads, they can reinvent the public transport system, and they can launch programs to fight rampant crime in Arab towns, to mention but a few of the issues that they plan to tackle jointly.
It is a breathtaking undertaking, an experiment in political re-engineering. Like so many things in Israel, it was born as an improvisation, but may yet prove an inspiration, particularly for a society that over the past two years has seen political tensions rise to levels Israel had not seen since the 1980s.
On issues like health and transport, whatever the new Government manages to achieve will likely be agreeable to virtually all Israelis. On other issues, however, it is likely to irk important parts of Israeli society – especially in two realms: religious pluralism and legal reform.
Glaringly missing from the June 14 traditional photo in which the new Government posed with President Reuven Rivlin (who will be succeeded in July by President-Elect Isaac Herzog) were any of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox politicians. Having allied themselves fully with Netanyahu, the ultra-Orthodox parties are now firmly in the opposition.
The Government includes four secularist parties vehemently opposed to religious coercion and the power of ultra-Orthodox rabbis over issues like marriage, conversion and kosher certification – Yesh Atid, Yisrael Beiteinu, Labor and Meretz. In addition, it includes five modern-Orthodox ministers, including Bennett himself, who have their own disagreements with ultra-Orthodoxy. Most symbolically, and for the first time in Israel’s history, a rabbi from the Reform stream of Judaism – Labor’s Gilead Kariv – has entered the Knesset, and is the new Law Committee Chairman.
This does not mean there will be an all-out assault on the political power of the ultra-Orthodox, who make up more than one tenth of Israeli society. The new Government will not discontinue budget support for ultra-Orthodox religious seminaries. It will, however, try to change prayer arrangements at the Western Wall in Jerusalem so as to accommodate non-Orthodox and feminist congregations.
The Bennett-Lapid Government is also expected to break the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly on kosher supervision by allowing some more liberal religious organisations to offer alternative supervision. Lastly, prospective converts to Judaism will likely be allowed to choose their own rabbi rather than be shackled to their city’s official rabbi, who is often ultra-Orthodox, and thus, in the views of many Israelis, overly rigid.
Similarly, the new Government has decided to appoint a judicial commission of inquiry into the Mount Meron disaster, in which 45 ultra-Orthodox pilgrims died in a stampede at a religious festival on April 30. Ultra-Orthodox politicians have resisted the idea, fearing such a panel would reach damning conclusions about the ultra-Orthodox establishment and its role in the tragedy.
On the legal front, the coalition has agreed to split the current role of the Attorney General in two, so that Israel’s chief prosecutor will become a different position from the legal counsel to the government. This seemingly technical change may signal the beginning of a contentious, complex, and slow reform in the delicate relations between Israel’s branches of government.
In opposition, meanwhile, Likud has adopted a strategy of delegitimising the new Government, both politically and socially. Politically, led in this by Netanyahu himself, the Opposition says Bennett defrauded his voters by joining what Netanyahu keeps calling “a government of the Left,” even though Bennett, and also Justice Minister Sa’ar, are actually probably more hawkish on Palestinian issues than Netanyahu.
Socially, members of Likud say the new Government is dominated by affluent Ashkenazim, meaning Jews of European descent. While this is true of Bennett and Lapid personally, that was also true of Netanyahu and Gantz in the last government.
As for the rest of the new Government, a quarter of its members are of non-European background, including Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton (New Hope), who has a PhD in education and whose father was a bus driver who immigrated from Morocco; Minister of Economy Orna Barbivai (Yesh Atid), a retired IDF major-general (Manpower Directorate) and one of seven children born to a mother who came from Iraq; and Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata (Blue and White), who at the age of four was part of the fabled exodus of Jews from Ethiopia to the Jewish state.
There are other interesting elements of this Government, the most eclectic that Israel – and possibly any country – has ever had.
Nine of the new Government’s 27 ministers are women, more than any previous government in Israel. Minorities are also represented on an unprecedented scale, with Meretz’s Essawi Frej, a Muslim from Kafr Qasim, serving as Minister for Regional Cooperation; Druze lawyer Hamad Amar (Yisrael Beiteinu) serving as a second minister in the Ministry of Finance; and Muslim dentist Mansour Abbas (Ra’am) serving as deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office.
Lastly, the new Government also includes, for the first time in Israel’s 73 years, a wheelchair-bound minister; Energy Minister Karine Elharar (Yesh Atid) is a 43-year-old mother of two who suffers from muscular dystrophy.
Together, the members of this cabinet appear potentially equipped to become a melodious multi-voiced choir – provided the conducting is cautious and unpretentious, the audience is patient, and the singers listen to each other even more than they listen to themselves.