IN THE MEDIA
The new Israeli government – AIJAC’s Ahron Shapiro on ABC Radio
Jun 15, 2021
AIJAC’s Ahron Shapiro discussed the new Israeli government on ABC News Radio with Glen Bartholomew, 14 June 2021.
Glen Bartholomew: Well, Israel does have a new prime minister, but outgoing leader Benjamin Netanyahu is vowing to return in what was a pretty rowdy session in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset. It voted to improve a new coalition government made up of left-wing Arab centrist and right-wing parties with the ultra-nationalist Naftali benefit Bennett Rada as its prime minister, but centrist politician Yair Lapid to take over in two years time. But a defiant Benjamin Netanyahu is vowing to stay on as opposition leader and topple the coalition and return to power. Ahron Shapiro has been watching the Israeli political scene unfold with great interest in the last few years. He’s a senior policy analyst with the Australia, Israel and Jewish Affairs Council and joins us with Melbourne. Ahron, good morning. How significant a moment is this in Israeli politics?
Ahron Shapiro: I think it’s extraordinarily significant because the Netanyahu era, which lasted very long, seems to have at least temporarily come to a close, we can say, and it’s allowed the country to turn a new page. Well, there’s hardly a consensus that this is a good thing. It does get Israel into a new track diplomatically, economically and politically. And it’s kind of exciting.
Glen Bartholomew: It will be exciting and I suspect in the Knesset in the weeks and months to come, that’s certainly an end of an era. Many are saying, although we have seen this before, Benjamin Netanyahu, the longest-serving prime minister, 15 years overall, of course, he’s come back from defeat in the past. How did it come to this? Naftali is a former chief of staff and Netanyahu, who’s obviously turned on him, I think about four former allies of his defected to the other side. Does Benjamin Netanyahu have himself to blame for how this has turned out?
Ahron Shapiro: Well, I would say so, but it’s a long process. You know, it started out really with the defection of Avigdor Lieberman of the Israel Beiteinu party who decided that he would no longer cooperate with Netanyahu and work to bring him down. And you know what? This man, Lieberman, he said, I’m going to make the government without Netanyahu and without the ultra-Orthodox. And he has gotten everything he wanted. It took him a long time, but he got it. The others came on board, gradually. You had to Gideon Saar of the New Hope party, which was a break away from the Likud. And then Naftali Bennett was probably the puzzle piece that was hardest to get because most of his career was spent hammering Netanyahu to his right, through would be very hard for him to flank him to the left and center. And that’s what he’s done here, which was not easy to do politically. And it’s very risky if Bennett’s project fails – this little experiment of the unity government – Bennett could be banished from politics permanently.
Glen Bartholomew: Yeah, the new prime minister Bennett has their work cut out for him just to govern the right political parties from across the spectrum, as you say, including in our party, all united in opposition to Netanyahu. Will that be enough, though, to keep them together?
Ahron Shapiro: Well, the fact that this government is fragile and it’s made up of smaller parties than the Likud, the Likud is a big party in the Knesset, the largest, and it’s been the anchor of all these governments. And now you have these small parties coming together. It’s the government, I call it the government of the week, that they’re all, you know, because they’re eight parties and they’re all small. None of them have an interest to go to elections again any time soon. So they all have to sort of prop each other up. They are ideologically diverse and so they may not be able to restrain themselves from speaking out on things that are important then. And that may make problems. It’s very fragile. And Netanyahu will be right there at their heels trying to hammer at them and to find weaknesses. And he’s very good at this. He’s been in the opposition before, effectively. So as long as he’s the threat, they’ll probably want to stay together even more. So that’s the question is whether Netanyahu will remain as the head of the Likud. He is good again at positioning himself in a place where he can move the votes around in the primaries and come out ahead. But the longer that you separate Netanyahu from the title of prime minister, the weaker he’ll be inside of his party and the louder the voices will get to replace him.
Glen Bartholomew: Yeah, I guess the party might think, listen, this is the only thing keeping that group together. Let’s take him away and see what happens to them then. Now, Benjamin Netanyahu has told politicians that his replacement, Bennett, has no international credibility and will be weak on national security. Is there any firm basis for that claim?
Ahron Shapiro: No, look at Netanyahu himself was in that position in the 1990s. So it’s a bit hypocritical to call out Naftali Bennett for being a newcomer to this position. He was the defense minister for a while and he served in ministerial roles. He’s not new to politics. And he’s you know, I think Netanyahu is a bit worried that Bennett is a very charismatic person, the truth is and he speaks really well in English. He may remind him of a younger Netanyahu in some ways, in a positive way. So I think that Netanyahu would like to believe that Bennett is weak in certain areas. But he certainly needs to be given a chance to prove himself. And I think right now, his attempts to mend ties with the Biden administration is a positive sign.
Glen Bartholomew: Meanwhile, Netanyahu claimed election fraud and says he’s determined to return to power. But did I hear this morning that one of the items on the agenda of this new government is term limits, perhaps proposing an eight-year term limit for those in the prime ministership? So that might have implications for him.
Ahron Shapiro: Yes, well, they talk about things. What they… I think what people are trying to do is avoid making a law that targets Netanyahu personally, that wouldn’t be right and there’d be a lot of problems with that. But they are looking at the ways that Israel fell into the trap of political stagnation and they want to avoid that in the future. So they are trying to learn the lessons that got us to this place and try to apply them in a way. But will Netanyahu be affected? Possibly and perhaps understandably so, considering who’s going to be legislating these laws.
Glen Bartholomew: Naftali Bennett, an ultra-nationalist, said to be opposed to a Palestinian state. So the two-state solution and a peace deal not on the cards anytime soon?
Ahron Shapiro: Well, I have to disagree with you there. If you go back to Naftali Bennett, he wrote a piece for Newsweek in 2020 as defense minister. And at the time, he gave support to a two-state solution under certain circumstances. He was commenting at the time on the Trump peace plan. What he said is that the devil is in the details. So he said that really in principle that the Palestinians should be able to have a state, but you have to say what kind of state that will be. You know, what sort of you know, what would happen if Hamas were to take over? These contingencies have to be considered. And you can’t just put a blanket statement down. He wants to know what that state will be like.
Glen Bartholomew: Let’s see what happens. The devil will be in the detail and it will be a very interesting and perhaps, as you say, exciting time in Israeli politics. Not that it’s been dull in recent times, Haron. You’ve been following this for us for a couple of years. There are about four elections or so. Thanks for joining us again this morning.
Ahron Shapiro: My pleasure. And I hope we won’t have to talk about new elections any time soon.
Glen Bartholomew: I’m sure you think that. Ahron Shapiro, the Australia, Israel and Jewish Affairs Council, looking at a bit of an historic day in Israel with the end of the Netanyahu prime ministership. And then that has happened before, of course.