Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset on Jan.
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Western democracies produce all kinds of governments: left or right, centrist, populist. But the new government that is taking shape in Israel defies categorization. If the negotiations go as planned, Israel could soon be led by a religious nationalist prime minister backed by a centrist dealmaker backed by Arab and left-wing parties.
American liberals are sure to celebrate the departure of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who over the past decade has become a symbol of the Democratic Party’s split with Israel. It would be a mistake, however, to interpret this as a rejection of the right-wing political and security orientation of Israel, which the new government is likely to adhere to.
The unusual coalition comes together after Israelis have voted four times since 2019, most recently in March. Although his security policy received widespread support, Netanyahu – who has been prime minister since 2009 – was unable to form a majority coalition of the 13 divided Israeli parties.
Conventional wisdom this month has it that Hamas gave Mr. Netanyahu a new political life by launching its rocket attack on Israel, which summed up the security issue that started Mr. Netanyahu’s career. But a week after the fighting ended, Naftali Bennett of the conservative Yamina party announced that he would accept centrist Yair Lapid’s offer to form a government without Netanyahu. Under the agreement, Mr Bennett will become Prime Minister immediately and Mr Lapid will take over in 2023 if the government lasts that long.
Mr Bennett was Mr Netanyahu’s chief of staff in the 2000s and has since then largely criticized him from the right. He has long been an advocate of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, expressly rejects a two-state solution and calls for tougher military action against the Hamas terrorist group in Gaza. Territorial concessions to a government that relies on his support would be impossible.
Mr. Lapid describes himself as a centrist and speaks in a tone that is less aggressive to American liberals, and especially American secular Jews, who are disaffected with holding up the peace process. But in response to the rise of Hamas, the destabilization of the region, and the threat from Iran, Israel’s public opinion has steadily shifted to the right over the past few decades. Mr Lapid did not focus his campaign on reviving the “land for peace” framework, but on the fatigue of Mr Netanyahu’s twelve-year tenure and his corruption charges on trial.
Former General Benny Gantz is now the current Secretary of Defense and will hold an important post in the new administration’s security cabinet. Mr Gantz is known as an Iranian hawk and a critic of the 2015 US nuclear deal.
The anti-Netanyahu coalition is also supported by the conservative splinter party New Hope and Avigdor Lieberman – a former Netanyahu security ally and critic of the peace process who has become frustrated with Netanyahu’s religious electorate. Tensions between secular and ultra-Orthodox Haredi Jews, especially amid Covid-19, are an overlooked factor working against Mr Netanyahu’s coalition.
The removal of Mr Netanyahu, if it happens, will not be because the public opposed muscular security policies, but because the conservative bloc grew so big it broke up. Mr Lapid was able to replace Mr Bennett from Mr Netanyahu with the promise of his own turn as Prime Minister.
Mr Netanyahu’s polarizing personality may have worn off her hospitality for good. He sat at the helm of a highly competitive political system for twelve years, in addition to a three-year term in the 1990s, and pressure from other ambitious figures was inevitable.
Still, his contributions were great. He strengthened Israel’s relations with countries from India to Brazil and normalized relations with Arab states in the region through the Abraham Agreement. Its economic reforms helped the country escape its union-dominated post-war socialism and turn it into a technology powerhouse. The country’s continued growth – GDP per capita rose 42% between 2010 and 2019 – improved its diplomatic standing as its economic leverage increased.
If Netanyahu is evicted, Israel’s political system will have a chance to adapt to the new reality it has created – with the Jewish state in a better strategic position than ever, but US support is more polarized.
The new government may refer to the participation of Arab parties for the first time to highlight the multi-ethnic, democratic nature of Israel. Mr. Lapid can be an effective ambassador for American liberals. But the strategic realities that shape Israeli politics do not change under Messrs Bennett and Lapid, and new elections are likely. Even if Mr. Netanyahu will be out soon, his era is not over yet.
Journal Editorial Report: The Week’s Best and Worst by Jason Riley, Jillian Melchior, Dan Henninger, and Adam O’Neal. Image: AP / AFP / Zuma Press / Getty Images Composite: Mark Kelly
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