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Challenges for Israel’s New Coalition Government

Jatin Kumar is Research Analyst at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies & Analyses, New Delhi Click here for detail profile.
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  • July 05, 2021

    On 14 June 2021, after a historic voting session in the Knesset, Israel’s unicameral parliament, a new coalition government was elected. It finally ended a more than two-year-long political stalemate in Israeli politics, which began with then Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman leaving the Likud-led government in November 2018 over the issue of ceasefire with Hamas and conscription law for the ultra-Orthodox youth. Since then, the country has witnessed four back-to-back elections in a short period of two years, all ending with inconclusive results. On 2 June 2021, following various rounds of negotiations and discussions, Naftali Bennett (Yemina) and Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) reached an agreement to form a rotational unity government, ending Benjamin Netanyahu’s more than a decade-long premiership.1 According to the agreement, Bennett will serve as prime minister for the first two years, followed by Lapid for the remaining two years.

    The new coalition government comprises eight political parties, including Yesh Atid (17), Yemina (7), Blue and White (8), Israeli Labor Party (7), Meretz (6), Ra’am (4), New Hope (6) and Yisrael Beitenu (7).2 These parties majorly differ on issues of annexation, settlement and the two-state solution. The ones that do not support the two-state solution and favour annexation of the West Bank are Yemina, Blue and White, and New Hope. On the other hand, major coalition partners such as Yesh Atid, Israeli Labor Party, Meretz and Ra’am support the two-state solution. 

    An outstanding feature of the new coalition is the presence of an Arab party (Ra’am). It is for the first time that an Arab party has joined a ruling coalition in Israel.3 This can be seen as a positive outcome of the political deadlock that pushed the major parties to negotiate with the Arab political parties, considered taboo earlier. Though some scholars are of the view that this government will be more democratic than the previous government, a large section of Israeli Arabs, particularly the Palestinians, feel that this government will not be any different from the Likud-led government as Bennett seems to be more hawkish than Netanyahu.  

    However, the issue of sustainability is a major challenge for the new government. It is a fragile coalition with a very “thin majority” in the Knesset.4  During the Knesset vote on 14 June, out of 120 Members of Knesset (MKs), only 60 favoured the government while 59 voted against it, and one abstained. 

    This coalition might not be able to sustain itself for long due to a few obvious reasons, the first one being the ideological positions of these eight parties belonging to the centre, hard right, centre-left and Arab bloc. Though these parties have said that their focus is on economic recovery, they may not be able to fully focus on the same given their divergent ideological leanings.

    Similarly, their different positions with regard to the West Bank settlement, annexation and two-state solution would make it difficult for them to forge a consensus on major issues. Even a small trigger related to the Palestinian issue could unravel the coalition.  For example, the latest discussion on extending the 2003 law, which bars granting citizenship to Palestinians who marry Israeli citizens, has already sparked differences among the right-wing parties and Ra’am.

    Another problem is the nature of the new government, which is a “rotational government”. Israel has been unsuccessful in sustaining such a form of government, as seen in the case of the previous rotational unity government, which only survived for eight months5. Therefore, as of now, the stalemate may have ended, but any small difference of opinion can shake the foundation of the government. Moreover, the coalition has been formed mainly to drive Netanyahu out of power, which is not enough to keep it together.

    Dealing with the Iranian threat remains a huge security challenge for Israel. The decision of the Joseph Biden administration to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or the Iranian nuclear deal, and the ongoing indirect US–Iran negotiations, has unsettled Israel. It was reflected in Bennett’s 14 June Knesset speech, where he referred to the Iranian nuclear programme as a great challenge.6 Bennett’s opposition to the US–Iran negotiation and the Iranian nuclear programme suggests that “some continuity in Israel's staunch anti-Iran policy can be expected”.7 Similarly, the new government’s strategy towards Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas, which are considered prime security threats to Israel, is also unlikely to change.

    As aptly stated by Dr Yaniv Voller, Senior Lecturer at Kent University, “the government will primarily be preoccupied with preventing a nuclear Iran amid growing international fatigue on this subject.” He added, “Netanyahu’s relations with the US President, Joe Biden, were frosty. Bennett may wish to recover relations with the Democratic administration. But his unwavering support of the settlements might complicate Bennett’s rapprochement efforts”.8

    Apart from this, the recent clashes between Jewish and Arab communities within Israel have once again brought out the divide between the two communities, posing another internal security challenge to the new government. Furthermore, under the previous government, there was notable progress in normalising relations with the Arab countries, namely, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco. How the new government will take the normalisation process further with the other Arab countries, mainly Oman and Saudi Arabia, remains to be seen.9

    To sum up, the formation of a new coalition government may have put an end to the two-year-long stalemate in Israeli politics, but considering the fragility of the coalition government, given its razor-thin majority in the parliament and notable differences of opinion among various constituent parties, its sustainability remains to be seen.

    The new government will face a major foreign policy challenge in the form of the Biden administration’s position on Iran, in contrast to Donald Trump’s more hostile position that made it relatively favourable to Israel. In addition, furthering the normalisation process with Arab countries will be another challenge the new government will have to address.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.