Despite last-minute parliamentary maneuvering to delay, just days from now a historically diverse political coalition is expected to be sworn in as the new government of Israel. With hard-right Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett as the first of two new prime ministers, conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12 years in power would come to an end.
It’s an unlikely alliance of eight parties with views that include far-right Jewish as well as Arab Islamist that have agreed to share power in order to break Netanyahu’s seemingly iron grip on Israeli politics. The new government’s viability will be tested almost immediately by the outgoing prime minister.
Netanyahu, now on trial for criminal corruption, charges he denies, is unlikely to exit the political stage, analysts say. If ousted, he would remain in Knesset, Israel’s parliament, as government opposition leader, a perch that assures Netanyahu’s continued relevancy and one that neatly dovetails with his political outsider brand.
Robert M. Danin is a senior fellow with the Future of Diplomacy Project at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. A former career State Department official, Danin served as deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs overseeing Israeli-Palestinian issues, director for Israeli-Palestinian affairs and the Levant at the National Security Council, and head of the Jerusalem mission of the Quartet under Tony Blair. The Quartet is a diplomatic group set up to mediate the Israeli-Palestinian peace process that includes the United States, the United Nations, the European Union, and Russia.
Tzipi Livni served as an elected member of Israel’s parliament from 1999 to 2019, representing Likud, Kadima, Hatnua, and Zionist Union parties. She held numerous ministerial posts, including vice prime minister, the first woman to do so, and foreign minister. A global figure now retired from politics, Livni is the Future of Diplomacy Project’s Fisher Family Fellow.
Danin and Livni discussed the possibility of a new government and what it could mean for both Israel’s and Netanyahu’s future.
Robert M. Danin and Tzipi Livni
GAZETTE: What’s the significance of this moment for Israel?
DANIN: Let’s be clear on where we are: Yair Lapid [of the centrist Yesh Atid party], who was tapped by Israel’s president to form a government after the prime minister and the Likud party failed to do so, just concluded a coalition agreement signed by eight Israeli political parties. This government cannot be sworn in, however, until it is ratified by a vote of confidence in the Knesset. As of now, there is a distinct possibility that it will not happen. So [we] have to leave open that caveat that the government may be stillborn.
That said, assuming this government is sworn in, it will be historic for a number of reasons. First, it will mark the end of 12 years of continued rule by Bibi Netanyahu, who has dominated Israeli politics for over a decade now without real challenge. That, in and of itself, is significant. It could be the end of an era. That said, we have to recognize that Netanyahu will become the leader of the opposition. Unlike American politics, where traditionally, after one is defeated, one is finished politically, that’s not the case at all in Israeli politics. Netanyahu had also been prime minister in the 1990s, and after losing power was able to come back. Netanyahu will now be in the Knesset leading the opposition and the head of its largest party [Likud]. So he is not leaving the scene, as it were. This is particularly important, given the uniqueness of the government that is to be formed.
Unlike most Israeli governments, this will not have the ultra-orthodox Jewish religious parties in it. Instead, the new government will be a largely secular coalition that encompasses two left-wing parties, three right-wing parties, and two centrist parties. Added to that, for the first time, you have an Arab party as a coalition signatory, which breaks a traditional taboo in Israeli politics, and which is important and critical, especially given what happened last month with the violence that took place within Israel between Jewish and Arab Israelis. To have an Arab political party as a full participant and signatory to an Israeli government is historic. Not only is it an Arab party, but it’s an Islamist party. So, this will be a very unique government.
At the same time, the very diversity of the government, and the way in which it is structured, with numerous rotating positions among ideologically-opposed partners, raises the fundamental question of how durable is this government? Will it actually live to see the rotations it has agreed to fulfill? Will Bennett relinquish the prime ministership in 2023 to Yair Lapid? When the current government that Netanyahu heads was formed, it too called for a rotating prime ministership, but very few Israelis expected it to last and for that rotation to take place. But that skepticism had to do more with the distrust of Netanyahu personally than it had to do with the durability of the government. Sometimes governments in Israel are more durable than many expect. Given how difficult it is to form an Israeli coalition government — here we are now, it took four elections in two years to form a government — the government coming into being will not want to dissolve itself too easily or quickly.
GAZETTE: How significant is it that an Arab party is joining the coalition?
LIVNI: It’s an historical moment. In the past, we had the situation in which the Arab party supported the government, but sometimes you had ad hoc support on issues. But now, joining the government is something that is really historic. And I hope, especially after what you saw during the last few weeks in Israel, in what we call the mixed cities, between Jews and Arabs, maybe this will ease the tension — I hope so anyway — in an understanding that they are not only legitimate citizens and equal-rights citizens, but also legitimate parties within the Israeli coalition and government.
In 2014, Netanyahu fired me from the government, and since that day, what he wanted was only right-wing governments. And now, we are having a mix of different opinions, different ideas. I believe in a government that truly represents one guidance, a vision that all support. But here, under the circumstances, succeeding to have this agreement between all of them and sitting together, is quite an achievement.
GAZETTE: This coalition appears to have formed strictly out of political expediency. What challenges will it face and what could potentially fracture this new government?