Hi Josh, thanks for doing this. As always, politics in Israel is never boring. I wanted to dive in and get more clarity on exactly what has happened.
Aaron Stein: Do you mind expanding a bit on recent events, explaining how a coalition managed to unseat long-time Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu?
Joshua Krasna: We had three sets of inconclusive elections starting in April 2019. Two things happened before the fourth election, in April 2021, which enabled the deadlock to be broken. One: Gidon Saar, a long-time Likud Member of Knesset and minister who had challenged Netanyahu for party leadership in 2019 and lost, formed a breakaway party from Likud, called New Hope, with several other ministers and MKs. Their goal was to dislodge Netanyahu and return to the “traditional Likud.” This meant that there was now, with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beteinu, a not inconsiderable anti-Netanyahu bloc on the Right.
The second was a split in the Joint List (which encompassed all the Arab parties), with Mansour Abbas’ conservative Islamist Party Ra’am (United Arab List) running separately from his left-leaning former partners. He got four seats. After the election, Netanyahu, with a bloc of only 52 supporters (he needs 61), made offers to Abbas in exchange for supporting his coalition. This neutralized the taboo of using Arab parties to support a coalition.
To form a governing coalition, Netanyahu needed both Abbas’s party and that of Naftali Bennet (Yamina, “Rightwards”). While ideologically Yamina and Likud are natural partners and Bennet served as a minister under Netanyahu from 2013-2020, there is bad blood between the two men. In addition, Bennet and his political partner Ayelet Shaked see themselves as the leaders of the post-Netanyahu Right. With Yamina forming the fulcrum of the political system—neither bloc could reach 61 without its six seats—Bennet flirted with both sides, until Yair Lapid, the opposition leader, agreed on a rotation of the prime ministership, and Bennet joined the anti-Bibi coalition. Abbas, after maneuvers, joined as well. The coalition has 61 Members of Knesset at the moment; the Netanyahu camp has 52; and the Joint List, which has decided not to join the coalition but will not go with Netanyahu, has seven.
Stein: Do you think this coalition is stable and will be able to govern effectively?
Krasna: It brings together extremely disparate elements: 13 MK’s from the traditional Left, 25 from the Center, 19 from the Right, and four Islamists. The first 57 are united in their desire to end Netanyahu’s ascendancy (especially in view of his ongoing criminal trial), reinvigorate moribund politics, and, at least professedly, restore civility in society and politics. Ra’am’s agenda is much more instrumentalist. Abbas wants Israeli society to accept Arab Israelis as equal citizens and to maximize concrete gains (budgets, changes in legislation, effective and impartial law enforcement) for his constituents.
I think there are issues all the parties can agree on: passing a budget, which will be the first since 2018, including help for coronavirus-battered wage-earners and small businessmen; term limits for the prime minister and legislation forbidding an individual under indictment from being prime minister (steps supported by Netanyahu when he was in opposition: “where you stand depends on where you sit”). They will try to continue the regional rapprochement symbolized by the Abraham Accords and improve relations with Jordan. Past that, things become murkier.
There are profound disagreements on whether the judicial branch has been too activist and needs to be “reined in.” The right-wing parties will probably oppose retroactive legalization of unrecognized Bedouin towns in the Negev, a key pillar of Abbas’ platform. There will be little support from the center and right components for renewed negotiations with the Palestinians, who in any case are divided at the moment. And of course, a rekindling of the Gaza fighting could split Ra’am off and turn the government into a minority one.
One major threat to the incoming government, even before it is sworn in, is Netanyahu’s unstinting efforts to use all tricks up his sleeve to gain time and peel individual members off the opposing coalition. Extra-parliamentary right-wing activity has been deployed against the “illegitimate” new coalition, especially Yamina, which is being portrayed as having betrayed their voters by joining a “leftist, Arab” government. MK’s from New Hope and Yamina are under tremendous pressure to break with their party leaderships, and some have had their lives and those of their families threatened. The head of the internal security service has publicly warned of the possibility of political violence. And Netanyahu will continue these efforts as head of opposition.
Stein: Can you go into a bit more depth about the role Arab parties now play in Israeli politics?
Krasna: Israeli politics, certainly since the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin, has had an unspoken rule that a governing coalition could not be based on Arab parties and required a “Jewish majority,” a majority of the votes cast for non-Arab parties. In the current Knesset, that would be 55 seats. Benny Gantz was not able to form a government in March 2020 because three members of his paper-thin coalition were not willing to form a government that depended on the support of the Joint List. Despite subsequent denials, Netanyahu was willing to add Ra’am to his supporters (though not to have them officially in his coalition): It is worth noting, by the way, that opposition to that move by his right-wing religious partners torpedoed the possibility. So, as I said, he broke that taboo.
Abbas, by breaking the assumption of automatic Arab support for the Center-Left, has made Arab Israelis a political player. He does not want a ministerial portfolio, but rather, access to budgets and to the corridors of power: In this, he is fulfilling the role traditionally filled by the ultra-Orthodox parties before they joined the automatic Bibi coalition. And in fact, there will be an Arab minister in the coming government, Esawi Frej of the (Zionist) Meretz party, who will be Israel’s fourth Arab and second Muslim (two were Druze) government minister.
There is a lot of work to do to promote coexistence between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens, as we saw in the internecine violence in mixed cities and in Arab towns and cities last month. Despite Abbas’ joining the coalition, I am unfortunately not that sanguine on chances for this in the near term.
Stein: Any final words?
Krasna: It’s just worth noting that this current government—if it actually emerges—is a historical anomaly caused by Netanyahu’s staying in power for too long. Israel has for two decades had a small but clear Right-Center majority: Parties to the right-of-center account today for 71 out of 120 seats in the Knesset (including the ultra-Orthodox parties, which now are firmly on the Right), but 19 of them will not join a government led by Netanyahu. Lieberman’s stalwart refusal to join a government headed by Netanyahu, after he fomented the current political crisis by leaving the government in November 2018, along with the two developments I noted above, are the keys to understanding Netanyahu’s fall from power, if it ends up occurring.
Also, while Netanyahu will be head of opposition in the near term, I think there is a good chance that the knives will be out for him once he is no longer prime minister, and the Likud turns to building its future and returning to power.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.