Israeli Elections Yield New Government
On March 23rd, 2021, Israelis went to the ballot boxes for the fourth time in two years, and this time there appears to finally be an outcome that will last. Benjamin Netanyahu, the head of the Likud party and Prime Minister at the time, won the most seats in the election, and was given the mandate to build a government that consisted of at least 61 seats in the Knesset, the Israeli legislative body. When he was unsuccessful, the mandate passed to Yair Lapid, head of the centrist party Yesh Atid, who was able to form a government consisting of a diverse coalition of opponents of Netanyahu, with Lapid and Naftali Bennett of the Yamina Party sharing the premiership
The coalition that Yair Lapid built is groundbreaking for a few reasons. First, since he was able to form a government, Netanyahu was forced out of the role of Prime Minister, a position he had held for 12 consecutive years. Netanyahu is currently facing corruption charges, and since he is no longer prime minister it will be legally and politically easier to prosecute him.
Second, the coalition is significant because of its member parties. The coalition is the most diverse in Israel’s history. It includes left-wing, Islamist, centrist, and right-wing parties. This is the first time in Israel’s history that an Arab party has been part of the governing coalition. In his negotiations, Lapid had to make concessions to each of the parties. His most significant concession was a deal with Naftali Bennett, head of the right-wing party Yamina, that allowed Bennett to serve as Prime Minister for the first two years of the government’s four-year mandate. This election has caused a major shift in the Israeli political landscape by sending Netanyahu to the minority, and by including left-wing and Islamist parties.
So what does this new government mean for the biggest issues facing Israel? The most dominant issue in Israeli politics has always been security, and within that, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Bennett is an ultra-nationalist, and if he were able to have things go his way, he would annex the West Bank and expand settlement creation. Bennett, however, is not operating in a vacuum, and in order to stay in power, he must maintain his coalition, which as already noted includes Arab and left-wing parties. The Knesset members from those parties would dissolve the coalition if Bennett decided to take such radical actions, so we can expect that Bennett will maintain the status quo.
Moreover, as a condition for the Arab party, Raam, joining the coalition, Mansour Abbas, the head of the party, is “expected to secure large budgets for housing, infrastructure and law enforcement in Arab communities.” All in all, it seems that there won’t be much movement on the issue of the conflict with the new government, but with the addition of an Arab party, Arab citizens hope to have their interests better represented.
Another priority of the new government is revitalizing Israel’s relationship with the US Democratic party. During Netanyahu’s term as Prime Minister, he alienated the Democratic party and progressive Jews alike with his harsh rhetoric and inflammatory policies. He pandered to Trump, the Republican party, and Evangelical Christians. Bennett, on the other hand, recognizes that the White House, the Senate, and the House are all in the hands of the Democratic party and he and Lapid hope to repair Israel’s relationship with the Democratic party that Netanyahu tried to distance himself from.
Finally, a major issue that the new government hopes to address is the tension between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Israelis. Notably, the biggest religious parties in Israeli politics have been excluded from the new government. With these parties out of power, there is now talk of “introducing civil marriage, including for same-sex couples, and allowing public transportation in secular areas on the Sabbath.” Another priority of the coalition is to integrate and improve the economic situation of religious Israelis, who have long been the most impoverished population of Israeli Jews.
Overall, we should not expect any sweeping changes from this coalition. The government was mainly formed in order to remove Netanyahu from power. Besides this, there are very few ideological similarities between the parties that make up the government. Because the government has a very slight majority in the Knesset, 60-59, it cannot afford to alienate any of its own members and must rule by consensus. This severely limits the ability of the new government to take any drastic action. The new coalition, however, is a breath of fresh air in the Israeli political environment and has introduced many new faces into prominence in the political arena.
Zachary Zabib is a rising Senior in Timothy Dwight College majoring in Global Affairs, with specific interests in international security and the Middle East. He currently serves as Co-President of Yale Friends of Israel and the Yale AIPAC chapter.