Naftali Bennett gives a press conference at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, April 21, 2021.
Naftali Bennett gives a press conference at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, April 21, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Naftali Bennett will serve as prime minister for the first two years, with Yair Lapid — whose centrist party earned almost three times more votes than Bennett’s — serving as alternate prime minister and foreign minister.

On Sunday, June 13, a new Israeli government was sworn in, and for the first time in 12 years, Benjamin Netanyahu was not the prime minister. Having served for 15 of the last 25 years, Netanyahu has been Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. A charismatic communicator and a master politician, Netanyahu can be credited for forging relations with the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan, as well as improving relations with countries such as India.

However, Netanyahu also inflicted great harm to the country, weakening Israel’s democracy, further polarizing its society, weakening U.S. bipartisan support for Israel and undermining prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace. 

Going into this last election, Netanyahu faced obstacles: For months, thousands of Israelis demonstrated every week against him, and he was already on trial for breach of trust, bribery and fraud. But it was his own lack of emotional intelligence that ultimately caused his defeat.

Yael Aronoff
Yael Aronoff

Netanyahu does not have many long-lasting political friendships; he expects his advisers to be a revolving set of yes-men; and his extreme suspicion of others created a self-fulfilling prophecy by turning allies into enemies.  

That is why rather than joining him, the leaders of right-wing parties who would otherwise have been his natural ideological allies — and all of whom had already worked with Netanyahu in the past — preferred to join a coalition of parties with whom they would seem to have less in common: two Zionist centrist parties, two left-of- center Zionist parties and an Arab Islamist party. 

Netanyahu has broken so many promises to and alienated so many potential allies, that no one trusted the promises he made to lure them into a coalition. This paved the way for Naftali Bennett, whose Yamina party is to the right of Netanyahu’s Likud party, to become prime minister of Israel, even though his party only secured six seats in the Knesset. Bennett served as Netanyahu’s chief of staff from 2006-2008, but Netanyahu’s propensity to undermine those loyal to him for fear of them becoming rivals became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It is fitting that this article on the new Israeli government begin with several paragraphs devoted to Netanyahu, because a rejection of Netanyahu is the glue that holds the ideologically diverse parties of that government together. Bennett will serve as prime minister for the first two years, with Yair Lapid — whose centrist party earned almost three times more votes than Bennett’s — serving as alternate prime minister and foreign minister. Lapid will transition to prime minister for the latter two years of the government; during the four years, each can veto the other’s policies. 

On one hand, this will significantly limit any real change in several crucial areas around which the parties disagree. However, there is also some hope that the government will begin to heal some of the country’s intense polarization, starkly exhibited by the intercommunal violence this past month between very small segments of the Jewish and Arab citizens. 

New Faces

The new government has a record nine women ministers; it includes an Arab Israeli Party in the ruling coalition, the United Arab List Ra’am. It includes government ministers born in Ethiopia and the Soviet Union; an Arab Israeli minister; and Israel’s first openly gay party leader. There are plans for a record $16 billion to go to the Israeli Arab sector, which will help move the country toward greater equality; these might be accompanied by a freeze on home demolition in unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev. 

In addition, it will be the first government since 2015 that does not include ultra-Orthodox parties, making it possible for the reinstatement of one of Netanyahu’s broken promises: to dedicate a space at the Western Wall for egalitarian prayer. The first Reform rabbi, Labor party member Gilad Kariv, along with the new Diaspora Affairs minister Nachman Shai (also of the Labor party) pledge to further equality for all Jewish denominations, with hopes for relative greater flexibility on conversions to Judaism.

In foreign policy issues, the centrist Lapid will work to strengthen relations with Jordan (he has excellent relations with Jordanian King Abdullah II) and other Arab states in the region, including Saudi Arabia, as well as with the Palestinian Authority. He will also try to repair relations with the U.S. Democratic Party.

Prime Minister Bennett’s oft-stated opposition to a Palestinian state and his support for annexation in the West Bank and expansion of settlements are a threat to the legitimacy of a two-state solution, and a threat to Israel’s existence as a state that is both democratic and Jewish-majority, to Palestinian rights of self-determination, and to strengthening ties with Europe, the U.S. and the region. 

However, there is reason for some hope: Bennett is regarded by some as, in the end, pragmatic, and he will be constrained from annexation and settlement expansion by Lapid’s veto and the need to keep Meretz, Labor and Ra’am in the coalition.

Keeping the door open to a two-state solution during this period will require the encouragement of regional actors and the U.S. as well as coalition partners, to restore dialogue and make some improvements on the ground. When Lapid becomes prime minister, that progress might be built upon. 

MSU Connection 
Professor Alon Tal
Professor Alon Tal

While eventually Israel will need to be able to make significant changes to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinian Authority, perhaps this coming period will begin some healing from the wounds inflicted by Netanyahu’s desperate lashing out in these last weeks. 

There are Knesset members with integrity, experience and talent who can help make a positive difference for the country — MK’s like Professor Alon Tal, longtime Serling Visiting Israeli Scholar to Michigan State University, who will be one of the representatives of the Blue and White Party in the Knesset. He will focus on environmental protection, religious pluralism, gender equality and on leaving the door open to a two-state solution. 

With Knesset members like Alon Tal, we can hope against hope that the country will move in a positive direction. 

Yael Aronoff is the director of Serling Institute for Jewish Studies and Modern Israel, Serling Chair of Israel Studies and professor of international relations at the James Madison College and the Serling Institute at Michigan State University. She is the author of The Political Psychology of Israeli Prime Ministers: When Hard-Liners Opt for Peace and co-editor of Continuity and Change in Political Culture, Israel and Beyond.

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