An unwieldy coalition calling itself “Change” has dethroned Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, after his most recent 12-year run. But how much will change is moot.
The eight-party coalition ranges from ultra-right religious nationalists to the secular hard-right, through the centre-right and residue of Israel’s left, to ally for the first time with an Arab Islamist party.
The new government will be led initially by Naftali Bennett, a champion of Jewish settlement. He is opposed to any Palestinian state and wants to annex most of the occupied West Bank and stands to the right of Netanyahu. Yair Lapid, a former TV anchor and voice of liberal secular Israelis, whose party came second to Netanyahu’s Likud, is supposed to take over from Bennett as premier in 2023 and has provided what glue the coalition has.
Recognising its ideological contradictions, the Change agenda focuses on goals such as passing a budget — Israel has been without one since 2019 — rather than addressing, say, the Palestinian question, on which the coalition would be hopelessly riven.
Netanyahu has a relatively cohesive Likud bloc, if he remains as leader of the opposition. He has a fervent support base, fired up by his mix of incitement against Israeli Arabs and Palestinians and populist demagoguery against Israel’s elites.
The Change coalition, by contrast, has already achieved the only goal that fired up its Israeli Jewish leaders, which was to get rid of the prime minister.
Netanyahu, who has been in court since May 2020 on three charges of corruption, looks determined to turn the tables on the intrinsically weak new government, which has a majority of just one seat in the 120-member Knesset. And there is a thumping rightwing majority in Israel’s parliament that Likud could lead, were it to find another leader less antagonistic to the rightwing groups in the new coalition.
After four inconclusive elections in two years that have polarised as well as irritated Israeli voters, there has even been muffled talk among some Likud barons about letting Bennett become prime minister to avoid a fifth election. But Netanyahu will not be easy to sideline. His scorched earth record shows he will stop at nothing to stay in power. He is now fighting for his political life and his opponents would be foolish to write him off.
The legacy of King Bibi, as he is known to his adulators, is decidedly mixed. Under his premiership the rightward trend of Israeli politics that began two decades ago accelerated. But public life palpably coarsened. Netanyahu launched withering attacks on institutions from the judiciary to the media, undermining Israel’s democracy. He used Arab-baiting for his own ends and turned elections, always raucous, no-holds-barred affairs, from boisterous to downright dirty. The Change coalition cannot afford to offend any of its members and might therefore restore a measure of civility.
With the number of Jewish settlers in the West Bank and occupied Arab East Jerusalem rising to roughly 650,000, with roads slicing Palestinian land into cantons, Netanyahu has probably placed a Palestinian state beyond reach. But as mass protests last month across the occupied territories and among the 21 per cent minority of Palestinian citizens of Israel showed, he has also united Palestinians between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. This may become a push for equal rights that could delegitimise an Israeli state that treats Arabs as second or third-class citizens.
From 2015, when Netanyahu called on both houses of the US Congress to repudiate the Iran nuclear deal — the flagship foreign policy of then president Barack Obama and President Joe Biden — the bedrock bipartisan US consensus on Israel has started to crack. Netanyahu got rich political returns from former president Donald Trump, but putting all Israel’s eggs in a Republican basket has soured relations not just with Democrats but with liberal Jews.
Most important, after the Netanyahu years the occupation is an enterprise on autopilot, with its daily round of house demolitions, evictions and routine brutalisation of Palestinians — often in public view. Occupied Arab East Jerusalem will keep catching fire under provocations such as the march by ultra-right Jewish groups on Tuesday night, which prompted a tit-for-tat exchange in which Hamas launched incendiary balloons and Israel carried out air strikes on Gaza.
Netanyahu was credited with normalising ties with four Arab states led by the United Arab Emirates, despite the occupation, but such provocations resonate throughout the Arab and Islamic world. Even Arab rulers seeking good relations with Israel cannot ignore them indefinitely. The legacy of colonisation of Palestinian land jeopardises Israel’s future. Eventually, it will have to be addressed.