Binyamin Rose rates the early days of Israel's new prime minister
1) Bennett Aims to Prove Himself
Naftali Bennett’s improbable surge to the prime minister’s seat proved he had the political wiles to outfox Binyamin Netanyahu, but when it comes to governing and showing leadership, Bibi is a tough act to follow.
Bennett has formulated some subtle policy shifts to differentiate himself from his predecessor. He has hardened Israel’s deterrence against Hamas by ordering IDF retaliation against incendiary balloons, instead of waiting for rockets to fall before fighting back. Bennett also won wall-to-wall praise for diplomatic finesse in the compromise that spared Evyatar — a fledgling settlement in the Shomron — from destruction while the government verifies whether it was built on Jewish or Arab-owned land.
However, the new government has lapsed into default mode in dealing with Israel’s latest COVID-19 outbreak. A knee-jerk government decision to restore the nationwide indoor mask mandate, just two weeks after rescinding it, contradicts Bennett’s proposal of a year ago to confine restrictions to “red” cities and towns. As a cabinet minister, Bennett exuded supreme confidence that he had ready answers to Israel’s problems. Now that he’s prime minister, words are not enough. He will be judged by his actions and results.
2) Coalition Tensions Simmer
Bennett’s strategy, backed by his cohort, Yair Lapid, is to keep the various party leaders occupied and happy with their cabinet posts and allow them free rein to pursue their political agendas. That way, they won’t threaten to bolt the coalition over the ideological battles that have already arisen between right- and left-wing factions.
The left isn’t anxious to shake things up now. They are willing to absorb a few setbacks, such as the Evyatar compromise, and extending the “family reunification law” (to prevent Palestinians who marry Israeli Arabs from automatically obtaining Israeli citizenship), because under the current rotation agreement, the left will be in the driver’s seat in another two years.
However, with a slim one-vote majority, every coalition member holds outsized bargaining power, which means every MK will be a kingmaker when legislation is deadlocked. This doesn’t mean the government will fall apart any time soon, but it is a recipe for political paralysis. The silver lining in that cloud is that the government will struggle if it needs to find a 61st vote to pass draconian changes on controversial matters, such as changing the status quo on religion and the state.
3) Lapid Has a Lot to Learn
If the government survives to October 2023, Yair Lapid will replace Bennett as prime minister under the current rotation agreement. Until then, Lapid is Israel’s foreign minister.
The son of Holocaust survivors, Lapid picked his first fight with Poland over a new law that effectively closes the door on Jews seeking reparations for properties stolen during the Nazi occupation and then subsequently confiscated by Poland’s postwar Communist regime.
Poland is an easy target for one looking to prove his stripes. The UAE is another story. Lapid got mixed reviews for his first overseas trip to the UAE. Globes reported that Lapid “preferred a meeting with Internet influencers who have tens of thousands of followers instead of with businesspeople who have the capacity to invest billions in Israel.” Lapid’s office replied that he and his UAE counterpart did meet with other business leaders and that time constraints forced him to cancel his meeting with the influencers.
Lapid does hope to “reset” relations with the United States, to make Israeli policy more appealing to Democrats and secular Jews. Softening Netanyahu’s somewhat confrontational tone might help, in spots, and there’s no reason for Israel to vent policy disputes with the US in public. However, Lapid will soon learn that certain Democrats and Reform Jews aren’t looking to get along, they’re looking to get their way. Israel has no margin of error to compromise on essential security needs, nor can the government afford to alienate the country’s Orthodox and traditional majority.
4) Chareidim in Uncharted Territory
There are only two ways to exert influence inside Israel’s coalition government. You need to either be a cabinet minister or control key Knesset committees. The chareidim have neither. Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked and Justice Minister Gideon Saar have enough clout to curb the insatiable appetite of some leftists to remake Israel into a secular liberal state, but they can’t put a spoke in every wheel.
A Reform rabbi, Gilad Kariv (Labor), will chair the Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee, a body that writes many of the nation’s important laws. The Finance Committee will be chaired by Alex Kushnir, who campaigned on an anti-chareidi platform (aided and abetted by his party leader Avigdor Lieberman). With Lieberman serving as treasury minister, chareidi MKs are gearing up for a tough budget battle over every shekel.
Both Shas and UTJ have one member each on the Finance Committee, but zero representation on the Law and Justice Committee. The Ministry of Religious Services is no longer in the hands of Shas. Its new minister, Matan Kahana (Yamina), will certainly prioritize the interests of the national-religious public over that of the chareidim.
5) The Opposition Is Staring at Political Oblivion
As a result of constant bickering and casting blame for their powerlessness, the opposition looks weaker by the day. Netanyahu puts up a bold front, but there is little that 52 opposition MKs can do, against even the slimmest of majorities. The Likud shot itself in the foot when it prioritized political expedience over values by opposing the family reunification law in the hopes that failure to pass it would topple the coalition. They could have picked a different fight at a more opportune time.
In the meantime, more Likud members are publicly blaming Netanyahu for causing their downfall by putting his interests above his party. In recent weeks, leading Likud lights such as Yuli Edelstein, Yisrael Katz, and Nir Barkat have all positioned themselves as savior of a party that looks increasingly overdue for a major overhaul, from top to bottom, if it hopes to reclaim power any time soon.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 868)
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