How to Understand Naftali Bennett’s New Government

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Many of Israel’s supporters are confused by its new government. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is a man of the political Right. His party is called Yamina, which means, “to the right”—as in, to the right of Israel’s main governing party, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu‘s Likud party.

Yet, immediately after Bennett’s government was sworn in Sunday night, leftists held a raucous celebration in the center of Tel Aviv. And right-wingers went into mourning.

Why would the Left celebrate a prime minister to the right of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, and why would the Right mourn Bennett’s rise?

The answer begins with simple math. Israel’s 120-seat Knesset is roughly divided between two blocs. The right-wing bloc includes the center-right Likud party, parties to its ideological right and religious parties. In March, parties in this bloc won a 65-seat majority. With its 30 seats, Likud was Gulliver in a sea of Lilliputian parties.

The opposing bloc is led by newly minted Foreign Minister and Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who heads the 17-seat center-left Yesh Atid party. Lapid’s bloc is comprised of parties on the center-left and radical left, as well as two Arab-Israeli parties. The first Arab party is a Palestinian nationalist party, and the second is an Islamist party. Neither accepts Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. In the March elections, Lapid’s bloc won 55 total seats.

By rights, Netanyahu could have been expected to use his bloc’s 65-seat majority to form a stable governing coalition. But despite his best efforts, he failed to form such a coalition because the heads of two parties who ran to Likud’s right—Bennett’s Yamina and former Likud minister Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope party—refused to join a Netanyahu-led government. Motivated by blinding envy and hatred for Netanyahu, whom they believe stymied their political advancement, Bennett and Sa’ar presented themselves to voters as prime ministerial candidates only to be humiliated at the polls. Bennett won seven seats, and Sa’ar won six.

After prolonged negotiations with Netanyahu following the elections, which at least in Bennett’s case were conducted in bad faith, Bennett and Sa’ar defected from their ideological bloc. They took their small factions—or, in Bennett’s case, six members of his seven-member faction—to Lapid and his Left-Arab bloc to form the government over which Bennett now ostensibly presides as prime minister.

Bennett is the ostensible, as opposed to actual, prime minister because he commands the loyalty of a mere 10 percent of his government—or 20 percent, with Sa’ar’s faction. The rest of the coalition members are loyal to Lapid, who is scheduled to replace Bennett as prime minister in two years.

Given the power imbalance, Bennett the “right-winger” lacks the power to advance significant policies aligned with Israel’s political Right. Lapid, by contrast, will have more or less free rein to advance the agenda of his leftist majority. And the numerical imbalance won’t be the only thing constraining Bennett’s maneuvering room. By bolting the right-wing bloc to form a government with the Left-Islamist bloc, Bennett and Sa’ar betrayed their own voters. Accordingly, if they quit this government, they have nowhere to go. With no home base to which to return, Bennett and Sa’ar are now effective hostages of the Left.

All of this is sufficient reason for the Right’s depression and the Left’s exhilaration at the sight of the Lapid-Bennett government. But the Left’s clear majority in the new government isn’t even its most notable feature. A more significant—and problematic—aspect of Israel’s new government is that it threatens the Jewish character of the State of Israel.

The Lapid-Bennett government has a bare majority of 61 members. If two members defect to the opposition, it will fall.

Not all the members of the 61-seat coalition voted in favor of its formation in Sunday’s confidence vote. Saeed Alharoumi from the Islamist Ra’am party abstained to protest the pending destruction of illegal structures in the illegal Bedouin settlement Bir El Daj in Israel’s Negev desert. Consequently, the government won the confidence vote with with a 60-59 vote tally.

With four members, Ra’am is the smallest faction in the Lapid-Bennett government. But size is not everything: The entire government will fall if Ra’am bolts the coalition. By abstaining from the confidence vote, in coordination with Ra’am party leader Mansour Abbas, Alharoumi signaled to Lapid and Bennett that they hold office at Ra’am’s pleasure. Whereas Bennett with his six seats is powerless to advance a right-wing agenda, Abbas with his four seats and willingness to walk away from the table is the most powerful member of the coalition.

As a general principle, it is a source of grave concern any time a parliamentary governing coalition is beholden to minor parties. But in the case of Ra’am, the problem is quite literally one of existential proportions.

Ra’am rejects Israel’s right to exist. And from the outset of his coalition negotiations with Lapid and Bennett, Abbas used his king-making power to compel Bennett and Lapid to agree to policies that undermine Israel’s sovereignty and Jewish national character.

To bring Ra’am into their coalition, Lapid and Bennett agreed to grant effective autonomy to the Bedouin in the Negev and the Arab-Israeli communities in the Galilee. Autonomy was granted in two ways. First, Lapid and Bennett agreed to effectively end the enforcement of Israel’s planning and zoning laws in these communities, thus rendering them self-governing Arab enclaves inside of Israel.

Second, the coalition deal involves the practical ceding of state lands the size of Israel’s 10 largest cities to illegal Bedouin settlements in the Negev. According to Regavim, an Israeli nonprofit group that monitors illegal Arab building, Bedouin in the Negev have built roughly 80,000 illegal structures. Lapid and Bennett agreed to legitimize much of the land theft and reward the Bedouin for their criminal behavior by building new towns for them, courtesy of Israeli taxpayers.

Just before the Lapid-Bennett coalition was approved by the Knesset, Abbas gave a speech in Arabic at the Knesset podium wherein he pledged: “We will restore the lands that were stolen from our people.”

Which lands? In a 2018 speech, Abbas made clear that in keeping with Muslim Brotherhood ideology, he means all of Israel: “Since [Israel’s founding in] 1948, the Palestinian people have lived in a continuous disaster that was created by Zionist terror gangs.”

Abbas has also repeatedly denied Jewish history in Jerusalem, the holiest city in Judaism. He has denied that a Jewish Temple ever stood on the Temple Mount. On Tuesday, ahead of a nationalist parade through Jerusalem, Abbas condemned the planned parade—which involved Israeli Jews walking through their capital city waving flags—in the harshest terms. “The flag parade in Jerusalem today is an unbridled provocation—its main characteristic is hateful shouts and incitement of violence in an effort to inflame the region for political purposes,” he said.

Since his government depends on keeping Abbas happy, Bennett has no power to condemn him for such hateful, incendiary remarks.

Ra’am is the first Arab-Israeli party to join an Israeli governing coalition. Many friends of Israel have pointed to Ra’am and Abbas’s move as further proof of the rank bigotry and dishonesty of the slurs of Israel as an “apartheid” state that were recently echoed by the likes of Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Ilhan Omar (D-MN).

But this claim misses two key points. First, Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, Omar and their colleagues aren’t slandering Israel because they are merely misinformed. They slander the Jewish state because they want to delegitimize its very existence.

Second, and arguably worse, Abbas is on board with them. Despite being living proof that Israel is not a racist state, in November 2019 Abbas called Israel “the apartheid regime.”

It is hard to know how long the Lapid-Bennett government will last. Although Bennett and Sa’ar are clearly on a political suicide mission, members of their factions may decide that jumping ship is their best option. Ra’am may also leave at any time. And Lapid himself may decide that having used Bennett to force Netanyahu out of office, he doesn’t need his partner any longer and thus bring the government down himself.

Even as head of the opposition, Netanyahu remains by far the most popular politician in Israel. And his partners in the opposition are unified in their desire to break apart the fragile Lapid-Bennett coalition as quickly as possible.

For however long it lasts, the Lapid-Bennett government will veer from leftist and Islamist policies to gridlock. Hence the joy of the Left, which could never win a governing majority without Bennett and Sa’ar. And hence the tears of the Right, which is now governed by a leftist- and Islamist-dominated government despite the fact that its members comprise the majority in both the public and the Knesset itself.

Originally published in Newsweek.

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