With Bennett’s Rise, Will Israeli Politics Veer Off Course?

With Bennett's rise, will Israeli politics veer off course?
Source: CNN

“Liar,” shouted the supporters of Benjamin Netanyahu, as Naftali Benett secured a thin 60-59 majority in parliament, ending an era where the Likud – National Liberal Movement dominated Israel’s politics. After 12 successive years in power, the “government of change” was ushered into control by Bennett, ousting Israel’s longtime leader Benjamin Netanyahu. With Netanyahu having fallen into opposition, he promised to return to power in his final speech as the Prime Minister.

What Led To Netanyahu’s Fall?

Debuting in the year 1996, Benjamin Netanyahu became the first right-wing prime minister of Israel. Popularly known as Bibi, he served three years as head of the Likud party. He left politics after losing the next election but returned to serve as the Foreign Minister in 2002, and then as Prime Minister in 2009. He served as a minister during the 2000-2005 Second Palestinian Intifada, an uprising against Israeli occupation, and remained a popular figure within the Likud party. He stressed the need for security and criticised Israeli concessions to Palestinians, including its withdrawal from Gaza and several West Bank settlements. 

Following his return to power in 2009, Netanyahu extended support for a Palestinian state with the condition that it demilitarise and formally agree with Israel’s stance as a Jewish state. Israel’s presence in the West Bank however, continued to grow under Netanyahu’s stewardship despite the rejection of those terms. Israeli forces continued to engage with Palestinians in deadly clashes in Gaza even as Netanyahu considered the issue to be a mere security concern. A number of Palestinians were killed in a large-scale military operation in 2014, resulting in international criticism.

The Obama administration stepped up the already escalating tensions regarding Iran in response. The BBC reported that in early 2015 when the US and Iran were negotiating to curb Iranian nuclear ambitions, Netanyahu went behind President Obama’s back to address Congress directly. In his testimony, he said that a potential deal would pose a “grave threat not only to Israel but to the peace of the entire world”.

Yet, things were about to change dramatically in Israel’s relationships with its most important ally. Following Netanyahu and Trump’s growing friendship, the US recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, relocating its embassy from Tel Aviv, overturning decades of US policy. Palestinians, who hoped to establish a state in East Jerusalem, were infuriated by these moves and severed diplomatic relations with Washington. Netanyahu also hailed the Americans’ withdrawal from the Iran nuclear pact. Despite acclamations such as “the deal of the century”, the Israeli peace plan was heavily weighted toward Israel at its conclusion. The proposal was never implemented. The US brokered historic deals with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco to normalise Israeli relations with countries of the Arab League, which Netanyahu personally credited.

Netanyahu was able to hold on to power for three more campaigns between 2019 and 2020. However, a police investigation was ordered when the prime minister was accused of accepting gifts from businessmen as bribes as well as offering favours to the press to get more favourable coverage. He remained on trial while denying the charges against him and publicly undermined Israel’s law enforcement and independent judiciary, which have been sources of pride since the country’s foundation seven decades ago.

“He’s been here for so many years, and won so many elections, that for so many Israelis it’s difficult to imagine any other reality other than Netanyahu winning an election and forming a government,” stated Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, to NBC News.

It is often believed that the protracted legal process is linked to a lengthy period of political stagnation, which has led to four failed elections in two years. “It’s absolutely crazy,” Times of Israel political correspondent Tal Schneider told the BBC  after the latest vote. In his most important legacy, Netanyahu spearheaded a paradigm shift that began to shift the eye of the world away from an exclusively Palestinian perspective of Israel.

The Beginning Of A “New Israel”

In the wake of Netanyahu’s fall, Naftali Bennett, Israel’s new PM, has promised to unite the nation divided by a political stalemate. Netanyahu was given the mandate for forming a coalition by President Reuven Rivlin in the wake of yet another inconclusive election result in March 2021. This mandate expired on May 4. Despite trying to reach agreements with allies and rivals alike about the rotation of the prime ministership, Netanyahu was unsuccessful in forming a government. While these agreements were being made, Yair Lapid, the leader of centrist party Yesh Atid, and Bennett, the leader of extreme right-wing party Yamina, entered into a coalition government with six other parties. The coalition is made up of parties following a wide variety of political perspectives – three from the right wing, two from the centre, and two from the left.  In celebration of the victory, many Israelis took to the streets to dance and wave flags.

Despite this, Jerusalem and other parts of Israel remain deeply divided, and the new coalition government has little promise of bridging those divisions. The vast differences in ideologies among the coalition members were overshadowed by their desire to remove Netanyahu from office. According to the Indian Express, the newly formed government plans to focus on domestic reforms rather than key international issues such as the Palestine policy. Despite the administration change, most Palestinians predict that Bennett would continue Netanyahu’s right-wing policies.

Foreign Policy notes that  right-wing Israeli activists rallied outside of the Jerusalem parliament building days before the swearing-in ceremony, calling for the Bennett-Lapid alliance to be abandoned, stating that the deeply divided politicians wouldn’t be able to unite. According to the news portal, Bennett was proud of his ability to discuss things with people with very different opinions at a moment he deemed “decisive”. Bennett said that national leaders were needed to halt this madness from sweeping the nation. “We are facing an internal challenge, a divide in the people that are being seen at these very moments,” he said in his speech. While Lapid omitted his speech altogether, he later claimed, “The real split [in Israel] is between moderates and extremists.”


Read more: Ethiopia’s Tigray Crisis – Sovereign Immunity Shrouds Acts Of Impunity


What Lies Ahead?

For many Israelis, the biggest change will be the departure of Netanyahu, even if the expectation regarding the new coalition is muted. Foreign Policy reports that the coalition’s main objective was to oust Netanyahu, but even though the coalition spans the political spectrum from the right to the left, it is not a shift from the right. Furthermore, any concession to the Palestinians is out of the question. 

As a coalition government, they will take up a modest agenda without tackling any controversial issues. The first challenge facing this government is establishing a budget. Even one party backing out of the coalition could end up dissolving the Knesset again. A government led by a single individual hoping to force Netanyahu from power can only shuffle along for so long, given the wide range of ideologies present.

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