The composition of the new Israeli government is rather perplexing. Naftali Bennett, leader of right wing party Yamina, sits with less than 7 per cent of the vote. Yet, on Sunday night, he was voted in by the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset, as Prime Minister. He is the leader of the Unity Government, replacing Benjamin Netanyahu after 12 years in power.
The road to forming a government has been long. Over the past two years, Israel has held four elections. With anywhere up to 40 parties running at a time, reaching a majority is near impossible and coalitions are always the only way to form a government. Try as he might, Netanyahu has been unable to gain or maintain enough allies to build one.
Israel was considered to be a country which dealt fairly well with the Covid crisis. Netanyahu led a successful vaccine distribution operation. But what marked 2020 as different for many Israelis was not necessarily that they stayed at home during lockdown, but rather that they went out – and marched in the streets.
In 2020 the Black Flags movement was born. An anti-Netanyahu, anti-corruption movement which mobilised thousands upon thousands of Israelis to protest weekly, if not daily, across the country. These protests were particularly loud in Jerusalem, taking place on a regular basis outside of the Prime Minister’s residence. Their message was united and clear: Netanyahu is corrupt, and he must go.
Then, in March 2021 came another election. Right in time for Israel to see its stores and restaurants re-open and Israelis feel the success of Netanyahu’s vaccine operation.
But despite this, and despite the fact that Likud remains the largest party in the Knesset (24 per cent of the vote), Netanyahu was unable to form a government.
There are more right-wing and conservative parties in Israel than there are left. There should have been a clear path to a right-wing majority, led by a right wing leader. But there wasn’t.
Naftali Bennett’s talks with Netanyahu proved unsuccessful. He leads the party Yamina – which translates as “the right”. Hardly a ‘progressive’, Bennett’s opening speech as incoming PM to the Knesset made it clear that he plans to expand settlements and maintain the occupation. Still, he was met by insults and interruptions by his former friends in other right-wing parties.
Clearly, this is not a man ready to recognise Palestine and call for a two-state solution. He is in favour of annexation, he has insulted Arab MKs (though he’s made a recent public apology), and is a supporter of the settler movement.
Still, his powers are limited. The Unity Government – built by alternate Prime Minister and incoming Foreign Minister, Lapid – represents voices across the Israeli political spectrum.
What does that mean for the prospect of peace? Probably very little. The status quo is likely to be maintained; what we can hope for, is that things won’t get worse. Perhaps, the influence of the left and Ra’am might prevent elements of settlement expansion such as the expansion of infrastructure.
There may be more engagement with the Palestinians living in Israel and opportunities to help with social inequality and injustice, from crime to budgets to recognition Bedouin villages – due to the presence and influence of Arab MKs in the Knesset.
There may also be a chance to improve foreign relations with Yair Lapid acting as Foreign Affairs Minister. He has already made it clear he will take a path different to that of Bibi, having recently stated that calling all criticism of Israel antisemitic is not a foreign policy.
It is important to remember that not long ago, Netanyahu’s elections posters had pictures of him shaking Trump’s hand on them. There is work to be done to repair damage with the Democrats.
That is, of course, not the only wound that needs to be healed. The Netanyahu era was characterised by increasingly divisive politics of identity; those who disagreed with him often branded as traitors or enemies, and the term ‘left wing’ became a pejorative term in some Israeli political discourse.
How much the unity government can do is unclear. But perhaps it can help to heal Israeli society, by demonstrating that Arabs and Jews can work together, that left- and right-wing people need not be enemies, and that it is possible to make change and progress in a deeply divided society.