Close Encounters of an Unprecedented Kind
BY RICHARD C. GROSS
“Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!”
It’s a good thing Israel’s odd new government is in the Holy Land because the far left-centrist-far right coalition will need a miracle to survive. Pray.
A tumultuous Israeli parliament narrowly approved a government aiming at centrism Sunday, an unprecedented alliance that included an Arab party for the first time in Israel’s 73-year history that brought down the 12-year reign of a right-wing divisive prime minister.
“I’ll be back,” defeated former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Knesset, in a line from the Terminator.
It took eight parties to form a 61-seat coalition in the 120-member Knesset, or parliament, that united around one goal: getting rid of Netanyahu. He served in a caretaker role after failing to form another government. He has been charged with corruption.
Israelis vote for a party, not for prime minister. The Knesset then casts ballots for confidence in the prime minister.
The coalition’s victory ignited such a Trumpist-like fury among Netanyahu’s right-wing followers that the internal security service, with the Hebrew initials Shin Bet, warned of “lethal” consequences. The warning recalled the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a rightist extremist.
Naftali Bennett, a right-wing modern Orthodox who once served as Netanyahu’s chief of staff, will be prime minister for two years. His former colleagues in the Likud party targeted Bennett repeatedly during the session with jeers of “shame” and “liar” for having joined the coalition.
“We are incapable of sitting together. What is happening to us?” Bennett responded.
Netanyahu, who has been channeling Donald Trump for four years, has railed against the ascendance of the coalition, echoing the lying American’s charges of a “fraudulent” election and trying to get members of the new government to quit before it was approved and to join him. One defected.
“The deep state is deep within this government,” he said, echoing Trump’s false allegations about a cabal of opponents seeking to oust him.
The amalgamation of such a diverse group of politicians that represent nearly every major political strain in Israel but the ultra-Orthodox is a grand, worthwhile, history-making experiment that, with the inclusion of the Islamist Arab Ra’am party, could mean improving the lives of Israeli Arabs. They represent 20 percent of the country’s 8.7 million people who historically have complained of being treated as second class citizens.
The ultra-Orthodox parties are out for the first time after participating in many right-wing governments since 1977, with two brief absences.
For secular Israelis, it could mean long-sought desires for societal improvements that could become reality. They include civil marriages and divorce; schools independent of the rabbis; recognition of Reform and Conservative rabbis; gay rights; compulsory military service for the ultra-Orthodox; and even permitting buses to run on the Sabbath nationwide.
The other coalition leader is Yair Lapid, a charismatic centrist who was a TV news anchor, created the coalition through arduous negotiations and heads the Yesh Atid (There Is a Future) party (pronounced ahteed). He is the opposite politically of Bennett, a former education minister who heads the Yamina (Rightwards) party and favors annexation of a big portion of the occupied West Bank.
Lapid, 57, will replace Bennett, 49, as prime minister in 2023 for the second two years of the government’s term, if it lasts. He is to be foreign minister during the first round.
To work together, these disparate parties have agreed not to confront the thorniest issues that divide them, like Jewish settlement of the West Bank, and to focus more on domestic problems affecting Jewish Israelis. They include the high cost of housing and needed jobs. Unemployment was 5.4 percent in April, the last month for which figures were available.
Concentrating on domestic issues could negatively affect any ideas the Biden administration may have about trying to revive the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process. It’s been ignored for years under Netanyahu.
If Washington should insist that the coalition take on Palestinian statehood, it could run the grave risk of right-wing members walking out, letting the government fall.
“The government will work for the entire Israeli public — religious, secular, ultra-Orthodox, Arab — without exception, as one,” Bennett said Friday after the parties signed the coalition agreement.
“The Israeli public deserves a functioning and responsible government that places the good of the country at the top of its agenda,” he said. “That’s what this unity government has been formed to do.”
My nephew, Nadav Eden, 39, and a technical account manager who lives with his wife and two kids in Rishon Lezion, south of Tel Aviv, gave me the Israeli street view. He wrote in response to my emailed question that it’s “tough to say” whether the coalition will survive.
“So many people have gone out of their political comfort zone that it just might stick,” he wrote. “I’m certainly hoping so.”
The most significant outcome in forming the coalition is the inclusion of the United Arab List, or Ra’am, headed by Mansour Abbas. Its acceptance by the three right-wing parties is a pleasant surprise, a major breakthrough.
The coalition came together after the 11-day air war between Israel and Gaza, the densely populated coastal strip about an hour south of Tel Aviv by road that is run by Hamas, a U.S.-branded terrorist organization.
The casualties included 256 Palestinians killed, 66 children among them, plus more than 1,900 wounded, the Gaza Health Ministry said. Israel reported 13 dead, including two children, and at least 200 wounded.
Parties in the coalition include three right-wingers, two centrists, two left-wingers and the Arabs. Some say miracles don’t happen. They need to show that they can.
Richard C. Gross, a correspondent, bureau chief and foreign editor of United Press International, retired as the opinion page editor of The Baltimore Sun.