Wednesday, June 02, 2021

Bye Bye Bibi

Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid party, has officially announced he has successfully formed a governing coalition that will send long-reigning Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu to the back benches. The coalition is an eclectic mix of left, center, and right-wing parties, with Lapid and Naftali Bennett rotating as PM (Bennett will go first). I have plenty of thoughts on the new government, but I've been resisting writing on it until it actually happened. Part of me still doesn't want to jinx it until a new butt is physically sitting in the Prime Minister's chair. But at this point, I think it's safe to say it's happening.

So -- what do you need to know about the new team running the show in Israel?
  • Everyone and their grandma has said "don't be too quick to celebrate Bennett as PM -- he's even more right-wing than Bibi!" And at one level, they're right: anyone on the left is solely celebrating Bibi being out, not Bennett being in. That being said -- it's a big deal that Bibi is out, and that's very much worth celebrating.
  • In 2021, is Bennett more right-wing than Bibi? I'm actually not sure. This was absolutely a true statement five years ago, but much of it was based off the fact that Bennett was expressly opposed to a Palestinian state while Bibi was occasionally only implicitly opposed to it. That seems like a relatively thin reed to me. And meanwhile, Bibi has surged further and further into the recesses of right-wing authoritarianism, which is part of why Bennett broke with him. Someone made the analogy that Bibi is like Trump and Bennett is like Pence -- who is more conservative of the two? Depends on how you measure it. Bennett's probably more of a true-believer, while Bibi is more of an opportunist -- but in his capacity as an opportunist Bibi broke through more taboos and barriers than many thought possible. I don't think it's clear-cut anymore.
  • It's also possible -- not guaranteed, or even likely, but possible -- that Bennett will moderate now that he's in charge. As Ariel Sharon reportedly put it: "things look different from over here." The trajectory of right-wing leaders tacking to the center once they see things from the top is not uncommon in recent Israeli history -- see Sharon, Ehud Olmert, and Tzipi Livni -- and perhaps Bennett will follow, if only by a few steps. I'm dubious, but it's not out of the question.
  • Irrespective of Bennett's own politics, the bigger constraint on him is that his faction is certainly the most conservative member of the new governing coalition. There's a big difference between someone like Bennett being smack in the middle of the ideological pack (as he'd have been in a Bibi government) versus someone like Bennett being at the right-most edge of his cohort (as he is in this government).
  • Speaking of, let's talk about the rest of the coalition. The biggest news: an Arab party will supporting the government from the inside, in what I believe is a first in Israeli history. Irony bit number one: it's the most conservative of the Arab parties -- the Islamist United Arab List, headed by Mansour Abbas. Irony bit number two: Bibi probably paved the way for this, as in his desperate search for 61 votes he courted the UAL, thus legitimizing such courtship for other parties as well.
  • It is a big, big deal that an Arab party will be part of the government. In recent years, the Arab public in Israel has started flexing its muscle in unprecedented ways -- starting, ironically, with Bibi trying to lock them out of politics altogether by raising the electoral threshold. That prompted the diverse Arab blocs to unify into the Joint List, which catapulted them overnight into one of the largest factions in the entire Knesset. Kicking and screaming though they may have been, the Israeli center and left finally seems to have internalized that there's no path to power for them without some support from the Arab parties. And even though the UAL broke from the Joint List this past cycle, it managed to squeak back into the Knesset and now has a place in government. Priorities include increasing funding for Arab towns, recognizing Bedouin villages in the Negev, and ending underpolicing (yes, underpolicing) of Arab communities. For what it's worth, Bennett has always taken the view that Palestinian equality can be bought off with economic development. Morally repulsive, yes, but it means he likely will be perfectly receptive to these demands.
  • Another significant accomplishment for Israel's Arab community -- Meretz's Issawi Frej looks set to become Minister of Regional Cooperation. This would, I believe, mark just the second time an Arab MK has had a ministry with portfolio in Israel's history. Likewise, Pnina Tamano-Shata, a member of the Ethiopian Beta Israel community, looks to be on tap to be Minister of Immigrant Absorption -- and position that is important both substantively and symbolically for her community.
  • Two other minister positions worth noting. Labor leader Merav Michaeli -- perhaps her party's last, best hope at staying relevant -- will be Transportation Minister. That may not seem like a big deal, but settler leaders are in a panic that Michaeli won't approve various new highways slashing through the West Bank to connect far-flung settlements with Israel proper. Good -- let them stew. In less happy, though inevitable, news, Bennett's number two, Ayelet "Eau d'Fascism" Shaked will be heading the Interior Ministry.
  • So much has happened in Israel that we've all almost forgotten why Bibi was fighting like a rabid weasel to stay in charge. It's not (just) because he's power-hungry -- it's that he's under indictment, and was desperate to have an immunity law passed that could save him and his wife from prison. That's not happening now. Shed a tear if you can.
  • Aside from Bibi, who else is on the outside looking in? Most importantly, the fascists from Otzma Yehudit and National Union that Bibi recruited to try and shore up his right-flank -- thank goodness. But also the Haredi parties, Shas and UTJ. These two parties had historically been ideologically "flexible" and so typically found themselves in most government coalitions -- give them the rabbinate, army exemptions, and subsidies, and they were perfectly happy to go along with whoever was in charge. But in the past few years they have more overtly aligned themselves with the political right, and the result is that now they're on the outs facing a government coalition that may be the most inclined towards supporting religious pluralism Israel has ever seen. The prospect of substantive reforms along this axis is genuinely exciting. And it's also possible that some time in the wilderness will inspire the Shas and UTJ chieftains to rethink whether going all-in with Israel's right-wing is to their benefit.
Ultimately, I have two main takeaways. One is to keep expectations in check. This is not a "left-wing" government, it's not going to revolutionize Israel, and it's unlikely to make significant headway in bringing peace and justice for Palestinians. But the second is that this is a real and material step forward along many dimensions, and can be legitimately celebrated. There's a branch of the commentariat eeyoring about this development mostly because they are ideologically committed to the notion that nothing that happens in Israel can be good news. They are wrong -- this is good news. It's not spectacular, it's not paradise, but it's good news, and can be celebrated as good news.

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