So extreme has Netanyahu’s rhetoric become that it has led to fears of physical harm or even the assassination of opposition leaders. The head of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, made a rare public warning of “a serious rise and radicalization in violent and inciting discourse, specifically on social media [that] may be interpreted among certain groups or individuals as one that allows violent and illegal activity and could even lead to harm to individuals.” Recalling the violent atmosphere stirred up by Netanyahu and his allies that preceded Rabin’s assassination, leaders of Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party have been given round-the-clock security protection.
One would think that some radical—even mildly liberal—change in policy is in store if what Netanyahu calls a “dangerous left-wing government” depending on “extreme Left” and “supporters of terrorism” (the Islamic Ra’am party) comes to power. As we say in Hebrew: halevai, if only. In fact, Prime Minister–designate Bennett has tried to calm the waters by assuring voters (and especially his voters) that the new government will be more right-wing than that of the Likud.
That should have been evident from the new government’s composition. It is comprised of eight parties. Five come from the Right. Bennett and Ayelet Shaked’s Yamina (“to the Right”) party represents religious settlers. Gidon Sa’ar’s New Hope party is a break-away from the Likud and is also positioned to the right of the Likud. Avigdor Leiberman’s Russian-based Israel Is My Home party advocates the transfer of Arab citizens out of the country. To these three parties representing the extreme Right, we can add Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (There Is A Future), a yuppie-ish “center-right” party advocating for a neoliberal economy and its sister party, Benny Gans’ Blue-White party.
In certain ways, Ra’am, the Islamic party of Mansour Abbas that represents mainly the Bedouin population of the Negev, also belongs to the bloc of right-wing parties. Having a largely religious agenda, Abbas would have preferred to join a Netanyahu government where, in addition to eking out some benefits for the poverty-stricken Bedouins, he could join the religious Jewish parties in opposing LGBTQ rights. He certainly has no larger anti-occupation or civil rights Palestinian agenda—not even demanding the rescinding of the Nationalities Law passed last year that confirms in law the second-class status of Israel’s Palestinian citizens
Facing these five or six parties of the right is the left—although we are speaking of the “Zionist left.” The once mighty Labor Party, now reduced to seven seats out of the parliament’s 120, headed by Merav Michaeli, and Meretz, a self-described social-democratic and green political party headed by Nitzan Horowitz, that pursues more of a domestic agenda of environmental and gender rights than any meaningful opposition to occupation policies. Indeed, both Labor and Meretz, the only plausible inspiration for Netanyahu’s warnings of “radical left-wing change,” are mild center-left parties who describe themselves as “Zionist” and therefore easily able to accommodate themselves to what will actually be another right-wing government.
What, then, is the new government’s agenda? The primary motivation behind this diverse coalition is a common desire to get rid of Netanyahu, less for political reasons—at least among the five Right parties and Ra’am—than merely because he has managed to personally alienate all of the members of the break-away Right parties. The new government will not depart, however, from Netanyahu’s policies. Instead, it will attempt to focus on domestic issues over which there is less disagreement—the economy, infrastructure, health and the like—downplaying, even ignoring as much as possible, issues connected to the occupation and the anyway-moribund “peace process.”
So for people who would think that “the conflict” is uppermost in the minds of Israelis, certainly only a couple weeks after Hamas lobbed 4000 rockets into Israel from Gaza, the very fact that the “government of change” (from Netanyahu) continues to treat the Palestinian issue and occupation as a non-issue demonstrates how little Israel’s policies of apartheid and repression actually matter to the Jewish Israeli public. The settler state has been, in its view, completely normalized. All that needs to be done to complete the Judaization process is some mopping up.
Is this sustainable? While the new government will continue Netanyahu’s policies toward the Palestinians and the ongoing settlement project, it might well mark a turning point in Israel’s ability to fend off accountability for its actions and growing international concern for Palestinian rights. Say what you will about Netanyahu, he is a skillful statesman. Smooth, a native English-speaker and someone with an extensive personal network among world leaders and who knows how the international system works, Netanyahu has managed to keep Israel’s international standing high despite its increasingly unpopular occupation and the political disruption it causes.
All of the prospective next prime ministers, be they virtual unknowns like Bennett, Saar, Erdan, Katz or even Gans, lack those skills and connections. Israel’s next set of leaders will be parochial, local political hacks without Netanyahu’s articulateness and ability to manage Israel’s image and privileged international position while engaged in home demolitions, mass arrests of children, attacks on al-Aksa and Palestinian communities, settlement construction, annexation and continued stonewalling of any peace process. Given the surge in popular support for the Palestinians in the wake of last month’s events, Israel’s Teflon ability to avoid international sanctions may finally begin to unravel. Relegating the Palestinian issue to a “non-issue” might serve the unwieldy new government for a short time, but in the end may mark a turning point in our ability to hold Israel accountable and pursue a genuine and just peace.
Finally it’s worth noting that the new Israeli government is not yet a done deal. It will only be sworn in on Sunday, June 14. Until then, Netanyahu still has a few tricks up his sleeve. Like bribing just one opposition member away from the opposition coalition—all he needs to frustrate the establishment of a new government. Or siccing his most fervent and violent followers on members of Bennett’s and Sarr’s parties, besieging their families in their homes. Sunday is a long way away in Israeli politics. Everything’s still open for change.