ISRAEL:  Navigating a new leadership

ISRAEL:  Navigating a new leadership

By Mike Burnard, Analytical Strategist at dia-LOGOS

On Wednesday evening (2 June 2021), the seemingly impossible happened: A coalition of Israeli Knesset members formed with numbers sufficient to unseat Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.  

Yamina leader and Prime Minister-designate Naftali Bennett and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid after announcing the formation of a new coalition, June 3, 2021. (Photo: Yesh Atid handout)

Israeli Opposition Leader Yair Lapid managed to gather together 61 seats, with the improbable help of far-right nationalist Naftali Bennett and Mansour Abbas, leader of the Islamist Arab party Ra’am.  The new government will consist of eight parties from the left, center, and right with Naftali Bennett scheduled to become the new prime minister.  

Under his deal with centrist Yair Lapid, Bennett would serve as PM for two-plus years, then Lapid would rotate into the role. Bennett, 49, is the head of a historically small party, that won only seven of the Israeli parliament’s 120 seats, in Israel’s most recent election. He would be Israel’s first Orthodox Jewish prime minister, the country’s first leader born of American parents and the first prime minister to have become rich in the tech sector. He is an avowed opponent of the two-state solution and a fierce advocate of annexation. 

The Knesset will meet to set a date for a vote on a new government, most likely June 14th

Chris Eden, national director of Bridges for Peace South Africa (https://www.bridgesforpeace.com/), provided the following perspective.

The Israel Knesset (Parliament) comprises 120 seats, elected through proportional representation and with all Israeli citizens over the age of 18, including the 20% Arab minority, eligible to vote. To manage fragmentation, there is an electoral threshold of 4 seats for a party to be included in the Knesset. In its 73-year history, there has never been a party with an outright majority (61 seats) and consequently, a significant part of the electoral process is the negotiation between political parties to form a viable government. This process impacts the budget, legislation to be addressed and key issues faced by Israel.

Israel’s political landscape can simplistically be divided into a right and left-wing. Key drivers on the right are the extent to which Biblical values, such as Sabbath observance dictate the calendar and the belief that Israel should retain or even annex, what is regarded as the heartland of the Bible, Judea, and Samaria and of course, Jerusalem. On the left there is the push towards secularization and liberalization of Israel.

There are two important islands in Israeli politics. The Ultra-Orthodox (13 seats) are generally willing to serve in any government provided it benefits their educational institutions and maintains the exemption of Ultra-Orthodox men and women from being drafted into the Israel Defence Force. This exemption and the Ultra-Orthodox monopoly over conversions to Judaism and marriage in Israel are highly emotive issues in Israel. The Arab parties (10 seats) have typically assumed an adversarial role against the state of Israel and have not been considered as viable coalition parties.

The incumbent Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been at the helm for 12 years, has arguably been Israel’s best leader. The Israeli economy that nurtures a strong entrepreneurial spirit, is vibrant and effectively leverages off massive economies such as the US, China, and India and now, with the signing of the Abraham Accord, also has access to markets through the UAE. The Accords, under Netanyahu’s oversight, have opened an unexpected diplomatic and economic door. Furthermore, he evolved the IDF to be multiple steps ahead of its foes in the region, successfully engaging with Iran beyond Israel’s borders and frustrating their plans to extend their tentacles in the region to overwhelm not only Israel but the Sunni majority countries as well.

Netanyahu’s greatest failure has been to keep key role players in the ruling Likud party and his coalition partners on board. This alienation led to the centre-right parties vowing not to be part of a Netanyahu-led coalition.

Another development of note has been the shift by the Muslim Brotherhood inspired Arab Ra’am Party away from spoiler-type politics to leveraging their position within the Knesset to successfully seek solutions for some of the unique challenges faced by Israeli Arab communities.

4 Elections in 2 years and the convergence of the points mentioned, created an element of desperation that led, in the words of William Shakespeare, to the formation of a coalition with “strange bedfellows.” 8 Parties commanding 61 Knesset seats represent almost the entire spectrum of Israeli politics including the Yamina Party (7 seats/Naftali Bennet) on the extreme right and Ra’am (4 seats/Mansour Abbas) on the left-most fringe. Both leaders are seen by their constituents as traitors to the cause. Although Yesh Atid under the leadership of Yair Lapid has 17 seats, Bennet, dubbed the “Kingmaker,” has secured the position of Prime Minister for the first 2 years to be replaced by Lapid after that.

How will this coalition govern given the diversity and differing agenda of the 8 partners?

Although not yet made public, a two-tier coalition agreement between Yesh Atid and Yamina and between Yesh Atid and the remaining partners will form the bedrock of the coalition. To safeguard the coalition, two legislative changes are high on the priority list. The first will be to limit the number of consecutive terms for Prime Ministers and another, termed the Norwegian Law, to allow a greater number of cabinet ministers to resign their Knesset seats in favor of members within their parties.

Two participants in the coalition have shaken the establishment and their participation together, being perceived as opposites, has amplified the noise generated. Yamina as a party is positioned on the far right of the political spectrum and their members strongly endorse settlement expansion and the annexation of parts or all of Judea and Samaria. The response to their decision to enter the coalition has stirred anger on the far right and Bennet and fellow Knesset members have been branded as treasonous and as sell-outs. Bennet will likely, within the constraints of the coalition be given sufficient leeway as Prime Minister to re-establish his credibility on the right but without major moves concerning the present status on the ground as impacting the Palestinians.

Mansour Abbas has done internally what the UAE did externally and for similar reasons. Just as the UAE had allowed its own needs as a nation to be taken hostage by the narrative of Palestine-first doctrine, the same has been the case with Arab parties in Israel. On both fronts, this has been sustained and fueled in recent years by Iran, Turkey, Hamas, Hezbollah and Qatar and the notion that the demise of Israel is only a matter of time. This is rooted in the Arab tradition that a tribe should place its allegiance with what it perceives as the “strong man.” This does not mean that Abbas has changed ideology, but it implies that he realises that his “tribe” will be better served by working with the Israeli establishment. Bennet, with his hawkish approach, surprisingly fuels this concept. Without a doubt, all the parties above will be incensed by Ra’am’s shift.

Conflict and political drama are not new, or unique to Israel. What is unique is that from the earliest days of their nationhood, Israel has been kept before the eyes of the nations in an unprecedented manner. Jerusalem, not Washington or Beijing or London, is the centre of attention. Sadly, across the nations, in structures like the United Nations and in the media there are calls to denounce Israel. This is not new. This was the commission given to Balaam as Israel journeyed towards their promised land: “From Aram Balak has brought me, Moab’s king from the mountains of the East, ‘Come curse Jacob for me, and come, denounce Israel!’ “How shall I curse whom God has not cursed? And how can I denounce whom the LORD has not denounced? “As I see him from the top of the rocks, And I look at him from the hills; Behold, a people who dwells apart, And will not be reckoned among the nations. (Num 23:7-9)

‘… a people who dwells apart, and will not be reckoned among the nations’ indeed, haunting words yet oddly encouraging for those who are listening for what God is saying in these times.  What we see as, grossly unfair and humanly contrived, could well be simply how it is and how God intends it to be.  At the very least it is unusual. 

ICEJ Feast of Tabernacles celebration in Jerusalem, Oct. 15, 2019 (Photo: ICEJ/Facebook)

Two questions to ask from a CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE are the following:

How will pro-Israel evangelicals react to the post-Bibi era?  Can Bennett and Lapid build trust with evangelicals?

Joel C. Rosenberg, in a column in the Jerusalem Post, provides the following context:   (https://www.allisrael.com/political-earthquake-how-will-pro-israel-evangelicals-react-to-the-post-bibi-era-can-bennett-and-lapid-build-trust-with-evangelicals)  

The big question now is this: Will Bennett, Lapid and their colleagues and advisors learn from and build upon the Netanyahu legacy with Evangelicals?  For the sake of the country and this important alliance, I hope so.

Most Evangelicals, for example, will be pleasantly surprised to discover that Naftali Bennett is, in many ways, Netanyahu’s protegee.

  • And that Bennett served in the same IDF special forces unit as Netanyahu.
  • And that Bennett served as Netanyahu’s chief of staff and was once one of his closest political allies.
  • And that Bennett’s ideology and policies are almost exactly the same as Netanyahu’s.
  • And that Bennett served in Netanyahu’s cabinet in multiple positions, including as Defense Minister and as Education Minister.
  • And that Bennett wanted to join a Netanyahu-led right-wing government, but that it was Netanyahu who was not able to cobble together the necessary 61 seat majority.

Likewise, most Evangelicals will be surprised to learn that Yair Lapid used to work very closely with Netanyahu.

  • And that Lapid served in Netanyahu’s cabinet as Finance Minister.
  • And that Lapid is a centrist, not a radical left-winger.
  • And that it was Lapid who actively and successfully courted many right-wingers to join this new “change government” – not just Bennett and his Yamina (“Rightward”) party, but Gideon Sa’ar (who used to be the number two official in Netanyahu’s Likud party), and Avigdor Liberman (who used to be Netanyahu’s chief of staff.)

I have not yet met with Bennett but have gotten to know some of his team.  However, I have met with and interviewed Lapid over the years, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, and incoming Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar (whom I consider a personal friend), as well as their advisors.

While I don’t agree with them on every issue, I like these men. I believe they are honest, principled, candid, and care deeply about steering Israel in the right direction.  I also believe that if they are positive and pro-active in reaching out to the Christian community, and do interviews with Christian media, and invite Christian leaders to come meet with them, that they will be warmly welcomed by Evangelicals and truly strengthen this critically important alliance.

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