[On 23 March 2021 Israel conducted its fourth election within two years, which again produced an inconclusive result. After Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party failed to cobble together a parliamentary majority that would extend his twelve-year run as prime minister, a disparate coalition of eight parties joined forces to remove him from office, and a new government was installed in early June. Mouin Rabbani, editor of Quick Thoughts and Jadaliyya Co-Editor, interviewed Israeli scholar Yossi Mekelberg about the formation and composition of Israel's new government.]
Mouin Rabbani (MR): How would you characterize Israel's new government? Does it have a political program that extends beyond removing Netanyahu from power?
Yossi Mekelberg (YM): The new coalition government was born out of fatigue with Benjamin Netanyahu, but this fatigue is not enough to keep it together. After all, this is a coalition comprised of eight parties, representing the right and the left; two-staters and those who would like to annex at least parts of the West Bank; the religious and secular; pure free-marketeers and social-democrats; and also includes an Arab Islamist party.
In the absence of clear policies, or of agreement among its constituent members about what this government can and cannot achieve, its organizing principle—to depose Netanyahu—is insufficient to sustain it. If the coalition partners are unable to work through their differences, it will end in another general election.
The challenges are profound, but if the government lasts it might provide a modicum of stability and serve to heal Israeli society after an era in which the country became subservient to Netanyahu’s lust for power and his relentless campaign to escape justice. The alternative is continued instability in the form of additional elections, which would be conducted sooner rather than later. Under such circumstances, several elections might be required before Israel gets a stable government.
MR: Do you expect that the main challenges to the new government will come from differences between the various coalition partners, or tensions between the government and members of the outgoing coalition?
YM: The challenges will come from the contradictions that exist within the coalition, and whether domestic and international pressure points will drive wedges into and fracture the coalition or consolidate it. Iran’s regional activities and the anticipated return of the United States to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear agreement, present major challenges that might divide the government, as is the case with relations with the Palestinians. However, economic policies, the relationship between state and religion, the recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, and the future of the welfare state are all issues that divide the coalition, and unless these are addressed the coalition’s days are numbered.
MR: What policy does the new government have with respect to the Palestinians, and how does this differ from the previous government?
YM: No significant changes should be expected with respect to Israeli policy vis-à-vis the Palestinians. Between an Israeli government that is comprised of parties and personalities who harbor diametrically opposite views on a permanent status agreement with the Palestinians; a Palestinian political system in a state of flux; and an international community that is clearly disinterested, a peace process is not on the cards. Hence, the current Israeli government will be mainly engaged in conflict management rather than conflict resolution. The fraught relations with the Palestinians are inevitably going to be tested in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and perhaps within Israel as well.
MR: What is your prognosis regarding the future of Netanyahu and the Likud Party?
YM: Famous last words: “Netanyahu is politically finished.” Netanyahu will continue the fight of his life to retain political relevance and derail his corruption trial, which comprises three separate cases involving bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. He will stop at nothing to pave his way back to power, which would increase his ability to influence the court proceedings. The longer the current government survives, the greater the pressure will be from within Likud to replace him. The self-proclaimed heir apparent(s) vying for his position are becoming restless. None of them has the same stature among the right in Israel, and I expect a prolonged period of realignments within this camp that will continue at least until the next general election.