Editor’s note: this is part four of a series on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Part one, on the immediate causes of the recent war, can be read here. Part two, on the major obstacle to permanent peace, can be read here. Part three, about the claims of Palestinian activists about the mistreatment of Palestinians, can be read here.
“Countries like Italy [and] Israel… where driving is a life-threatening activity, regularly produce winning margins of less than 50%. They can safely be classified as anarchies.” — Charles Krauthammer
In Israel, after four indecisive elections over two years without a governing majority, a coalition of Jewish nationalists, Palestinians, and relative centrists voted 60-59 (with one abstention) to form a new government.
And we love to think that our country is an ungovernable mess.
On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who served as head of Israel’s government since 2009, was finally unseated by a single vote. This was done by a diverse coalition that consisted of parties from the far-right, center, and far-left — all willing to put aside their differences in order to oust Netanyahu. While the mechanics of how this happened are described here, there are several important lessons for Israel, the Israeli Palestinian conflict, and the West which I would like to draw.
First, a lesson for America. Israel demonstrates that hand wringing about how “America is becoming ungovernable,” or how “gridlock is ruining America” is overwrought. Israel has not had a stable government since April 2019, but has managed to have one of the best vaccination programs in the world and to decisively win a war with Gaza. Israel, which has a parliamentary democracy, is structurally much more vulnerable to gridlock than America, because unlike in Israel, there is always a Head of Government in America (the President) who also serves as Head of State, so the Executive Branch, at least, is always functioning. However, when you see Congress failing to work together to do anything because of polarization, a glance at Israel (or Belgium, for that matter) should remind us that our gridlock is neither unique nor particularly dangerous, however inconvenient it may appear.
Second, as far as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict goes, Israel’s new government is a step towards a greater understanding between Jews and Arabs in Israel. The current governing coalition is made up of nationalist Jews who support expanding settlements in the West Bank, but it is also the first time in Israeli history for an Arab party to be part of a governing coalition. The fact that such different extremes can work together demonstrate that there is hope for greater integration of Jews and Arabs in Israel. They may have been brought together by a common enemy, in this case, the former “prime monster,” but hopefully they grow used to working together. If Israel is to achieve lasting peace, then its Jewish and Arab citizens must learn to live in peace with each other. And what better way to start than by learning to govern together?
While these two takeaways are already apparent, the third takeaway (this one for Israel itself) will only manifest itself after the fate of the government is known. The current prime minister, Naftali Bennett, is from a relatively small right-wing party that has won exactly seven seats in the last election. In 2023, he will turn power over to a representative of a more centrist party, but we will see if he lasts that long. Bennett is fairly isolated, despite being the PM. His party has few supporters in the Knesset (the Israeli parliament) and those few he has might turn out to be as much of a liability as an asset. That is because he will have to find some way to keep the support of both the Arab Knesset members his party relies on and his party base which voted for him. Back in 2019, his party stated that “We are the only [party] that opposes the establishment of a Palestinian state and any withdrawal from the territories of the Land of Israel. We will work to develop settlements throughout the country.” Needless to say, any serious attempt to implement this promise as PM would be a non-starter with the Arabs, but he will likely face at least some internal pressure to do so. It will be interesting to see how he balances these pressures. Meanwhile, because he has a one-seat majority, it would only take one Arab MK deciding that he is just too extreme for them or one member of his party deciding that he has “gone soft” to deprive him of his majority. It will be interesting to see how he overcomes these challenges.
But I think that whether he is able to do so will have implications for the future of Israeli politics, and by extension Western foreign policy. If Bennett manages to barely hold onto power, but does nothing worth mentioning, then this would probably mean business as usual. If his coalition collapses, this would be mostly indistinguishable from the aforementioned situation, and Israel will continue on as before, but with decreasing trust in the government and in democracy. If Netanyahu manages to stage a triumphant return (he is not called “the magician” for nothing) he will likely be invincible, as the electorate will perceive him as such, and vote accordingly. If Bennett manages to actually do something important, or is able to work closely with his coalition members, that would be very positive for Israel, as it would herald the dawn of a new era in Israeli politics — one in which the divide between Jewish and Arab political parties would be much less formidable than it is now.
Challenges have already begun for the government, as Hamas celebrated the occasion by launching incendiary balloons at Southern Israel, to which the IDF responded with airstrikes. How the new government responds to this threat will be interesting to see. Whatever happens, Israel’s political roller-coaster ride is far from over.