Benjamin Netanyahu holding the government together: Opinion piece: Opinion piece: July ’21

The Israeli government coalition of eight parties, where not only can any one party bring the government down, but even a disaffected individual MK is able to do so, has survived its first two months.

Israel's Knesset to vote on new government, end Netanyahu's reign | Benjamin Netanyahu News | Al Jazeera
credit: Al Jazeera

The glue holding it together in one very real way is Benjamin Netanyahu – who they unanimously agree on keeping out of the prime ministerial office and in opposition.

The longer this coalition can survive, the more tenuous Netanyahu’s grip on the Likud leadership. His party has at least four or five self-declared contenders to replace him ‘at the right time’. The anger in Likud about being in opposition is rising and Netanyahu is increasingly publically being held responsible for this, by senior members of his own party.

Should he be replaced as head of Likud, the political calculus could change dramatically.

In the meantime, the coalition has already demonstrated a remarkable degree of internal cooperation and ability to govern.

Perhaps nothing demonstrates this more than the budget.

Israel has not been able to pass a budget for almost three years and yet this coalition of seemingly disparate parties has been able, at least to date, to agree on a remarkable budget – possibly the most ambitious and transformative in a decade or two.

And they did so with little visible disagreement or the usual heated debates.

It was approved by the cabinet on the 2nd of August and now needs to be passed by the Knesset by the 4th of November – or the government will fall and elections will be held once again.

The fact that cabinet has passed it, means that the various party leaders have been able to agree. The budget’s next test will be for the Knesset to pass it – i.e. that all MK’s within the coalition follow their respective leaders and also support it.

Key points in the budget include:

– lowering the cost of living – with agricultural reforms, making importing easier, removing the kashrut monopoly (also weakening the Chief Rabbinate’s powers), et al.

– massive infrastructure spending planned on transport, building a new airport and new hospitals.

– a housing plan to convert tens of millions of square metres of unused office space into residences.

– amongst many more initiatives are to reduce Haredi stipends, increase taxes on disposable plastic, increase taxes on sugary drinks and to raise the retirement age for woman to 65.

– a doubling of the previous allocations to Israel’s minorities, on top of which it proposes to spend a billion AUD$ to fight organised Arab crime, dealing with one of the key demands of Mansour Abbas in joining the government.

If it is passed and implemented, it will indeed be a very big achievement.

Haviv Rettig Gur on the legality of settlements | The Times of Israel
credit: Times of Israel

As Haviv Rettig Gur astutely noted: “At the government’s swearing-in, pundits suggested that hovering permanently at the edge of a political precipice would make the new ministers timid and the government unassertive. If anything life on the edge has had the opposite effect.”

With a new president in the White House and a new prime minister and foreign minister in Israel – the circumstances are different, the relationship is different and the management of policy is different.

We are in the process of seeing just how these different times pan out.

And it’s all about Iran – which affects how other policy is managed.

Under Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Trump, settlement growth was modest.

However, even though the Trump Plan envisioned Israel giving up half of Area C, the tone on settlement building was positive.

Indeed, Trump backed the legality of Jewish growth in Area C.

In the written and published coalition agreement between Bennett and Lapid regarding Judaea & Samaria/West Bank – prior to entering government – it said: “Ensuring Israel’s national interests in Area C of the West Bank is under full Israeli security and civil control, allocating resources to the Defence Ministry to beef up enforcement against illegal Palestinian construction in Area C”.

Now in government, PM Bennett has proposed the building of some 2,200 Jewish homes in Area C – a relatively large number by previous Netanyahu standards – albeit down from Bennett’s original intention to approve of 3,200 homes.

But at the same time and in perhaps another watershed moment – the government has also proposed to increase the Palestinian footprint in Area C by between 800 and 1,000 homes.

Many of these Palestinian homes have already been built illegally.

Such approval, if it eventuates, is rare. Netanyahu had announced similar plans every few years – such as 2016 and 2019.

Bennett is understood to have proposed the Palestinian building approvals to make the new Jewish homes more palatable to Biden and to avoid spoiling their upcoming first formal meeting.

As every Israeli prime minister has said once sitting in the actual chair – ‘things look different from here’.

Biden for his part has delayed the reopening of the US Consulate in Jerusalem (which deals directly with the Palestinians and which Trump had closed), until after his forthcoming meeting with Bennett.

So, at this point in time, and with the positive support provided to Israel by Biden during the May war with Hamas, one can say that whilst the relationship is different, there is a large degree of cooperation and coordination between the Israeli and US administrations to date.

With Israel however, now needing to be far more careful and restricted in certain areas as Biden is looked upon as friendly, but also willing to be more assertively critical.

When it comes to Iran, Sheikh Abdullah bin Ahmad al Khalifa, Bahrain’s Undersecretary for International Relations did not mince words during his visit to Jerusalem last week.

He said that the Obama JCPOA 2015 Iran nuclear deal had “fuelled violence and unrest across the region and caused the death of innocents. What result did we get out of the JCPOA, remind me? Was there any good result that came out of it? I do not think so. For us, we haven’t seen it.”

Just as Israeli leaders have warned, Khalifa said that the JCPOA was flawed because it focused only on Iran’s nuclear program: “It disregarded two other prime issues that the region is facing, namely [Tehran’s] ballistic missile program and the malign behaviour of Iran… from what we have seen, the malign activities of Iran in the region are continuing. If you look into the crises across the Middle East, you will find one red thread that would go across all those crises. You would find   an Iranian finger”.

Will Biden heed these warnings when negotiating with Iran this time around?

The jury is still out.

Another Biden issue is tied up with the whole perception of American power and her will to use that power.

And make no mistake about it, Israel’s strength and deterrence lies in large part with the support it gains physically, emotionally and morally from a strong America.

When America looks weak, Israel is weaker.

No doubt, it was a centrepiece of Trump’s foreign policy to get out of Afghanistan.

However, notwithstanding the rights and wrongs of the policy to exit – and what it leaves behind in terms of radical Islam – once that had been decided, then the question was how to do so?

The way that America (and her allies) are in the process of leaving Afghanistan undermines American credibility, calls into question American military ability and creates doubt about her political will.

Many commentators are comparing it to the debacle on leaving Saigon, but it perhaps has similar or more parallels with Israel’s departure from Lebanon in 2000.

And the naïve in the extreme, assessment of what would happen after US forces left Afghanistan, leaves a big question mark over how realistically the Biden administration will be able to understand the big picture, when it comes to Iran.

The Israeli government has done more than just merely survive its first two months, but there are almost daily challenges which will test this coalition at every turn – and that’s difficult when having to deal with Iran; her proxies in Lebanon, Gaza and elsewhere; the new US administration; the big rise in Covid cases internally; and whatever new challenges will come along.

So far however, this government is surprising most people on the upside.

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