The sky has not fallen. Opinion piece: Sept ’21

Prime Minister Bennett has now been in office for three months and the sky has not fallen.

In fact what is remarkable is that in the macro, regarding many of the continuing challenges, the modalities for dealing with them also remain plus/minus the same. Other than in tone. Almost, but not entirely, regardless of who leads Israel.

Changes, when they occur, are mostly in style, but not substance.

For but one example, delivering economic aid into Gaza, but trying to do so by bypassing Hamas, is proving to be a very difficult task.

The more Israel and the United States try to prop up the Palestinian Authority, the more the Palestinian street despises them and Hamas becomes even more popular.

The money from Qatar is/was available, but Bennett is trying to avoid the spectre of repeating Netanyahu’s delivery of cash in suitcases to Hamas.

Whilst it is a preferable theoretical idea to get aid to people in Gaza via the Palestinian Authority and by going around Hamas, the question remains of how to actually do so.

So far Lapid’s “economy in return for security” remains just a slogan.

The longer no solution to this pressing matter is found, the hotter the border with Gaza becomes.

The big issue for Bennett vis-à-vis the Palestinians, and a self-made one at that, has become his publicly declared refusal to meet with Mahmoud Abbas.

Wanting to prop the Palestinian Authority up, but refusing to meet with its leader presents its own complexities.

No-one really thinks anything much can come from such a meeting, but has Bennett painted himself into a corner? Will he ultimately be able to resist the pressure to meet with Abbas?

Instead of outcomes or results, holding the meeting itself has now become the issue.

Israel's anti-Netanyahu coalition must now seek parliamentary approval
credit: France24

Generally, on the world stage Prime Minister Bennett and Foreign Minister Lapid are doing well.

Israel’s most critical relationship is with the United States. In the current times of a democratic president in the United States, the case can be made that an antagonistic relationship such as existed between Netanyahu and Obama is less beneficial than a friendly one.

Indeed, Bennett had a very successful visit to the United States.

Under Bennett and Lapid the relationship with the US is currently friendly, strongly supportive and most importantly, almost devoid of public criticism.

The quid pro quo appears to be that likewise, Bennett and Lapid will also keep any criticism of US policy on Iran for example, behind closed doors.

Obama constantly criticised Netanyahu and his policies. However, in his meeting with Bennett, President Biden made little mention of the Palestinians or settlement building and Sheik Jarrah was relegated to its true level of overall relevance.

Importantly, one needs to remember that when it comes to this democratic president of the USA, Bennett has one very big advantage over Netanyahu.

Biden wants Bennett and this coalition to succeed – whereas Obama wanted Netanyahu to fail.

Obama openly wished for and sometimes worked towards toppling Netanyahu in his belief that any of the then successive opposition leaders such as Livni, Herzog et al would be more compliant with Obama’s world view.

On the other hand, Biden knows that if he is unsupportive of Bennett and his coalition and if it should fall apart, then he might have to deal with Netanyahu and an Israeli government more clearly made up of right wing parties, rather than an Israeli coalition constrained by its own makeup.

More widely Bennett and Lapid are also scoring other diplomatic advances, such as Bennett’s meeting with the very important Egyptian President al-Sisi in Egypt. The first such public meeting in a decade.

The meeting was held in a positive atmosphere and Egypt is key to many of Israel’s security and diplomatic issues.

Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman is the most experienced politician in the coalition leadership.

He is also one of the toughest negotiators in the Knesset.

Lieberman has remained completely and uncharacteristically quiet on almost every issue and well away from the public eye.

The building and passage of the budget is his primary focus. As we have discussed before, the passing of the budget in November is critical to this government’s survival.

Lieberman, with his experience and skill has now not only got the budget passed by the Cabinet, but also through its first reading in the Knesset.

There are two more readings to go and much can happen, but so far Lieberman is proving to be the government’s most effective operator.

Presumably he will demand something for this down the track.

Mansour Abbas and his Ra’am party negotiated their price for joining the coalition and have, for the moment, taken a step back to wait and see what the government actually delivers.

There are many potential trigger issues that can bring them to the fore again and only time will tell where this might lead.

Abbas even praised Bennett for his “courage” on taking his party formally into the government when he was recognised erev yom tov, by making the Time 100 list.

One of the four Ra’am MK’s – Said al-Harumi – died of a heart attack last month at the age of 49. There were no suspicious circumstances.

As per the parliamentary norm, he was replaced by the next person on the Ra’am list, Iman Khatib-Yasin. Interestingly enough for a chauvinistic conservative party, Iman is female.

It was Al-Harumi who abstained in June’s confidence vote to establish the government. Meaning only 3 of Ra’am’s 4 MK’s initially supported the new government. It did not affect the outcome, but made the margin as slim as it was.

Now it would appear that Mansour Abbas will have a greater ability to control his full party in votes on future legislation – for or against.

Another point to note is that in the case of the 6 Palestinian escapees from Gilboa prison, 4 now have been apprehended with the help of Arab Israelis who overtly denied them support and gave information which resulted in their recapture.

Whether this is yet another sign of Arab Israelis aligning themselves with the state or not, is too early to say, but it is interesting – and positive.

Benny Gantz is the one coalition party leader who appears to not be afraid of acting independently. Or to put it another way, he is happy to place himself, quite deliberately, more outside of the coalition leadership consensus than anyone else.

Rumours abound of his poor personal relationship with Bennett and around some historical animosity between them.

Gantz also wants people to remember that he actually heads a party with more Knesset seats than Bennett.

Elements of Likud believe that Gantz is the rifest for jumping ship and joining Likud in possible government. Previous experience with Netanyahu may put the kibosh on this, but the fact that rumours keep resurfacing is in itself dangerous for the current government.

Overall, whilst there may not be great policy variations between Netanyahu and Bennett, there are big differences in style and approach.

Perhaps the most outstanding and well appreciated difference in these first 3 months is that Israel has a government which is now functioning. And in a more regular manner.

Not by way of radical policy changes, but simply by ministries returning to basic operational norms and dealing with their day to day issues.

This goes a long way to explaining why the Israeli population by and large is not dissatisfied with the new government.

In this case, a change in style has also proved to be one of substance.

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Dr. Ron Weiser AM is an Hon Life Member of the Zionist Federation of Australia Executive, and the Hon Life President of the Zionist Council of NSW. 

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