Dispatch

A Deeply Divided Israel Greets New Coalition Government

The “change government” of Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid promises little real change—other than an end to Netanyahu.

A Palestinian activist confronts a soldier in Jerusalem.
Longtime Palestinian activist Nafisa Ques, 60, protests near Jerusalem's Damascus Gate on June 10. Stefanie Glinski for Foreign Policy

JERUSALEM—Outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12 consecutive years in power ended after a momentous vote during a chaotic and heated parliament session Sunday night that declared Naftali Bennett Israel’s new prime minister.

The Knesset opted for an unwieldy eight-party coalition, backed by a tight 60-59 majority, with one member of an Arab party abstaining. The new alliance is both unlikely and fragile, spanning the political spectrum and including both far-right and far-left parties, as well as, for the first time, an Arab party.

Many Israelis, most of them left-wing supporters, took to the streets in celebration on Sunday night, dancing and waving flags. Yet Jerusalem—and the rest of Israel—remain deeply divided, and there’s little indication that the new coalition government can do much to bridge those differences.

A Palestinian activist confronts a soldier in Jerusalem.

Longtime Palestinian activist Nafisa Ques, 60, protests near occupied East Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate on June 10. Stefanie Glinski for Foreign Policy

JERUSALEM—Outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12 consecutive years in power ended after a momentous vote during a chaotic and heated parliament session Sunday night that declared Naftali Bennett Israel’s new prime minister.

The Knesset opted for an unwieldy eight-party coalition, backed by a tight 60-59 majority, with one member of an Arab party abstaining. The new alliance is both unlikely and fragile, spanning the political spectrum and including both far-right and far-left parties, as well as, for the first time, an Arab party.

Many Israelis, most of them left-wing supporters, took to the streets in celebration on Sunday night, dancing and waving flags. Yet Jerusalem—and the rest of Israel—remain deeply divided, and there’s little indication that the new coalition government can do much to bridge those differences.

Bennett, head of the right-wing Yamina party, will serve as prime minister for the next two years, then give way to his centrist partner, Yair Lapid, head of Yesh Atid. 

Bennett presented his coalition among shouts of “criminal” and “liar” by right-wing lawmakers who accuse him of voter fraud. Days before Sunday’s swearing-in ceremony, right-wing Israelis protested outside the parliament building in Jerusalem, shouting for the Bennett-Lapid pact to be abolished, claiming that deeply divided politicians wouldn’t be able to work together.

Right-wing Israelis protest the formation of the new Israeli governmen

Right-wing supporters of Netanyahu protest the formation of the new government outside the Knesset in Jerusalem on June 10. Stefanie Glinski for Foreign Policy

But Bennett on Sunday said he was proud of the ability to sit with people with very different opinions at a moment he deemed “decisive.”

“It’s time for responsible leaders from different parts of the nation to stop this madness,” Bennett said. “We are facing an internal challenge, a divide in the people that is being seen at these very moments,” he said, adding that hatred had paralyzed the country.

Lapid forsook his speech altogether but later said, “The real divide [in Israel] is between moderates and extremists. Those who want to build and those who want to destroy.”

World leaders sent their well wishes; U.S. President Joe Biden said that “Israel has no better friend than the United States.”

Few people, least of all Palestinians, expect much real change from Bennett.

Netanyahu, who vowed to be back in power soon, lambasted the new government on his way out the door. He accused Bennett of perpetrating the “greatest fraud in Israel’s history,” saying the new prime minister had ruled out a coalition with Netanyahu’s Likud party even before the election, and called him “fake right.” He warned that the new government wouldn’t be able to combat U.S. and Iranian efforts to resuscitate the 2015 nuclear deal, a policy his government had opposed. In his government address, Netanyahu also asked, “How will we fight the establishment of a Palestinian state when a majority of the government supports it?”

Both protests and celebrations erupted outside the parliament as lawmakers were sworn in on Sunday evening, but while opinions on the new coalition—dubbed the “change government”—are divided across Israel, few people, least of all Palestinians, expect much real change from Bennett, who is still considered an ultranationalist. For many, the more important message was simply Netanyahu’s departure after more than a decade in office.

On the eve of the swearing-in ceremony, around 2,000 Israelis gathered outside Netanyahu’s Jerusalem residence, protesting and celebrating what many said was the “end of the crime minster’s era.”

Protesters outside Benjamin Netanyahu's residence

Left-wing supporters of Israel’s new coalition government, as well as right-wingers hoping to oust Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, protest outside Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem on June 12 on the eve of the government’s vote to remove him. Stefanie Glinski for Foreign Policy

Protesters outside Netanyahu's residence

People protest outside Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem on June 12.Stefanie Glinski for Foreign Policy

“The last 12 years have been devastating for democracy and peace. Netanyahu has divided the people; he started this even before [former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin was murdered and has continued to this day. Rabin wanted to bring the people together, and he got killed for it,” said Nimrod Misgav, a 38-year-old teacher and protester. Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing extremist 25 years ago.

“Many young people—including teenagers—lean to the right, because it’s all they have ever known. While Bennett is not really popular, I am still hopeful,” Misgav said. “This is the first time in over a decade that liberal powers in Israel are in the government.”

The “change government” follows the fourth election within the last two years. A “unity government” formed in April 2020 collapsed after less than a year. 

Whether the Bennett-Lapid deal will last is doubtful, many say. “It’s diverse, so it can’t go well,” said Joost Hiltermann, the International Crisis Group’s Middle East and North Africa director. The new coalition was already nearly derailed last month by an 11-day battle between Israel and Hamas that briefly gave Netanyahu a new lease on life.

But simply forming the new government will do little to address the simmering divides in Israeli politics. “Dark days are coming,” said 26-year-old medical student Oria Benjamin. “Bennett promised that he would never go with the left, but he cheated his voters. He doesn’t respect the Israeli people’s wishes, and his progressive agenda is a problem.”

If Israelis are divided, Palestinians are largely united—in apathy. Both Bennett and Lapid have in the past indicated that “change” won’t extend to any policy shift on Israeli-Palestinian issues. Bennett, 49, will be the first prime minister who in the past has lived in a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank. Settlements are considered illegal under international law.

Longtime Palestinian activist Nafisa Ques, 60, who keeps a Palestinian flag hidden in her purse and ventures out to most of Jerusalem’s protests in her golf cart, said that she was concerned but not afraid. “I will die for Palestine,” she said. 

In recent weeks, Jewish settlers have seized Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in a move considered illegal by the international community, but that Jewish settlers claim as rightful. Last week, dozens of Palestinian families in East Jerusalem’s Bustan neighborhood received demolition orders on the grounds that their houses had been built without permits. Both neighborhoods have since seen ongoing protests and frequent clashes with the police.

Even though the coalition spans from the right to the left, “it’s not a shift away from the right.”

Tamara Barbar, a social worker at the Al-Bustan Association Silwan, said that up to 100 houses currently face the threat of demolition. “Each case is different, but it all accumulates to the same: Palestinians are marginalized and our land is taken from us,” Barbar said. “That won’t change with the newly elected government.” 

Tensions have been steadily rising, even after an Egypt-brokered cease-fire between Hamas and Israel. Jerusalem, the capital—claimed by both Jews and Palestinians—has seen daily protests and clashes. 

According to the International Crisis Group’s Hiltermann, the peace process is dead. 

“The imbalance between the two sides is too big,” he said. “If the two-state solution proves impossible, there are only two ways forward: a democratic state in Israel/Palestine for all people, which is highly unlikely, or a situation in which Palestinians will be subject to further dispossession, fragmentation, and possibly expulsions.”

Even if expectations for what the new coalition can accomplish are tempered, for many Israelis, the biggest change is Netanyahu’s departure. Getting rid of the prime minister seemed to be the coalition’s main goal, Hiltermann said, but even though the coalition spans from the right to the left, “it’s not a shift away from the right.”

As for the future, it remains uncertain. “Netanyahu was very eloquent. He didn’t actively seek war, he was cautious,” Hiltermann said. “As for Bennett, we don’t yet know. Could he drag Israel into new wars? We don’t yet have an answer.”

Stefanie Glinski is a journalist and photographer who reports on conflict and humanitarian crisis. Twitter: @stephglinski

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