Analysis |

Bennett's Government Is a Minefield for the Israeli Left. But There Are Also Some Opportunities

The center-left paid a hefty price for the ousting of Netanyahu from the premiership, and now has to find a way to navigate through explosive issues like settlements alongside right-wing coalition partners

Noa Landau
Noa Landau
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Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, gives an address while accompanied by Alternate Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Defence Minister Benny Gantz at the Knesset in Jerusalem on Sunday.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, gives an address while accompanied by Alternate Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Defence Minister Benny Gantz at the Knesset in Jerusalem on Sunday.Credit: GIL COHEN-MAGEN - AFP
Noa Landau
Noa Landau

The Bennett-Lapid government, born on Sunday after an agonizing journey that is far from over, had one central mission, which was fulfilled with stunning success at the moment of its birth: replacing the regime of Benjamin Netanyahu. Never have politicians fulfilled their election promises so rapidly. From here on, things can only deteriorate. Therefore, the new government’s second goal will be to avoid at all costs any dispute over core issues between its left and right wings, a dispute which could lead to its downfall, thereby foiling its primary mission.

In these kinds of controversies, the left wing of this patchwork government will find itself in a structural and permanent disadvantage. It all began with the endless process in which the left in Israel drifted towards the center, submitting to the terms of discourse dictated by the right. Subsequently, replacing Netanyahu became the overarching goal of this camp, more than the realization of an ideology. That’s how Naftali Bennett, a leader with six Knesset seats, became prime minister; this was how the possibility of adding the Joint List to the coalition was rejected out of hand; and that is how the right-wing nature of this coalition was predetermined.

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From that point on, the center-left continued paying a hefty price for the ousting of Netanyahu from the official residence on Balfour Street. In terms of the allocation of portfolios, the placement of Gideon Sa’ar as justice minister, of Ayelet Shaked as interior minister and of Ze’ev Elkin as minister of housing will give the center-left serious and daily headaches. Another volatile portfolio has not been handed out after Habayit Hayehudi MK Hagit Moshe rejected it, leaving the post in Bennett’s hands. This is the new ministry for settlement, established after a previous election cycle by Likud’s Tzipi Hotovely and Tzachi Hanegbi. This ministry is in fact the one responsible for settlements beyond the 1967 borders.

The security cabinet is now equally represented by the two blocs, but when the center in Israel is in fact right-wing there is no doubt as to what the dominant tone will be when it comes to security issues.

There are a few other land mines facing the left lurking in the shadows of the political drama. Thus, for example, the coalition agreements call for a scandalous increase in budget for Ariel University. Beyond the political implications of such a move, this is an increase that comes at the expense of other institutions, rewarding that institution for exceeding allotted student quotas.

Moreover, there is an agreement to invest in roads leading to West Bank settlements. The new transportation minister is Labor’s Merav Michaeli. Historically, her party bears much responsibility for developing the settlement enterprise, but this will nevertheless be an ideological challenge at this juncture.

In his maiden speech in the Knesset, Bennett noted that his government would “strengthen settlements across the whole of the Land of Israel,” with an emphasis on “the whole.” This appeared in bold letters in the written version distributed to the media. He added that “we will guarantee our national interests in Area C [of the West Bank], augmenting positions and resources for this purpose after many years of neglect." Although this topic remains under the jurisdiction of Defense Minister Benny Gantz, it constitutes a powder keg for anyone espousing an end to the occupation and the maintaining of some feasibility of a two-state solution.

Bennett’s declarations regarding the Iran issue, taken one-for-one from Netanyahu’s page, did not reflect a new centrist-leftist position either. After 12 years of Likud rule, Iran is closer to having nuclear weapons, with Israel having moved farther apart from its allies. Always hovering over all these volatile issues will be the left’s commitment to abide in principle to coalition positions on multiple issues.

Along with all this, the left also has some opportunities in this new government. There are topics over which there are no dramatic controversies, as noted by Bennett in his speech, mainly on economic, social welfare and education issues, and in every area in which the emphasis is on improving service and civil life in Israel. There are also some historic moves in areas pertaining to state and religion, which can be implemented in the absence of ultra-Orthodox parties in this coalition. After years in opposition, a role drained of any content, the center-left during the Netanyahu years, now has an opportunity to advance some real policies.

The right is already prepared for the new government. There are dozens of non-profit groups, institutes and activists waiting to pounce on ministers and lawmakers with plans for reform and legislation. They don’t care whether it’s Netanyahu, Bennett or Sa’ar sitting at the head of the table. They’ll exploit every window of opportunity. The left, in contrast, is unused to ruling and lacks such an organized and powerful infrastructure. The exploitation of political opportunities by the left will depend, among other factors, on the establishment of such an infrastructure.

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