Monday was the first day in office of the 27-minister-strong Bennett government, sworn on Sunday after a chaotic Knesset session. The new ministers will be taking over after about two years of interim governments, the result of a political stalemate between the Benjamin Netanyahu camp and its opponents. They will be facing a host of challenges, short-term and long, exacerbated by the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic, by the absence of a state budget – another casualty of the years-long political gridlock – and by the nature of the governing coalition itself, a patchwork of right and left parties who have little in common other than the desire to unseat Netanyahu.
From the Iranian nuclear threat to the frozen Palestinian peace process, violent riots in Arab-Jewish Israeli cities, an exhausted and unpopular police force and an embattled Supreme Court, Bennett's new government has a lot on its plate. In what follows, Haaretz reporters outline the first tasks facing the ministers holding the major portfolios.
There are serious issues on the agenda: In the upcoming week, world superpowers are set to reach a decision on the Iranian nuclear program after talks in Vienna. Foreign Minister Yair Lapid will have to shape Israel’s ties with the new Biden administration, which is reluctant to forward the diplomatic process in the region at the moment. At the same time, Lapid might try to renew ties with the Palestinian Authority, which Israel has neglected in recent years, and advance ties with additional Arab countries that want to sign normalization agreements with Israel.
Lapid will be tackling these difficult tasks with a Foreign Ministry deliberately rendered irrelevant by Netanyahu, who had slashed its budget and ostracized it from the centers of decision-making. One of Lapid's first tasks will be to rectify the situation by restoring the ministry’s status, propelling the Foreign Ministry’s senior officials into the heart of public action and mobilizing significant funding to upgrade its activities.
Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev is taking charge of a police force exhausted after a year of enforcing coronavirus regulations, facing off anti-Netanyahu protesters and struggling to contain Arab-Jewish riots. The violence that erupted in Arab-Jewish cities during the Gaza hostilities tested the police's ability to maintain the peace and sank the public sense of safety to an unprecedented low. At the same time, a failure to enforce gun laws in Arab towns has fueled an unchecked surge of criminal activity, including deadly tribal feuds.
To restore the calm, Bar-Lev will have to deploy police forces in the mixed cities and collaborate with Arab community leaders. Meanwhile, tackling Arab crime will require an inter-governmental effort and isn't up to Bar-Lev alone. Still, his term will be judged on the basis of his efforts against organized crime and unlicensed weapons possession. While maintaining law and order in the Arab communities, Bar-Lev will have to mind the fragile governing coalition: any police action that unravels into clashes with Arab citizens would test the fragile alliance between the Arab and Jewish members of the government.
Because of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s stubborn, political refusal to pass a state budget, the Defense Ministry has been operating without one. This has impaired the military’s qualifications, preparedness, training and, more than anything else, its ability to plan and execute the long-term projects central to its multi-year plans for addressing future national security threats.
One of the most sensitive issues Defense Minister Benny Gantz faces in the Bennett-Lapid government is the evacuation of illegal outposts and the construction in the settlements. The evacuation of the Evyatar outpost, which was built in response to the terror attack that killed yeshiva student Yehuda Guetta in May, is already awaiting his decision. Gantz will need to bring an orderly plan before the cabinet to set clear rules on enforcement, in order to avoid future crises that threaten the coalition's integrity.
Gantz will also have to provide the cabinet with clear policies on drafting Haredi men into the Israel Defense Forces. He must come up with a creative solution – one that minimizes the resentment of many Israelis toward the unequal burden of military service. Gantz has a plan that includes civilian national service for women and men, Jews and Arabs, the secular and ultra-Orthodox who have not been drafted. He will need to make a definitive decision about who serves in the military, where and for how long.
Crucial reforms and appointments, long deferred during the endless interim governments of the last two years, are overdue at the Justice Ministry. Two justices are set to be appointed to the Supreme Court soon, followed by no less than five more in the next three years. As the head of the Judicial Appointments Committee, incoming Justice Minister Sa'ar will have a dramatic influence on the character of Israel's highest court.
The new coalition has agreed to move ahead on controversial legislation to regulate the relationship between the Knesset and the judicial authorities – including the Supreme Court's ability to overturn laws. Sa'ar is also pushing to split the position of Attorney General into two separate jobs. If the job were split, the head of the prosecution would no longer also serve as the government’s legal adviser. Meanwhile, high-visibility legislation like a new universal draft law and same-sex couples' adoption will also test Sa'ar's abilities to maneuver between his commitments to his right-wing base and to the national-unity government.
Asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea who live in Israel with no legal status are a ticking time bomb for the new government. The state has ignored 99.7% percent of asylum applications since 2011, and over 6,000 children of asylum seekers live in Israel without a legal status. The Supreme Court had rebuked the state for dragging its feet on the issue and ordered it to come up with a solution by the end of 2021.
Incoming Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked has adopted a hawkish line on the refugee issue during her time as justice minister, pushing for hardline legislation against refugees that was repelled no less than three times by the Supreme Court on grounds of unconstitutionality. Following normalization agreements between Israel and Sudan, Shaked promised to repatriate Sudanese refugees, but this would require a legislative effort which the leftist parts of the coalition oppose.
The coronavirus pandemic has caused one of the most acute economic crises in Israel's history: the deficit is at 10.5% of output, unemployment is near 10% and the impending end of the government emergency funding program will likely send many businesses toppling over the edge of bankruptcy.
Most urgently, Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman will have to extend emergency business funding and unemployment payments. Then, he has to quickly pass the 2021-2022 state budget, after a year without a budget in which dozens of plans and reforms were frozen. More long-term plans include reducing Israel's national deficit, increasing productivity and encouraging employment in the Arab and haredi communities.
Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton's first and most urgent task is to address the fallout of the coronavirus crisis. School closures damaged the reading and writing skills of young children in elementary school; middle schoolers remained at home for months and high school students grew alienated from their teachers and schools after months of online instruction.
Beyond the investment in pedagogical, psychological and social resources, addressing the problems will require early planning and prioritizing. It can’t be undertaken as part of the ministry’s day-to-day operations.
At the same time, if Shasha-Biton wants to leave behind a legacy in the ministry, she will need to overhaul the education system. The elements of this overhaul are more or less known, and are also based on successful reforms in other countries. These include autonomy for schools, fostering independent learning, diversifying evaluation methods, reducing the number of external matriculation exams and more.
The pandemic year showed many school principals taking blazing new trails in the face of the crisis, which stood in contrast to the rigid bureaucracy of the Education Ministry. Shasha-Bitton's mission is to encourage, develop and expand the former.
According to National Insurance Institute figures, about 500,000 families suffer from food insecurity, but only 10,000 participate in the Welfare Ministry's pilot program. Even so, funding for the program is under a perennial threat; to ensure its continued existence and possible expansion, incoming minister Meir Cohen will have to promote a long-term solution and Knesset legislation.
Meanwhile, domestic violence has spiked by at least 25% over the last year, a rise correlated with the coronavirus lockdowns. Though an inter-governmental program on domestic violence has been adopted in 2017, it has been chronically underfunded during the political upheavals of the last few years. The program, which includes community treatment, rehabilitation for violent men, funding for women's shelters and education programs, was supposed to receive 250 million shekels over five years, but has so far gotten only about a third of that amount.
The healthcare system stood up bravely and effectively to the coronavirus pandemic, an achievement all the more impressive considering the bleak situation of the system as a whole. The successful fight was the result of the heroic devotion of healthcare workers and the emergency allocation of funds, and does not reflect the true state of the healthcare system, which has been afflicted by chronic staff shortages and starved of funds for years.
Incoming Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz will we be taking over a tired, worn healthcare system which now has to face the long-term repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic. Among them is an unprecedented mental health crisis, which has affected both psychiatric patients and the general public; the continued health issues afflicting the thousands who have recuperated from COVID-19; and the public health and preventative medicine fields, whose neglect has been made all the more evident during the pandemic. Other urgent challenges include shortages in hospital beds and staff, the gaps in healthcare quality between central Israel and its outskirts, long wait times for medical appointments and surgeries.
Ribbon-cutting ceremonies at new interchanges, roads and tunnels have been a fixture of Israeli transport ministers' public relations over the last few years, demonstrating a flawed perception of the transportation ministry's responsibility and an absence of long-term planning. The chronic gridlock plaguing Israeli highways, polluting its air and making the commute for millions of Israelis a living hell is the result of years of terrible urban planning that pushed people out of the cities and into suburbs and forced them to use private transportation.
In order to address the deep problems haunting Israeli transportation, incoming Minister Merav Michaeli will have to understand that her job isn't to solve traffic congestion but to change her ministry's priorities from the ground up. To do so, the minister will have to redirect the majority of her ministry's funding away from road construction to public transportation. That would be easy. The bigger task will be to convince the ministry staff and the public, long used to state incentives of private transportation, of the necessity of this reorientation.
Incoming Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg will have to address the sadly marginalized climate crisis and the ministry's lax enforcement of waste disposal regulations. In the coming years, the ministry will have to fight over funding for its climate crisis program, which will seek to prepare communities for extreme weather conditions, ecological damage, and rising sea levels. On waste disposal, one of the few issues over which the ministry has wide-ranging authority and funding, Minister Zandberg will have to push for stronger enforcement and to convince regional council to build new waste sorting and recycling facilities.
Also on the agenda is a draft proposal on removing the petrochemical plants from the Haifa bay, ready and waiting for a government decision. Meanwhile, protecting the Israeli seashore and open waters desperately needs new funding for staff and equipment. Increased oil tanker traffic out of Israel's ports has led to a spike in pollution; Minister Zandberg will have to vie for increased funding and for expanding the responsibility of her ministry to supervise off-shore oil and natural gas drilling.