Analysis |

A Year In, This Is Why Israel's Government Is Losing Popularity

Against all odds, the Bennett-Lapid government celebrates its one-year anniversary. Yet despite representing more parts of Israeli society than ever before, it turns out unity doesn't have many buyers

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
Members of the Israeli cabinet, led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, celebrating Jerusalem Day last month.
Members of the Israeli cabinet, led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, celebrating Jerusalem Day last month.Credit: Jonathan Zindel / Flash 90
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

A year ago, on June 13, 2021, the most radically diverse government in Israel’s history was sworn in. It was a government that represented more parts of Israeli society than ever before: it had more women, more members of the LGBTQ community and more Arabs in its coalition and cabinet than any of its predecessors.

The only section of Israeli society not represented was the ultra-Orthodox community. But it was the first government with an openly Orthodox and kippa-wearing prime minister in Naftali Bennett, and quite a number of religious lawmakers, as well as the first Reform rabbi as a coalition member and Knesset committee chairman.

More than anything, though, it was special because it had seemingly managed to defy the narrative of populist polarization. Suddenly, an Israel-style coalition was seen as a desirable thing in a world where so many societies are split down the middle.

In its first year of existence, this government has largely done what it set out to do. It dealt with two more COVID-19 waves without resorting to a lockdown. It finally passed a state budget after three years. It prevented yet another election. Ministers are actually planning and implementing policy. It has embarked on a much bolder campaign against Iran, while preventing Hamas from launching rockets from Gaza. Major funding has been authorized for the Arab-Israeli community, and a concerted police effort to fight internecine violence there has already resulted in a major dip in murder cases. An outbreak of terror attacks was ended swiftly, partly through a military operation in Jenin. And despite a tense month during Ramadan, it managed to tamp down unrest and there was no repetition of last year’s rioting in mixed Jewish-Arab cities.

And yet this government is decidedly unpopular. In nearly every poll taken over the past year, all its coalition parties – with the exception of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid – are either stagnating or doing worse than they did in the March 2021 election.

The Israeli cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on Sunday.Credit: Yoav Dodkevitz

In a poll for Channel 13 last week carried out by Prof. Camil Fuchs, who is also Haaretz’s pollster, the coalition parties that won 61 seats in the last election are now down to 53 seats.

There are, of course, specific reasons for the parties’ slumps. The smaller center-left parties Kahol Lavan, Labor and Meretz are all losing voters to Yesh Atid, whose leader, Lapid, is gaining credit for being the architect of this government, while they are seen as the troublemakers threatening the coalition’s existence.

United Arab List’s voters have yet to see any tangible material gains deriving from the party’s unprecedented inclusion in the coalition. Mansour Abbas’ party, which barely passed the electoral threshold 15 months ago, is below it in the latest poll and therefore would not feature in the next Knesset if that happened on Election Day.

On the coalition’s right flank, Yamina, New Hope and Yisrael Beiteinu are all down – probably due to some of their voters being angry with them over sitting in a coalition with Arab lawmakers.

Some of the coalition’s weakness can be ascribed to the traditional midterm malaise of any government, especially in a period of increasing inflation – which is naturally, if unjustifiably, being blamed on those in power. When elections are eventually called, a renewed campaign warning of the return of Benjamin Netanyahu may well reenergize the coalition parties’ voters.

Netanyahu isn’t much more popular than he was a year ago. In a Channel 12 poll two weeks ago, 46 percent of Israelis chose him as the best candidate for prime minister, which is what he was polling a year ago. Netanyahu’s Likud party is doing slightly better in the polls than in the last election, largely due to a return home from the right-wing breakaway parties in the coalition (Yamina and New Hope). But the bloc of parties that will support a government led by Netanyahu is still short of a majority in the Knesset.

None of Netanyahu’s potential successors – Lapid, Bennett or Benny Gantz – have anywhere near his support. There still seem to be a slim majority of Israelis who don’t want to see Netanyahu back in office, but they don’t have a clear idea of who they would like to see there instead of him.

In the Channel 13 poll, 37 percent of respondents said they want this government to continue serving; 22 percent said they would prefer a different government being formed in this Knesset, presumably led by Netanyahu; and 31 percent preferred a new election.

This government is far from perfect, but it has delivered on much of what it was meant to. The legislation and reforms it has failed to deliver – such as laws that would have prevented an indicted candidate like Netanyahu from serving as prime minister, and legislation on religion and state issues – is largely due to the lack of a functional majority. Those supporting these laws are not about to vote for a pro-Netanyahu party because of that.

There are deeper reasons to explain the government’s lack of popularity. One is that many Israelis, both Jews and Arabs, remain deeply skeptical of what in recent weeks is being called “the experiment” – the inclusion of an Arab party in government. Not that any of the right-wing’s warnings were accurate that having the United Arab List in the government would influence Israel’s security and military policies – Abbas’ party has shown little interest in these matters.

United Arab List leader Mansour Abbas at a security conference in Tel Aviv last April.Credit: Moti Milrod

But reality doesn’t matter: the Netanyahu machine’s constant propaganda accusing the government of relying on “terror supporters” has had an effect – not only on his own base – and the fact that the latest crisis jeopardizing the government is related to the voting of Arab-Israeli lawmakers on the West Bank regulations law has inflamed these feelings.

Netanyahu and his proxies keep hitting away at thís issue because their focus groups and surveys tell them it’s something that bothers some of the coalition’s supporters, and will help rally the base and drive up right-wing turnout in the next election, whenever it’s held.

It also taps into a deeper frustration with this government: that it seems to be dysfunctional. Yet while it is hardly fair to accuse a government that ended nearly three years of political stalemate and paralysis of dysfunctionality, it’s hardly surprising. After all, much of the media’s focus these past 12 months in its political coverage has been on the serial coalition crises.

And yet the question remains: Why has such a diverse coalition, representing the broadest of swaths of Israeli society, failed so miserably to create a degree of unity? In private, Bennett admits it’s the biggest failing of his government. Despite its achievements – chief of which is its very existence – it hasn’t managed to create a positive feeling around the coalition.

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset last month.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The inescapable conclusion is that Israeli society is simply not there. Unity just isn’t a hot product anywhere in its political marketplace. Israelis have been voting “against” – against Bibi, against the left-wing establishment, against the Arabs – but are in no mood to vote “for” anything or anyone.

It’s not just Netanyahu who thrives on division and polarization. It’s across the board. His opponents aren’t interested in coming together that much either. And even before the coalition has fallen, the blame game over who is at fault is already raging.

The winners of the next election won’t be the unifiers but those who are best at channeling that rage. And we know who that usually is.

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