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A ‘Change Government’ in Style Only

Mickey Gitzin
Mickey Gitzin
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Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman take part in a weekly cabinet meeting.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman take part in a weekly cabinet meeting.Credit: GIL COHEN-MAGEN / POOL / AFP
Mickey Gitzin
Mickey Gitzin

Since the day it was established, the "change government" is measured in one way: How it stands in comparison with the heavy shadow cast by the man it replaced.

It’s obvious that if not for the existential need to replace Benjamin Netanyahu, such an irregular government would never have been formed. Thus far, the most significant achievement of this government is its very establishment – a paradigm shift from the Netanyahu era: Instead of a polarizing populist discourse and an incessant marking of enemies, the Bennett-Lapid government is built on cooperation between different political worldviews and strives for common management despite ideological differences. And rather than the conception of exclusive Jewish rule, as was the norm for decades, this coalition set the precedent of including an independent Arab party. Only in hindsight will we find out if this was a watershed regarding the place of Arabs in Israeli politics, or a historical anecdote.

But after getting over the wonder of establishing the government of change, the trouble begins. It’s easy to blame the members of the government for not keeping their word, for the number of ministers, the sectoral funding and other manifestations of the “old politics,” but there are bigger problems: The main failures of this government are in policy, where it turns out that Netanyahu never really left. Not because of his exploits as leader of the opposition, but because the policies he formulated in his 11 years in power remain in effect, in almost all areas.

The diplomatic standstill that began under Netanyahu is maintained as though it were sacred, and the proclivity towards strident statements on how there’s no chance of advancing a diplomatic process is shared by all government members. Harassment of Palestinians goes on unabated and settlements are built and expanded as though this were a “fully right-wing government.” On the Iranian front, after the entire new leadership declared that Netanyahu had led a ruinous policy, it is bewildering to see Bennett and Lapid parroting a shopworn version of their predecessor’s line, rather than propose anything different.

The government promotes an anachronistic neoliberal agenda that avoids increasing the national debt at all costs, completely ignoring the pandemic's dramatic developments and the climate crisis. Many other countries understand the importance of a strong state that moves proactively to shape its society and economy, whereas Israel trends toward reducing or abolishing regulation. In fact, there has been a rightward economic turn compared to the previous government, which at least dared to increase public expenditure to cope with the pandemic.

Even the approach to Arab society, despite the United Arab List joining the coalition, has not undergone a significant change. The government’s Resolution 550 to reduce gaps in Arab society, which marks a significant improvement over the Netanyahu-era Resolution 922, should be commended. But the government goes about it as if coerced, like it was something to be ashamed of, rather than accompanying the move with an attempt to promote coexistence, an open and candid discussion of the identity of Arabs in Israel, and the acute issues the Arab public deals with.

It seems that fear of the opposition’s reaction continues to fashion the government’s conduct, and the result is an almost perfect copy of the previous government’s policies. The main difference is in rhetoric and style, which undoubtedly improved a great deal. Its leaders are more polite, less megalomaniacal and they don’t seek credit for every little thing – a fact they are not too shy to remind us of. It is indeed refreshing, but it’s not enough. The most influential actors in the government – Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman – are quintessential right-wing politicians who were raised on Netanyahu’s lap. They offer no change in policy compared to him, and in some cases bring an even worse worldview.

In half a year of governing, the government of change has done everything but make change. Thus far the excuse was the need to pass a budget and maintain the delicate coalition balance. That hurdle is behind us. The report we recently published at the New Israel Fund shows the conditions leading to the rise of right-wing populism in Israel have not fundamentally changed, even after the establishment of the Bennett-Lapid government. To change them, there is no solution but to shape a separate policy and set a new, independent agenda. The dubious legacy of the Netanyahu era is not an irreversible fate. Only when the government manages to break free of it will it also break away from his shadow.

Mickey Gitzin is director of the New Israel Fund in Israel.

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