New names, same story: Why Israel's political paralysis is set to continue

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5 min read
22 July, 2021
Analysis: Israel's new coalition government will likely continue many of Netanyahu's policies as it faces internal divisions and the threat of another election if it is unable to pass a budget.

In Israel, the era of Benjamin Netanyahu has just ended. It was replaced by an eight-party alliance, a broad but fragile coalition of right-wing conservative, moderate, and left-wing forces as well as Ra'am - a Palestinian party - all united primarily by the desire to oust Netanyahu.

Whether or not this is a solid foundation on which to form a stable government for a country that just witnessed its fourth election in two years, however, remains to be seen. After all, the new government has not only inherited a shaky ceasefire but several other complex issues.

How will the forced displacement of Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah be settled? What is the government's modus operandi regarding settlement policy? 

How functional can a coalition be that is not only diametrically opposed in ideology but also has no margin for error in the Knesset?

"While the vote of no confidence failed, it was a foretaste of what the coalition will regularly face"

On 6 July, the new government failed to whip the required votes for a majority needed to renew a controversial citizenship law. Fifty-nine out of 120 MKs voted in favour, and 59 opposed, while two abstained.

Moreover, the opposition turned it into a vote of no confidence. While that failed, it was a foretaste of what the coalition will regularly face.

While there are, indeed, various indications that politically sensitive issues will be shelved for the time being as the focus will be placed, instead, on stimulating the economy and expanding infrastructure, tough political decisions will become inevitable at some point.

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Particularly since the recent internal unrest in Israel and the violent escalation in Gaza have shown that the military occupation of Palestinians cannot be ignored.

However, when it comes to Hamas, Israel is attempting a potentially dangerous tightrope act. While inclined to demonstrate strength against Hamas aggression, the coalition can ill afford a new war. Mainly as it would place Ra'am in a highly uncomfortable position, thus potentially risking the breakup of the coalition.

Sheikh Jarrah and settlements

Then, the government must respond to the impending expulsion of Palestinians in East Jerusalem. The new government is referring to the courts to clarify the status of land and houses in East Jerusalem.

The coalition is split, as the left-wing and the Ra'am party reject the plans of the nationalist settlers, who are in turn represented by the right-wing of the government.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett addressed this issue in his inaugural address, saying the government seeks to focus on common ground and avoid conflict issues. But the occupation of the West Bank and Israel's settlement policy are both conflict issues.

Thus, in avoiding addressing them, the government is likely to continue the policy of the Netanyahu government - in this case, expanding settlements in the West Bank.

A Star of David in the newly-established wildcat outpost of Givat Eviatar near the Palestinian city of Nablus in the occupied West Bank, on 1 July, 2021. [Getty]
A Star of David in the newly-established wildcat outpost of Givat Eviatar near the Palestinian city of Nablus in the occupied West Bank, on 1 July, 2021. [Getty]

Moreover, the government recently accommodated the settler movement in the occupied West Bank after striking a deal to evacuate the outpost of Givat Eviatar near Nablus.

The accord will see the settler homes remain in place until a probe into Palestinian private property rights is conducted, after which time the settlers could return.

This is a signal that the new government will behave no differently towards settlers in the West Bank. Bennett, himself a leader in the settler movement, has announced that he will "downsize" the conflict, by actions such as reducing friction points at checkpoints. 

However, it is absolutely not a return to negotiations with the Palestinians or a commitment to a two-state solution.

Israel's budget

The new government also faces other challenges, such as the country's economy.

Israel has not had a state budget for the past two years. Former prime minister Netanyahu used the failure to pass a budget in December 2020 to collapse the government and consolidate his own power.

Bennett must pass a budget by November; otherwise, the coalition will collapse, and new elections will be triggered once again.

"The Israeli military is asking for an increased budget in preparation for any potential conflict with Iran"

The new finance minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has to present a plan for a two-year budget by August. 

In his drafts, Lieberman seeks to achieve 5% economic growth annually. This is an ambitious goal. The budget deficit was 11.6% of GDP at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in the summer of 2020 and currently stands at 10.1%, while the Bank of Israel is forecasting a deficit of 7.1% for all of 2021. Covid-related unemployment also remains suboptimal.

Moreover, Israel's budget will have to satisfy all parties involved. For instance, reports have surfaced claiming that the Israeli military is asking for an increased budget in preparation for any potential conflict with Iran. How issues like these will find common ground in a heterogeneous coalition with no wiggle room remains to be seen.

The opposition, especially Netanyahu, sees this as an opportunity. It will be their priority to stop the November budget from passing in the Knesset, in order to trigger new elections.

Their work has already begun. Disputes in the Knesset, accusations, and a lack of decorum in the opposition indicate that the relevant forces have no interest in constructive opposition but rather want the new government to fail at any cost.

Sheikh Jarrah - GETTY
Palestinians protest the forced displacement of residents in the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah. [Getty]

It will be difficult for the Bennett administration to move and change matters of principle in this political climate.

Even passing the budget would mark a success, but it does not change the fact that this coalition will continue to fail to find a common denominator on most other issues.

The political paralysis is likely to continue, which could ultimately lead to Netanyahu's return. After all, if the current coalition fails, Netanyahu will present himself as the only person capable of governing Israel.

For the country itself, these are bleak prospects. For the region and Palestinians under military occupation, it means that Israel's new government equates to more of the same.

Thomas O. Falk is a London-based freelance journalist who focuses on US affairs and the Middle East. He has written for Al Jazeera, Inside Arabia, il Giornale and other outlets.

Follow him on Twitter: @topfalk