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Analysis

6 months in, the coalition is proving a house divided against itself can still stand

Armed with an ultra-effective foil in Benjamin Netanyahu and MKs seemingly committed to letting bygones be bygones, government is thriving despite serious divisions in its ranks

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, right, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, center, and Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman during a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem on November 7, 2021.   (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, right, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, center, and Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman during a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem on November 7, 2021. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

On paper, the very idea stretches “farfetched” to its limits: a coalition of eight wildly disparate political parties, each with competing interests and constituencies, led by a prime minister whose political obituary was written years ago and whose faction is so small it could fit in a minivan with room to spare.

Six months since being sworn in, reams have been written about the unlikely Israeli government coalition that could. But what started as a marriage of convenience with the unifying goal of ousting Benjamin Netanyahu from power has not only survived beyond its predicted expiration date but thrived.

Even with all the odds stacked against it, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s coalition has managed to enact more legislation than its predecessors, including the toughest nut to crack of all: the state’s budget.

The coalition has also passed unprecedented kashrut supervision reforms, secured raises for troops, appointed a state attorney, and filled key agency head roles and diplomatic postings left vacant for extended periods.

It’s done this despite being made up of parties representing ideologies and communities that have historically found little common ground, despite the razor-thin single-MK edge it has over the opposition, despite much of the opposition still being in the thrall of Likud head Netanyahu, and despite what was described as a bureaucratic mess that the previous government left behind.

What appears to set the coalition apart is its ability to disagree and move on, without letting arguments snowball into government-killing ruptures. And it also has a secret weapon, a superglue that has seemingly managed to bond the government together no matter what centrifugal pressures it undergoes. The name of that superglue: Benjamin Netanyahu.

Keeping the tempest in the teapot

Holding the government together has not always been pretty. Disagreements are endemic, and there have been significant stutters while trying to manage the COVID-19 crisis. Bennett has lost considerable support among his right-wing base for opposing Netanyahu and linking up with leftists and Islamist party Ra’am, a party he had promised not to sit in government with. Beset by criticism from the opposition and some of his own allies, Bennett has seen his home in Ra’anana become a locus for protests by a mix of Netanyahu loyalists, anti-vaxxers and others with a long list of gripes.

There have been legislative losses when ideological hurdles could not be overcome, and cobbling together the government meant giving out a lot more ministerial posts and sweetheart gigs than many are comfortable with.

One recent crisis revolved around the issue of violence against Palestinians perpetrated by West Bank settlers. As reports of attacks mounted, Defense Minister Benny Gantz held a top-level meeting on the matter in mid-November, signaling that it was being taken seriously, even as the phenomenon failed to garner widespread attention.

Masked men, allegedly Israeli settlers, wield clubs during what eyewitnesses and police called an attack on Palestinians seeking to harvest olives near Surif, on November 12, 2021. (Credit: Shai Kendler)

Then, on December 13, Public Security Omer Barlev tweeted that during a meeting with visiting US Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland, she had brought up “settler violence,” which he promised Israel was dealing with.

Within hours, the tweet had sparked a firestorm of criticism. Barlev was slammed for seemingly placing Palestinians ahead of Israeli citizens in the West Bank, who critics claimed are subject to even more serious violence at the hands of Palestinians. Others, loath to be seen as condoning settler violence, strafed Barlev for his semantics, which they claimed made it seem like anti-Palestinian violence was a settler-wide phenomenon and not just the fault of a few bad eggs.

Public Security Minister Omer Barlev at the scene of a shooting attack in Jerusalem’s Old City on November 21, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

This was not the first time, or the last, that the government’s kaleidoscope of parties failed to fit snugly together.

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked regularly clashes with members of Ra’am: Shaked, a staunch backer of the settler movement hailing from Bennett’s Yamina party, is allied with a right-wing movement that seeks to hold the government’s feet to the fire regarding unpermitted land use by Arabs, both in the West Bank and Israel, while Ra’am has made one of its main priorities the ending of what it says are discriminatory land-use policies that have kept Arabs from being able to build homes and communities legally.

In October, Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli, from the dovish Labor party, criticized Gantz’s decision to blacklist six Palestinian rights groups as terror organizations. “We suggest that Merav Michaeli, who doesn’t know the details, not get in the way of the war on terror,” Gantz’s Blue and White party shot back publicly.

Eli Avidar, a minister without portfolio from Yisrael Beytenu, has fashioned himself into a gadfly within the government, in a tantrum of revenge to make the coalition pay for not having handed him a better ministerial post.

Coalition members aren’t sweeping their endless problems under the rug. They air dirty laundry on social media or on the airwaves, sometimes with alarming alacrity. But at cabinet meetings, those differences seem to melt into the background and they manage to agree on advancing controversial issues, even if ruffles remain. In some ways, it’s possible that the ability to rage against grievances elsewhere, to publicly show their constituencies that they haven’t sold out, gives members room to maneuver and compromise in government meetings behind closed doors.

Agree to disagree… with Netanyahu

When Bennett and Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid inked a coalition deal with other parties in June to take power, they both said that the arrangement was based on the factions being able to agree on 80 percent of issues.

“With respect to the other 20%, we agreed not to agree,” the pair famously claimed. “We are friends with each other and we will know how to cordially resolve differences.”

Minister Ayelet Shaked, foreground, looks on as Prime Minister Naftali Bennett leads a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem on November 28, 2021. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

Included in that 20% is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both agreed that solving the region’s thorniest issue would be too much for this coalition, given the gulf between parties.

But there are plenty of other issues, too, belying the 80-20 claim: where to put money, how to get the economy back on track, whom to appoint for judicial posts, and religion and state clashes, to name a few.

Even if the parties don’t actually agree on 80% or 50% of issues, the one issue that brought them together initially continues to be the glue keeping them together: Benjamin Netanyahu.

From the opposition, Netanyahu has wielded nearly every lever he has to score points against the government. He keeps MKs from his faction and allied ones under his thumb, demanding they continue to call him prime minister. He mercilessly insults Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas and anyone who dares to work with the Arab party. He constantly attempts to woo members of the coalition who appear to waver, and pushes legislation that he knows will bare the government’s rifts in the most unflattering light, keeping the body politic in a constant state of tension.

Opposition Leader Benjamin Netanyahu (R) walks past Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during voting on the state budget, November 4, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Yet observers agree that the thing he could do that would immediately bring the government down is something he will adamantly not do: step down as head of Likud or quit politics altogether.

“Without Netanyahu we would join a Likud-led government. There is no doubt that a Likud without Netanyahu would change the whole political situation,” Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman told the FM103 radio station recently.

“At the moment this is the best government that could be formed,” he continued.  “What will happen after the Netanyahu era? Perhaps it is worth asking why all of us [former Likud members] left Likud. The answer is that it was only because of Netanyahu.”

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