Garvan Walshe: Israel’s Jewish-Nationalist-Islamist-Securlarist coalition teeters on the edge of collapse.

9 Jun

Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy adviser to the Conservative Party.

It was hailed as an extraordinary achievement. After months of hard negotiations, a ground-breaking deal had been put together with radical implications for the country’s politics. It looked like years of political instability, in which frequent elections had failed to produce effective government, were finally over.

Now the coalition behind this government has run into major trouble. Rebels on both right and left threaten its majority in parliament. The Prime Minister, no longer the golden boy of the right, can’t even impose his will on his own party.

Things have become particularly sensitive in relation to the application of national law to territory that the government controls but has long been disputed in a centuries-old religious conflict, and to which previous governments had despatched settlers in order to hold onto the land.

The conflict evolved into a terrorist campaign that received support from Arab dictators and which had been thought to have been brought to an end by peace accords, guided by Bill Clinton, in the 1990s.

Yes, it’s been a tough week in the Knesset.

The extreme breadth of the current anti-Netanyahu Israeli administration, comprising everyone from the hardline Jewish nationalist Prime Minister, Nafthali Bennett, to the Islamist Ra’am party – with secularists, free market liberals, former IDF generals and Marxists in between – puts the Tories’ claim to a be a broad church in the shade.

To some surprise, the Israeli coalition weathered an outbreak of violence on the Temple Mount earlier in the spring, thanks to the skill of Foreign Minister (and leader of the largest party in the coalition) Yair Lapid, and a carefully designed system of mutual assured destruction-inspired clauses in the coalition agreement.

The latest coalition crisis concerns the renewal of emergency regulations applying Israeli law to Israeli citizens in the West Bank (specifically that part of it designated ‘area C’ under the Oslo Accords). Failure to do so would leave them under military law.  Actively supporting such a measure was too much for two lawmakers from the coalition’s left.

They didn’t think their opposition would matter because Netanyahu’s Likud party (in opposition) could be relied upon to support the measure, but the never knowingly unopportunist Bibi allowed the law to fail.  Previously a Knesset member from the coalition’s right-wing had stormed out over families being allowed to bring leavened goods for their relatives into public hospitals during Passover (Jewish law and tradition precludes its consumption). 

Though the government can survive without a majority (in Israel, an alternative Prime Minister must be chosen before the old one can be removed, and there’s no alternative candidate who can draw the 61 votes needed), it would have to rely on the support, or at least the abstention, of the Arab-led Joint List to get measures too. The concessions needed would in turn put strain on the coalition’s right wing.

Instead, efforts are being mounted to persuade the rebel MPs to resign their seats in exchange for support in upcoming mayoral contests.  In Israel, this would not require by-elections, as the seats would immediately be filled by the next representatives of the party list for which they stood.

Avoiding an election is of paramount importance for Lapid. Under the coalition agreement, Lapid, whose party holds the largest number of seats in the coalition, will replace Bennet (whose party has far fewer, but who was persuaded to desert Netanyahu by being offered two and half years as Prime Minister) as Prime Minister in August 2023. Bennett, too, knows that Netanyahu, whose raison d’être is to return to the premiership, would never offer him as good a deal as Lapid has. 

But the overriding reason to avoid an election is Netanyahu himself. Current polls put him and his allies at 59 seats (up from the 54 they hold now), and tantalisingly short of the majority they would need to re-install him in the Prime Minister’s Office and keep him out of the Jerusalem District Court where he is presently standing trial for corruption. Though no longer at the height of his powers, only a fool would underestimate his campaigning genius. Should the current Anyone-but-Bibi ensemble collapse under the weight of its diversity, he stands a good chance of being able to return. 

It remains to be seen however whether fear of Netanyahu’s return is enough to concentrate minds. Ra’am party leader Mansour Abbas, who owes his position in the political mainstream to an unsuccessful attempt to govern with Netanyahu,  has indicated his willingness to face the voters again. 

Brenda from Be’ersheeva had better get worried. 

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