Democracy can be the winner of Israel’s dramatic week
The name Nir Orbach will not mean much to most readers, inside or outside Israel. However, this undistinguished Zionist-religious politician, who was hand-picked by Yemina leader Naftali Bennett to join his party shortly before the recent March general election, is going to be the center of attention for the next week or so — at least until the new government is introduced, or not, to the Knesset.
You are probably asking yourself what is so unique about this novice member of the Knesset, about whose achievements in a career as a grey apparatchik in Zionist-religious circles we know almost nothing? And how has he come to be at the center of Israel’s political universe? Well, quite simply, Benjamin Netanyahu and his supporters identified him as the weakest link in the new Yair Lapid-Bennett-led coalition government-in-waiting; someone who might buckle under pressure and not support the government if and when it is introduced to the Knesset. Orbach represents not only the fragility of the new coalition, but the acute, possibly mortal decline of Israel’s political system — much of it down to Netanyahu’s readiness to stop at nothing to stay in power.
To argue that the coming week is going to be one of the most fateful in Israel’s political history and that of its struggling democracy is to use no hyped-up superlative. Bennett, along with the entire “change” coalition, may rue the day he selected Orbach to run on his list for the Knesset, ironically for his personal loyalty to him. However, if the Lapid-Bennett leadership crosses the Rubicon and gains the Knesset’s confidence, the two just might initiate a more inclusive style of politics, albeit out of necessity rather than choice. Deliberately, the coalition agreements among the eight parties are not scheduled to be published in full until very close to the vote of confidence in the Knesset. To reach the point at which Yair Lapid could last Wednesday inform President Reuven Rivlin that he had succeeded in putting together a government — one that he will not head for the first two years of its duration — party leaders had to conduct one of the most impressive performances of flexibility and pragmatism that any political system, anywhere, has ever experienced.
Publishing the agreements will increase the pressure on the right-wing partners in the coalition, especially Yemina and New Hope. After all, this coalition looked very unlikely from the outset, and was almost unimaginable just a few months ago. It is almost as ideologically diverse as the entire Israeli society, and at the same time has the support of just 61 members of the Knesset, which gives it the narrowest majority possible. This means that, even if it gains the initial support of the Knesset, it will be embarking on a journey that will be almost impossible to survive for long.
In the meantime, until it is introduced to the Knesset, Netanyahu and his gang of inciters are hoping that, by bringing enough pressure, including death threats, they will be able to stop the coalition from gaining enough support in the legislature. Incitements by those associated with the right against leaders of the change bloc, either on social media or in menacing demonstrations in front of their houses, have reached a level that prompted Nadav Argaman, chief of Israel’s interior security agency Shin Bet, to warn that such actions could lead to violence and physical harm.
Of equally grave concern is the possibility that Netanyahu and his allies will attempt to stop the political process that would send them to the opposition benches by initiating some external conflict, either close to home with the Palestinians or even with Iran. After all, what delayed the formation of the coalition until now was the flare-up in intercommunal violence with the Palestinians both inside Israel and beyond the Green Line. Thus, as a last resort and while still enjoying the power of his office, Netanyahu might stir up a further round of violence.
And should anyone think this is a far-fetched scenario, be warned: Already, right-wing groups are planning an Israeli flag march through Jerusalem’s Old City later this week, which in return has prompted Hamas to call on the Palestinian residents of Jerusalem to arrive in full force at Al-Aqsa Mosque on the day of the march “to protect it from (Israel’s) plans.” If this provocation goes the right’s (very wrong) way, Israel and Hamas might square up to each other once again and create the violence and chaos that Netanyahu thrives on. Furthermore, during the current interregnum, it is of paramount importance that the security forces ensure there is no repeat of Netanyahu’s 1995 incitements against then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, which had murderous consequences.
Meanwhile, in the time until the government is introduced to the Knesset for its approval, it is for the leaders of the new coalition, because of its unorthodox composition, to establish mechanisms that will enable it to function under severe pressure from without and within. There was something unreal about the photo released on the day of the coalition agreement’s signing, depicting Lapid, Bennett and Mansour Abbas, the respective leaders of a centrist secular party, a Zionist-nationalist-religious party and an Islamist party, looking very relaxed, as if it was the most natural thing to do. Far from that, this is the first time a Palestinian party has joined a coalition, let alone a coalition whose prime minister-designate’s ideological plan is to annex at least parts of the West Bank while opposing a two-state solution and enthusiastically supporting the racist nation-state law.
To argue that the coming week is going to be one of the most fateful in Israel’s political history is to use no hyped-up superlative.
A desire to rid the country of the divisive, corrupt and increasingly authoritarian Netanyahu might be the glue holding this prospective triumvirate together, but it clearly will not be enough for them and the other partners in this government to remain united once he is gone. And should this government see the light of day, it will not be about setting any kind of radical agenda, but more about incremental improvements and ministers concentrating on the tasks of their ministries, bridging ideological differences constructively, putting the interests of the country above their personal ambitions and, by that, restoring the faith of the Israeli people and the international community in the country’s political system and its currently fragile democracy.
For this to stand a chance, one of the longest and most dramatic weeks in Israeli politics needs to end with democracy and reason triumphing over the forces of populism and discord inflamed by Netanyahu’s self-interest.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg