Israel’s diverse new government will not heal the country’s deep fault lines

The fragile coalition is unlikely to challenge the divisions in Israeli society

June 17, 2021
New Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett. Photo: Sipa US / Alamy Stock Photo
New Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett. Photo: Sipa US / Alamy Stock Photo

It would be encouraging to think that Israel’s hugely diverse new government reflects a new era of political maturity.

Representing the extremes of the country’s political spectrum, from the liberal Meretz to the Islamist Ra’am, with new prime minister Naftali Bennett’s religious-nationalist Yamina (literally, “rightwards”) party alongside the secular-centrist Yesh Atid, Israel has never seen a coalition like it.

Those who like to promote the image of Israel as a beacon of co-existence have made much of this. On Monday, former IDF spokesman Avi Mayer tweeted a breakdown of the new 27-member government, noting that it included nine women, six immigrants, six observant Jews as well as a Muslim Arab, a member of the Druze minority and a gay man.

He followed this up with: “Israel: Great at vaccinations, local cuisine, nightlife, high tech, and cloud-free weather. Sucky at apartheid.”

But as comforting as it might be to imagine that this coalition reflects a uniquely Israeli version of multiculturalism, the opposite is in fact true. Instead, it highlights the fault lines that a change of government will do nothing to address.

Sectarian is not a word often used to describe Israel, but perhaps it should be. The country is divided into tribes, even within the ranks of Jewish citizens, with fierce competition for power and influence. The haredim, or ultra-orthodox, live a largely separate life, though serving as politically significant kingmakers in numerous elections. Their absence in this particular government is remarkable and key to the various policy aims of the centre bloc, secular life being incompatible with a community in whose media the faces of the nine new female cabinet members were blurred out, for modesty reasons.

From the irreligious left-leaning foundations of the state, perhaps now the most ideologically motivated—certainly now dominant in the army—are the national religious, also the sector fuelling the settlement enterprise and one which Bennett most ably represents.

The left has all but disappeared, and its inclusion in this current government is a dream come true for an effectively spent political force in a country where the centre has shifted massively rightwards over the last two decades.

As for Israel’s Arab population, who comprise 20 per cent of the country, they have never before been part of any government, making their inclusion in this coalition truly historic, even though Ra’am is very far from representing the community’s full diversity.

So Bennett, the man who reportedly declared in a 2013 cabinet meeting that “I’ve killed lots of Arabs in my life—and there’s no problem with that,” is not exactly spearheading a rainbow coalition.

Alliances by their very nature must accommodate different ideologies, and Israel is by no means rare in being a state made up of competing ethnicities and interest groups. But where in another country, this degree of diversity might bestow a high level of collective legitimacy, Israel is too fragmented for it to be truly representative.

The coalition’s first test came within days, in the form of the annual right-wing march through Jerusalem to celebrate its capture in the 1967 war. This march, always popular with a certain flavour of extremist youth, was delayed due to the recent 11-day Gaza war.

Further delaying the march would have been anathema to Bennett’s nationalist constituency, especially given that Hamas in Gaza made lurid threats and sent a barrage of incendiary balloons over the border fence even before the march started. Anything that can be perceived as a concession to terror is a red line for a box-fresh Israeli leader.

Ra’am’s leader Mansour Abbas muttered that the march should have been cancelled, but the government’s leftist contingent also backed it, with minister of public security, Labour’s Omer Bar-Lev, insisting, “The right to demonstrate is a right in all democracies.”

The democratic right to demonstrate, in this case, saw crowds of young men jumping up and down joyfully singing “Death to Arabs” and chanting about burning their villages, facilitated by a heavy police presence and the arrest of dozens of Palestinian counter-protestors.

There is no doubt that the Israeli mainstream abhors this kind of hate speech, and foreign minister Yair Lapid immediately tweeted that the youths were “a disgrace to the nation of Israel.” But it’s not about the behaviour of a rogue few; Israeli political trends have facilitated exactly this kind of mainstreaming of ideology once considered beyond the pale.

It was painful to see the surprise among Jewish Israelis when the recent brutal conflict with Hamas in Gaza translated into inter-communal violence within Israel itself. Jews and Arabs, even in the mixed communities which are rare within Israel, attacked each other’s houses and businesses. There were beatings and lynchings, and around the country symbols of Arab-Jewish coexistence, like the theatre in the mixed city of Acre, were attacked.

But people do not need symbols of co-existence. They need real equality, and political trends in Israel—such as the 2018 Nation State law which made explicit that only Jews have the “exclusive right to national self-determination” in Israel—do not favour this.

Within Jewish society as well, there are bitterly competing demands over who gets to define the role of religion in public life, from civil marriage to gender segregation and simple recognition of different streams of belief.

This is not something that even this historically diverse government will confront. Its major challenge is simply to survive, for a start; Netanyahu has made no secret of his intent to do all he can to derail it.

But many Israelis hope for more in the post-Netanyahu era: for the public trust he eroded in state institutions to be restored, rifts healed with the judiciary and media and for real action to be taken against corruption. That would require a certain kind of honesty and collaboration between interest groups that seems as unlikely as ever.

In his inaugural speech, Bennett told the Knesset: “We are not enemies; we are one people.” This was always, and remains, fantasy. Continuing to tell this alluring fable of the Holy Land’s religious and ethnic tolerance will only perpetuate injustice.