There are two basic principles that enabled Naftali Bennett, Yair Lapid, and the other leaders of the eight parties that formed the governing Israeli coalition to come together. One was that Binyamin Netanyahu had to be replaced at all costs, and the specter of his return should the coalition fall apart continues to be the glue that binds it together. The other was that since the ideological spread of the coalition is unprecedentedly wide, it would do its best to focus only on issues that enjoyed a relative consensus across the entire group. Unlike the first principle, this second one has proven more challenging, and its violation when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is threatening to wreak havoc on the government’s continued viability.
On Sunday, the Housing and Construction Ministry announced tenders for 1,355 new housing units across seven West Bank settlements, nearly all of them deep inside the West Bank and outside any areas that Israel would conceivably retain through land swaps in any permanent status agreement. The plans for this construction had been approved under the previous government, but the current government had held off on publishing tenders for their construction until now. The ministry also announced tenders for 83 new units in Givat Hamatos, one of the few remaining undeveloped spots in East Jerusalem and one of the most sensitive spots in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since construction there will cut off Bethlehem and the southern West Bank from Jerusalem completely. The Higher Planning Council, which is the Civil Administration body in charge of approving West Bank construction, then approved another 2,860 housing units on Wednesday, including in some of the tensest areas in the northern West Bank such as Kedumim and Har Bracha.
While settlement construction is nothing new, it does not enjoy anything approaching consensus across the coalition, and members coming from the left and center reacted in kind. Meretz head and Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz alleged that the announcements violated the coalition agreement not to upend the status quo on issues over which there is disagreement, and he and Labor chairwoman Merav Michaeli met with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to complain about being repeatedly surprised by policy in the West Bank. Foreign Minister and Yesh Atid chief Yair Lapid pledged to attend all future meetings about West Bank construction to ensure that Bennett and Defense Minister Benny Gantz do not move ahead with settlement activity that violates coalition arrangements.
The settlement announcements came on top of Gantz’s decision to designate six Palestinian NGOs as terrorist organizations due to their ties to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which is itself a U.S. and EU-designated terrorist organization. There was opposition from Labor and Meretz both to the decision to designate the six NGOs and to the fact that they were not informed ahead of time. This criticism ranged from Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev’s skepticism that the six organizations are actually endangering Israel and thus not worth causing a firestorm over, to other Labor and Meretz MKs alleging that placing terrorist designations on these organizations was a human rights violation. For a coalition that was supposed to be avoiding the third rail of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this week was full of self-imposed shocks.
The problem is not that the coalition is dealing with Israeli-Palestinian issues, since doing so is literally unavoidable. The problem is that when there is a serious disagreement, the resolution consistently points in one direction. The “shrinking the conflict” measures such as issuing more work permits for Palestinians and advancing tax revenues to the Palestinian Authority to prevent its collapse enjoy support across the coalition, as Bennett sees them as the preferred approach while Labor, Meretz, and Ra’am see them as a beneficial step despite wanting a more wide-ranging peace process. There is consensus across the coalition that the PA should be strengthened, and so while Bennett and Lapid are unwilling to meet with Mahmoud Abbas, they are happy to let Gantz and a parade of Meretz figures do so and check that box. But when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian issues that actually divide the coalition, rather than punting, the policy leans heavily toward the right side of the coalition, with only the center and left being asked to swallow bitter pills for the sake of unity.
Settlement projects move forward, because maintaining a Jewish hold across the entire Land of Israel is too important to the right. Housing permits for Palestinians in existing villages such as Khirbet Zakkariyah and recognition of unrecognized villages are put on hold, because they are too divisive to the right. If the right side of the coalition wants something with regard to Israeli-Palestinian issues that does not command coalition-wide agreement, the center and the left are asked to maintain unity so that there are no right-wing defections, but the reverse never occurs.
There is a similar dynamic unfolding between the Bennett government and the Biden administration. For all of the public shows of comity, the Israeli government is making it increasingly clear that it is unwilling to ask the right-wing members of the coalition to compromise on Biden administration priorities that they oppose. While it is inaccurate to characterize President Biden’s desire to reopen the Jerusalem consulate as a measure that is supported by the Israeli center or even all parts of the Israeli left, it is also now apparent that the Israeli government’s opposition to such a move is not going to disappear once the budget passes, and that it maintains that reopening the consulate will bring down the government whenever it happens. Wednesday’s approval of nearly 3,000 new settlements homes deep inside the West Bank—which as noted above is opposed by a significant part of the coalition—was preemptively criticized by the administration in a much heavier fashion than any previous statement, with State Department spokesman Ned Price on Tuesday saying, “We strongly oppose the expansion of settlements, which is completely inconsistent with efforts to lower tensions and restore calm. And it damages the prospects for a two-state solution.” This contrasts with the general statements against unilateral actions by both sides that Price had voiced before, and it came on the heels of Tony Blinken registering his opposition to the move with Gantz and acting ambassador Michael Ratney doing the same with top Bennett foreign policy adviser Shimrit Meir. The Israeli government proceeded with the move nonetheless, in keeping with the domestic pattern of casting aside opposition to things that are outside of the much-vaunted consensus so long as that opposition is blowing from a leftward direction.
The assumption has been that once the Israeli government successfully gets past the budget deadline in the first part of November, its ability to continue will be more assured. There is also an assumption that the Biden administration is so relieved to be dealing with a government led by someone other than Netanyahu that it is willing to countenance nearly anything that Israel wants to do on the Israeli-Palestinian front short of annexation. It is too early to say whether these assumptions are faulty, but there is real danger for a coalition that is predicated on sticking to things that command wide agreement when it ranges far afield on an issue for which wide agreement is most elusive. If the left and center parties in the government have any actual red lines when it comes to the West Bank, they will need to rapidly decide what those red lines are or risk having their priorities shed aside for as long as this government lasts.