With the Israeli budget passed and the government having survived its first big test, the conventional wisdom is that the coalition’s stability is now assured at least for the medium term. Ministries have funding that is both sufficient and matches their current needs, which creates an incentive for coalition members not to bring the entire edifice crashing down. The path for the opposition to force new elections is also far more strenuous, as it no longer merely requires securing one more vote against the budget than the number of votes in favor, but instead requires a no-confidence motion and a subsequent vote of at least 61 MKs in favor of a specific alternative coalition. The coalition has also demonstrated its ability to withstand Bibi Netanyahu’s best attempts to gum up the works and has built a level of trust across its disparate parties and personalities, which will theoretically lead to even more trust and success in working together on other issues.
Yet signs abound that not everyone is expecting the coalition to last until the end of its term. There is political maneuvering taking place meant to position different high-profile politicians ahead of elections, with the irony being that some of this maneuvering that requires time to build a more secure foundation ahead of elections may hasten those elections before some of the maneuverers are ready. While some of the moves being made are outreach or pandering to different groups, much of the political churn can be seen in the policy positions that are being staked out, which end up being more about political calculations than about genuine policy preferences.
One of the clearest places this can be seen is in Israel’s Gaza policy. The Netanyahu government’s policy on Gaza was simple and straightforward, which was to do nearly anything under the radar that would keep Gaza quiet. This meant not only ignoring or explaining away occasional rocket fire and a steady stream of incendiary balloons, but also creating the policy of cash for quiet in which Qatari suitcases of money were delivered directly into Hamas’s hands, ensuring a modicum of stability for Gaza and for Hamas’s continued rule. Unsurprisingly, this policy was unsparingly criticized at the time by prominent members of the current government, with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman being two of the loudest voices who advocated a zero-tolerance policy toward Hamas.
After almost six months in office, the Bennett-Lapid government has effectively doubled down on the Netanyahu government’s Gaza policy. Tackling the thorny Hamas problem in Gaza was at the top of the new government’s to-do list, as it was sworn in on the heels of the extended fighting between Israel and Hamas in May and the IDF’s Operation Guardian of the Walls. The initial tough talk of not allowing reconstruction in Gaza absent the return of Israeli hostages and the bodies of Israeli soldiers gave way to the political realities of wanting to avoid another exchange of hostilities, which meant a large influx of materials from concrete to steel rods flowing into Gaza outside of the previously established U.N.-supervised reconstruction mechanism. While Qatari payments to needy families are being administered by the U.N., there remains no good failsafe to ensure that Hamas does not benefit from the program.
None of this is because Bennett, Yair Lapid, Liberman, Benny Gantz, or anyone else actively wants to keep Hamas in power. It is because the last thing this government needs politically is a war with Hamas and Israeli cities under rocket fire, and thus allowing Qatar and Egypt to rebuild Gaza and actively facilitating the transfer of materials that will be used to build tunnels and rockets is the result. There is no Israeli policy on Gaza that does not begin with the enduring political axiom that quiet at nearly any cost is good for whichever government is in power.
Domestic politics are also driving policy in the West Bank, largely at the behest of Gantz’s political calculations. Gantz views himself as a future prime minister and one who was cheated out of assuming that office when Netanyahu allowed their short-lived government to collapse rather than risk handing over his post to Gantz. But Gantz is also a politician without a large natural base, and one who first infuriated his original political allies in the anti-Netanyahu camp by forming a government with Netanyahu, and then infuriated his new political allies in the pro-Netanyahu camp by forming a government with Bennett and Lapid.
This has left Gantz as someone who needs to appeal to different groups on different issues to rebuild trust, and has resulted in a policy schizophrenia of sorts. One day Gantz is in Ramallah meeting with Mahmoud Abbas and announcing conciliatory measures toward the Palestinian Authority, the next day he is designating well-known Palestinian NGOs as terrorist organizations affiliated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine without publicly releasing robustly corroborating evidence. One day he is increasing work permits and housing permits for Palestinians, the next day he is advancing settlement plans deep inside the West Bank and well beyond the security barrier. One day he is demanding the evacuation and dismantlement of the illegal outpost Evyatar that was constructed when the IDF was distracted by the fighting in Gaza, the next day he is cutting a deal to allow a yeshiva and eventually a new and legalized settlement to be built on the same spot. Gantz is looking for supporters anywhere he can get them and hoping to give everyone on all parts of the political spectrum more reasons to back him than to oppose him, but in the process he is creating West Bank policy whiplash.
Bennett and his long-time political partner Ayelet Shaked are also taking political calculations into account, but it is leading them to different spots. Bennett wants to play for time in order to build his political constituency back up and transform Yamina into a vehicle for future success, understanding that a prime minister at the head of a party of 6 MKs is a lucky accident rather than a new normal. Shaked, who was always the most ambivalent member of the coalition, understands this dynamic too, but seems to be plotting a path to Likud rather than focusing on transforming and strengthening Yamina. Whether it be insulting Lapid, threatening to dismantle the coalition over the issue of the U.S. potentially reopening its Jerusalem consulate, or standing in the way of Gideon Sa’ar’s bill creating term limits for future prime ministers, Shaked appears to be a politician planning her exit from her current political alliance. Assuming that she is looking to make a long-anticipated jump to Likud, it may become harder the longer she waits, but it also may not be a possibility while Netanyahu still controls Likud as thoroughly as he does.
Politics driving policy is nothing new. The danger when it is being done on so many fronts and by so many people in an ideologically and philosophically diverse coalition with this narrow a margin is that everyone’s calculations as to timing and pressure will backfire. With so many operating at cross-purposes with others, and in some cases with themselves, the assumption that the budget’s passage will create lasting political breathing room or policy stability may be fleeting.