In the wake of the political crisis set off by Idit Silman’s defection to the opposition a few weeks ago and deepened by Ra’am’s suspension of its participation in the coalition during the recent Knesset recess over Israeli police actions on the Temple Mount, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid had appeared by the middle of last week to have bailed the water out of a leaking ship. Since then, a veritable typhoon has hit the Bennett-Lapid government, and it is coming from all fronts. On Thursday, Meretz MK Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi announced her resignation from the coalition—leaving it with a Knesset minority of 59 seats—only to retract on Sunday. On Monday this week, Bennett’s closest aide and chief of staff, Tal Gan-Zvi, announced that he would be stepping down. On Wednesday, Blue and White MK and Knesset Economic Committee chair Michael Biton said that he would no longer vote for any coalition bills or even schedule committee meetings until public transportation and agriculture pricing reforms with which he disagrees are halted. And amidst all of this were rumors that if Defense Minister Benny Gantz orders the evacuation of the illegal Homesh outpost—which the Supreme Court has demanded a response on from Gantz next week—Yamina MK Nir Orbach and potentially other Yamina figures will quit the coalition.
When the Bennett-Lapid government was formed with only a one seat margin, it was immediately evident how exposed it would be to the whims of individual MKs. It would only take one defection to ensure that nothing could ever have an absolute guarantee of advancing, and in the wake of Silman’s defection, only one more to put the coalition at perpetual risk of a no-confidence dissolution motion that will lead to elections. If the original setup made every MK a king, it has progressed to the point where every MK is now an emperor. It is thus unsurprising to see demands coming from the right, left, and center, many of them on niche causes and concerns.
That is not to say, however, that there isn’t a pattern. The threats to jump ship that are coming from the right revolve almost entirely around ideological issues, whether it be the pending decisions on evacuating Homesh and dismantling the illegal outpost of Evyatar, the debate over amending or even canceling the 2018 nation-state basic law, or the planned route of the Jerusalem Day flag march on Sunday to the Western Wall through Damascus Gate and the Muslim Quarter. The threats to jump ship from the left and center either originate in material budget concerns, such as Biton’s, or originate as ideological demands but are resolved through material budget concessions, which is how both Ra’am and Rinawie Zoabi were brought back into the fold. The pattern that keeps repeating is that the right is consumed with ideology, while the left and center are consumed with more tangible interests.
This dynamic is not surprising in the context of Israeli politics in 2022. The fury on the right at the establishment of the Bennett-Lapid government stems from the fact that Israel leans strongly to the right politically and that Likud, the right’s standard-bearing party, came in first and won almost twice as many seats in the last election as Yesh Atid did in second, yet sits in the opposition. There are 72 Knesset seats held by parties that would define themselves as at home on the right, yet most of those seats are not part of the coalition. Egged on by Binyamin Netanyahu, many on the right believe that this is an illegitimate government that fleeced the nationalist right-wing camp and had the gall to form a coalition with the left, and they view their ideology and values as being threatened as a result. The litmus test for the right-wing parties that are part of the coalition is thus over issues that allow them to demonstrate that they may have made a political compromise, but they have not and will not compromise over their ideological commitments, which center around asserting Jewish hegemony in Israel through symbolism and through West Bank settlement.
The left—which for these purposes includes Ra’am, and which makes sense as a categorization in the Israeli context despite it not actually being left-wing in any traditionally normative way—also understands Israel’s political right-wing nature, and is therefore prioritizing tangible accomplishments for however brief its time as part of the government might be. While Ra’am needed to be responsive to its own ideological voter base and suspended its coalition involvement over the highly ideological issue of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount status quo, it ultimately returned with a deal that sped up the allocation of budgets to Arab municipalities and infrastructure that were in the coalition agreements but had not yet been implemented. Rinawie Zoabi’s resignation letter detailed her discontent with the situations in Sheikh Jarrah and the Temple Mount, expanding settlements and deepening occupation in the West Bank, and the continued passage and implementation of the Citizenship Law that bars Palestinians from residency in Israel if they marry Israeli citizens. When she returned on Sunday, flanked by Arab mayors, her explanation was that “because my mission is to serve the local authorities and to bring about accomplishments to address the needs of the Arab community, I will support the coalition.” Though there is certainly ferment on the left and particularly within Israeli Arab politics on issues related to Zionism and Israel’s Jewish nature, it is pocketbook issues that are enabling the left to stick around.
The way this is playing out likely means that the coalition will ultimately be brought down by the right, as it is harder to satisfy their ideological demands than it is to satisfy the left’s material ones. But there is also an implication for the future of Israeli politics, and particularly the future of Arab inclusion in coalitions. Zionism is a hegemonic ideology, so intertwined with Israel as a state and Israeli governments that any challenge to Zionism as Israel’s core political organizing principle becomes more than an ideological threat; it is treated as a threat to the state’s very legitimacy. One of the main reasons that independent Arab parties have historically been treated as being outside the boundaries of acceptability is not because they are Arab, but because they present themselves as being threats to Israel’s central political ideology. What has made Mansour Abbas and his iteration of Ra’am different is that the party has reoriented itself away from this ideological challenge to Zionism, making its inclusion in a coalition possible despite being perhaps the most unlikely Arab candidate for such a move given its Islamist nature.
As I have noted before, there is no guarantee that Ra’am’s inclusion in the Bennett-Lapid coalition means that Arab parties will be permanently legitimized. But the fact that demands from Ra’am and Arab MKs have repeatedly revolved around budgets and not around conflicts related to Zionism will make it easier for Israeli Jews to begin thinking over the long term about Arab parties in the context of political disagreements rather than existential ideological ones. If this conception spreads and cements itself, it will upend one of the natural advantages that the right has had for years, where potential left and center coalitions begin in the hole since they do not consider the seats held by Arab parties amongst their numbers. The way in which demands are playing out in the current coalition impacts its longevity, but the bigger impact may end up on the Israeli political system writ large.