As Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid’s unprecedented political experiment sputters toward its apparent end, obituaries for the self-monikered government of change are coming in from all corners. Yet the eight-party coalition that has sustained the Bennett-Lapid government also passed an important milestone this week, having successfully reached its one-year anniversary. While it hardly feels like a celebratory moment given the elections monsoon that is about to overtake Israel’s political system yet again and flood it with uncertainty and gridlock, the coalition that replaced Binyamin Netanyahu has already lasted longer than some thought possible, and has notched a number of important achievements to boot. While the temptation is to look backward, whether to praise this coalition or to damn it, it is critical to look forward instead, because the true impact of the past year is going to be felt in what comes next rather than what has already transpired.
Nearly four years ago—before the Groundhog Day cycle of Israeli elections, before then-Prime Minister Netanyahu’s indictments, before the release of the Trump plan, before the formation of the Bennett-Lapid government—I wrote that the right-left divide in Israeli politics and society was no longer about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but about the contours of an exceedingly narrow and hawkish brand of Israeli nationalism. This observation stemmed from the debate over and passage of Israel’s nation-state Basic Law, but the Bennett-Lapid coalition’s first year has confirmed that the fundamental dynamic has only gotten stronger. Indeed, the coalition’s formation in some ways accelerated the tension over Israeli nationalism with its inclusion of an independent Arab party for the first time in Israel’s history, making the dividing line even starker and exposing the different ways in which it manifests. Opposition to Netanyahu is what united the disparate parties in the coalition, but it is unlikely to continue holding the same group together. Whenever this government falls, whether it is a matter of days or weeks, the battle lines will not be drawn over Netanyahu, but over competing versions of nationalism: one narrow and one more expansive.
There were many sources of coalition tension from the beginning, whether it was traditional right versus left on the Palestinian issue, economic policy, or just how far is too far in preventing Netanyahu from forming a government while under indictment. But the biggest by far has been over who Israel is for, and whether certain citizens deserve things by dint of being citizens or whether they should be extra grateful for whatever the government decides to allocate to them. The Netanyahu-led opposition has done its best to paint a picture of a government in thrall to non-Zionist terrorism supporters and Israel-hating radical leftists, but its true sentiments can be seen in its constant appeals to Jewish values and the allegation that the Bennett-Lapid coalition has betrayed those values. That might seem odd considering that Bennett is Israel’s first kippah-wearing, observant prime minister, but the question of Jewish values in the political sphere has little to do with Jewish practice and belief. Like Justice Potter Stewart’s famous dictum about pornography, you are supposed to know it when you see it. And in the context of Israeli politics in 2022, “Jewish values” nationalism is about elevating Israel’s Jewish identity above anything and everything else, whether it be democracy, societal cohesion, security, or the country’s ability to function.
The divide here is not about Israel as a Jewish state. That is accepted by every Jewish political party irrespective of where they sit on the spectrum, and is accepted by Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas as well. The divide is also not entirely between the coalition and the opposition. It is playing out within the coalition too and is about responsibility: to whom is the state responsible, and who should be held responsible when things go wrong. This divide can be seen in the debate over budgets to Arab municipalities, which are chronically underfunded, or in the debate over hooking up unrecognized Bedouin villages to electricity, which have been waiting years for master plans to be approved first. For some, this is a move that makes both political sense by keeping Ra’am in the coalition and substantive sense by correcting longstanding policy problems that adversely affect Israelis. For others, this is a political bribe to Arabs who do not deserve funding and government attention if there are Jewish citizens who could use that funding and government attention instead. The divide can be seen in the reactions following the failure last week to reauthorize extending Israeli law to Israeli Jews living in the West Bank. For some, the blame lies with the tens of right-wing MKs who voted against it on the theory that there is no higher value than denying the government a win, irrespective of the substance of the issue. For others, the blame lies solely with the two Arab MKs in the coalition who voted against it, and not even with the two MKs from Bennett’s own settler-based Yamina party who had already defected to the opposition and thus would not vote for it.
The divide is also about pragmatism versus extremism. Lapid has long been a vocal advocate of pragmatic politics that transcend the political aisle, which is partially why he has worked so hard to keep Abbas and Ra’am on board. Bennett espoused a variety of radical ideas before he became prime minister, most prominently annexation of the entirety of Area C, most of which have taken a back seat to the actual work of governance now that he sits in the top chair. Avigdor Liberman and Benny Gantz have both tempered their own positions over time on the nation-state law after recognizing that a measure that is purposefully and divisively exclusive can have a damaging impact despite being largely symbolic. Other members of the coalition have not followed a similar path, and have instead held fast to red lines designed to throw red meat to their most extreme voters and supporters. There is another Potter Stewart dictum that applies here that is less well known than the first but more important, which is that there is a difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do. How Israeli politicians react to that idea goes a long way toward determining where they lie in the constellation of Israeli nationalism and what it entails.
Israeli politics has been reorienting itself for years. That reorientation will continue when Israel goes to new elections, or in the less likely scenario of a new government being formed out of the current Knesset, and the question of Israeli nationalism will dictate which types of alliances and partnerships emerge. Netanyahu’s brand of Israeli nationalism will be one rallying point, Lapid’s will be another. Whether we view the Bennett-Lapid government years from now as having been successful is going to hinge on how lasting its impact is on this fundamental issue well after the government itself is gone.