Strange Bedfellows

The phrase “politics makes strange bedfellows” has never been better applied than to the potential new government of Israel that is set to be sworn in soon. For the first time in 12 years, Binyamin Netanyahu will not be prime minister, and instead will be replaced by former American citizen Naftali Bennett. The new “change coalition” will consist of a number of small-to-tiny parties that range from the left of the spectrum to the right, some of whom are diametrically opposed to one another in ideology.

The one thing that this motley crew of factions has in common is the desire to see Netanyahu gone, and in that they are likely to succeed, unless the deal falls apart in the next few days, which is certainly possible considering it will be the slimmest of margins (61 seats out of 120 in the Knesset).

There are several firsts in the upcoming government. For the first time, Israel will have a prime minister who wears a kippah and considers himself Modern Orthodox. Bennett, the son of American immigrants who renounced his US citizenship when he entered the Knesset, represents a new generation of Israeli leaders. He is a veteran of elite combat units, religious, and a tech entrepreneur. Remarkably, he also will occupy the prime minister’s office representing a party with only 6 seats in the Knesset.

For the first time in Israel’s history, an Arab party has signed a coalition agreement. Although they will not have a representative in the cabinet, the Ra’am party is key to making the “change government” possible. In exchange for their votes, Ra’am will receive billions in state funding for the Arab sector. Their participation is a watershed moment for Israeli democracy, and ironically was made possible by Netanyahu. The political crises prompted by his refusal to step aside spurred the Israeli political establishment to seek Arab support, and in fact Netanyahu set the precedent by courting Ra’am to join him in his own coalition.

So what will this “change government” achieve? It’s not clear because for every priority of one of its members, there is staunch opposition from another. Bennett opposes a two-state solution and has advocated Israeli annexation of the West Bank, but the Meretz and Labor parties would certainly resign if he made such a move. Meretz is headed by the first openly gay person to lead a major Israeli party, but any significant LGBTQ initiatives would be opposed by the conservative and Islamist Ra’am party. For the first time in 6 years there will be no Haredi parties in government and a Reform rabbi may be the minister of Diaspora Affairs, and yet there is not likely to be much movement on religious coercion with an Orthodox prime minister.

One area where there might be some movement is at the Western Wall, where the ultra-Orthodox establishment has opposed a deal that would give the Conservative and Reform movements a more equal say in the character of the site. Bennett has always maintained a good relationship with the liberal movements and understands the worldwide Jewish community. Eight years ago, when he was minister of Jerusalem and the Diaspora, he set up a prayer space at Robinson’s Arch where all streams of Judaism could worship as they wish.

While there are likely to be some significant and important initiatives from the new government, like an agreement about the Western Wall and badly needed resources for the Arab community, the so-called “change government” is likely to be characterized by the status quo. It will simply be too difficult for all the parties to agree on significant legislation, but that may not matter. As one observer put it: “Because this [government] came together to oust Netanyahu and end a political crisis, it will have accomplished its goal the moment it gets sworn in.”

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