Had someone fallen asleep – Rip Van Winkle-like – in October 2018, and woke up on Saturday night, he would have rubbed his eyes in disbelief at the sight of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman standing together at a news conference exchanging compliments.
Especially the Bennett-Liberman piece. Because when this imaginary Rip Van Winkle figure dozed off three years ago, Bennett – then the country’s education minister – and Liberman, the defense minister – were exchanging vicious barbs over Israel’s policies in Gaza.
Bennett accused Liberman of being weak on Gaza, and Liberman – never one to take an insult lying down – responded by calling Bennett “messianic and populist.”
“Bennett doesn’t care – neither about education nor about security. ,” Liberman said in a radio interview at the time. “As far as I’m concerned, the man has been deleted; starting tomorrow he simply does not exist.”
But on Saturday night, Liberman joined with the man he “deleted” three years ago to celebrate a victory lap, after the government succeeded in passing a budget.
This time Bennett praised Liberman, along with Lapid, for doing “outstanding work,” and Liberman said he – who has been a minister in many a government – never remembers one that has hummed along more harmoniously.
That astounding Bennett-Liberman rapprochement epitomizes what this government has been able to do in its nearly five months in office: take people who are ideologically opposed, or are not that personally fond of each other, or both, and succeed in getting them to work together.
The impetus for getting these disparate parties to form a government was a burning desire to remove Benjamin Netanyahu from the Prime Minister’s Office and put an end to the political impasse that led the country to four inconclusive elections and governmental paralysis.
Once that goal was met, and a government established – albeit a narrow one that spawned parties from the hard Left to the hard Right, with an Islamist one included to get the coalition to the magic number of 61 – the next goal was to get a budget passed. Not only or even primarily because the country desperately needed a budget – the last one being passed in 2018 – but because if the government did not pass a budget by November 14, it would automatically have fallen, leading to a new election.
As a result, differences that arose among the parties were managed internally and not allowed to mutate into major crises. From time to time someone in the coalition rocked the boat but was careful never to tip it over.
While stopping settlement construction might be a primary aim for Meretz, and expanding settlements might be an equally important goal for New Hope; though two-states has long been a clarion call for Labor, while Bennett’s Yamina Party doesn’t even want to talk about the idea – ensuring that the government would not fall proved even more important than all of that.
But now what?
The stability of the government has been ensured for the immediate future, so what happens next? Will the eight parties that form the coalition continue to be willing to ignore the big issues that divide them and concentrate on the smaller, though far more numerous ones upon which they can agree?
With its hands tied because of the massive ideological differences on dealing with marquee issues such as the diplomatic process with the Palestinians, Gaza and settlements, what does the government now want to focus on? Will it be able to continue keeping its internal contradictions in the background? What will be its policy legacy?
Bennett gave some indication at Saturday night’s news conference.
“Our next mission is to utilize this stability and deal with the challenges and problems that have been neglected for years,” he said, citing “housing costs, the traffic jams that are out of control, Israel’s infamous cost of living, the helplessness of the people in the face of rampaging crime, and the loss of governance in the Negev. Without delay, without despairing in advance, even if the tasks are great, and even if they take time, we will get started.”
Bennett thus set down his goals. And what was striking about his list – for a country that forever has put national security and diplomatic issues at the forefront – was that it was entirely domestic.
Why? Because everyone in his coalition, from Meretz on the Left to New Hope on the Right, from Ra’am to Yamina, can agree that housing costs are too high, that it is a nightmare driving to work in the morning because of the clogged roads, that everything costs too much, and that crime is bad. It’s when you go beyond those issues, when you try to tackle issues like Jerusalem and the Palestinian diplomatic process, that things get dicey.
Bennett’s solution: just don’t deal with those issues.
As was the case when he addressed the UN General Assembly in September, Bennett did not mention the Palestinians in his prepared comments at the news conference where he laid down his further goals. He only mentioned them when he was asked about the US desire to reopen a consulate in Jerusalem to serve the Palestinians, and came out unequivocally against such a move.
His message Saturday night was clear: the formula that worked to bring the parties into the coalition in the first place, and allowed them to pass the budget, will be the same one that he hopes to employ going forward. If the parties can agree on 70% to 80% of the issues on the agenda, then focus on those issues and try to ignore the rest.
What remains to be seen, however, is whether it is possible to ignore or avoid dealing with the other 20%-30%. Especially when forces outside the government – the opposition, the Palestinians, various actors in the international community – may very well work overtime trying to bring those issues front and center.