Israel may have lost its Jewish-Arab coalition - opinion

If Bennett can make it to the end of the summer Knesset session, there's a good chance of him making it to the end of this term.

 NAFTALI BENNETT and Mansour Abbas in the Knesset. Is a partnership like this lost for good?  (photo credit: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images)
NAFTALI BENNETT and Mansour Abbas in the Knesset. Is a partnership like this lost for good?
(photo credit: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett had a bittersweet week.

On Sunday, Meretz MK Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi returned to the coalition after quitting three days earlier, in what will go down in history as one of the most pitiful political flip-flops Israel has ever seen – and the bar is pretty high. To think back to last Thursday night, when Rinawie Zoabi said on national TV that viewers need to get used to the word of an Arab woman that is never broken, only to see it broken a few days later, was simply sad.

That took place on Sunday, when it looked like the coalition was saved once again. Then on Monday, Bennett’s longtime chief of staff, Tal Gan Zvi, announced he was leaving his role, just two weeks after the prime minister’s diplomatic adviser had also stepped down.

Gan Zvi wasn’t just Bennett’s chief of staff; he was the ultimate loyalist who had served at the prime minister’s side ever since he entered politics a decade ago. Gan Zvi was a serious political operator and manager who got things done when others couldn’t. His departure was a personal blow to Bennett, but also a major shock to the coalition, as Gan Zvi was both caretaker of the right-wing flank in the coalition and a key player at keeping Yamina together after MK Idit Silman’s departure last month.

Then came Tuesday morning, and Bennett scored a victory at 2:30 a.m. when the Knesset passed the IDF scholarships bill after days of fighting with the Likud. That the bill will see the state provide 75% of tuition for IDF soldiers who have served in combat units is terrific for those veterans but besides the point. This was all about beating Likud.

 PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett sits between Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana and Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli in the Knesset. It’s not surprising that the coalition is made up of liberal religious and secular Jews.  (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett sits between Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana and Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli in the Knesset. It’s not surprising that the coalition is made up of liberal religious and secular Jews. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Later on Tuesday, Bennett received another piece of good news: Politico reported that US President Joe Biden had officially decided not to delist the IRGC from the Foreign Terrorist Organization list, despite Tehran demanding it be removed if the West wanted to move ahead with nuclear negotiations.

All seemed good. But then political trouble struck again on Wednesday morning. Blue and White MK Michael Biton announced he would no longer vote with the coalition due to a fight over public transportation. And Yamina MK Nir Orbach was threatening to bolt the coalition as well if Defense Minister Benny Gantz goes ahead with his threat to evacuate the illegal outpost of Homesh in the coming weeks.

“Every few days it is someone else,” one top member of the coalition said this week.

“This just doesn’t seem sustainable anymore.”

Top coalition member

In short, everything, as Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman likes to say when asked how he’s doing, is “Gan Eden,” just heavenly.

Will the government make it?

Cynicism aside, this is Israel’s political reality. Every week will have its new challenges, and almost every challenge will shake the coalition’s foundations. Bennett hopes to make it to the end of July, when the Knesset’s summer session ends. If he can do that, then he has a good chance of making it to the end of the year, when the Knesset’s winter session begins. Kick the can down the road and hope nothing gets in the way. That is the current strategy.

It might even work, if the government was not dependent on every single vote that has the potential to make or break whatever happens in the parliament, and to a large extent the country. Will there be a budget in a few months? Will Biden keep his plan to visit Israel in June? And what will happen on Sunday when a Jerusalem Day parade marches through Damascus Gate?

This was the same parade that former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled last year at the last minute, in an attempt to avoid a conflict with Hamas. It didn’t help. Hamas fired a few rockets toward Jerusalem, and Israel was drawn into an 11-day war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Will that be triggered again on Sunday?

The question is ever more complicated when considering what Bennett might decide to do. The parade has already been approved by the police, so if Bennett cancels it, he runs the risk of upsetting his right-wing coalition partners. But if the parade goes ahead, he runs the risk of upsetting Ra’am.

What would happen, for example, if the yelling, dancing, flag-flying parade marches through Damascus Gate, riots break out on the Temple Mount, the police go in and clashes ensue ending in casualties as well as disturbances – like last year – in the mixed cities of Acre, Lod, Jaffa and Ramle? Will Ra’am be able to sit quietly and remain a partner in the coalition? And if Bennett knows that Ra’am could bolt, will he let the parade go forward?

Don’t misunderstand. In my view, the parade needs to go ahead. The last thing Israel should do is once again surrender and capitulate to Hamas threats. That would send the wrong message about the way the government views its sovereignty over Jerusalem, and anyhow, it will likely not make a difference, like last year. If Hamas wants a conflict, it does not need the parade to justify rocket fire. It will find some other Israeli action to use as an excuse.

At the same time, it is hard to ignore that the makeup of this government indeed limits what the government can do, especially now when the government is completely dependent not just on one Arab party (Ra’am) but on two (the Joint List as well).

Contrary to what Likud talking heads claim, the funding for the Arab sector promised to Rinawie Zoabi to keep her in the coalition, or similar funds promised to members of the Joint List so they would provide protection from outside the coalition, is not bribery. That is how the political game is played in Israel (and other countries as well): governments give benefits to the constituencies of politicians in order to get those same politicians to return the favor, one day, with a vote.

Nevertheless, the way this was done will undermine the potential of future political alliances between Arabs and Jews, because if the Bennett-Lapid coalition implodes, then governments will be reluctant to add an Arab party the next time they form a coalition.

As seen in the poll published this weekend in The Jerusalem Post, almost 70% of Israelis do not want to see an Arab party participate in any future coalition. About 10% have not made up their mind, and 20% are in favor, but the nearly 70% who are opposed are not all Jews – a large percentage of Israeli Arabs (almost 40%) are also against one of their parties cooperating with the Zionist regime.

Considering everything that could have come out of this government, this is the saddest conclusion, and is as close as the country can get to declaring that the Naftali Bennett-Yair Lapid-Mansour Abbas experiment has failed. People do not want to see a government with Arabs and Jews together.

In the short-term, this might feel right. Looking at the difficulty this government has had in advancing legislation, as well as the ideological stagnation on issues that people are most visceral about (Palestinians, religion and state), it is understandable why Israelis would be disenchanted.

But we need to look beyond this short-term frustration. The participation of an Arab party in the government is something Israelis should strategically cherish in the long-term. Twenty percent of this country are Arabs, and their successful integration is the success of the entire country. The more Arabs are integrated, the better Israel will be able to confront the challenges of the future, whether economic, social, or even with security.

It looks like this government is coming to an end. It is important that we know what it is that we are losing.