In looking at the government of Naftali Bennett, I’m reminded of the words written by Lord Douglas Hurd, when he was the private secretary to then British prime minister, Edward “Ted” Heath: “the government is wandering around the battlefield, looking for someone to surrender to, and being massacred all the time”. Hurd’s words described the utter defeat Heath’s government was dealt at every turn by anyone who happened to come across it in the early 1970’s.
A month after the Bennett-Lapid coalition was formed, its record is abysmal. It’s going to be a long one, so strap in. Firstly, on the very eve of its birth, the coalition nearly lost its first vote of confidence: Israel’s parliament is made of 120 delegates, and the coalition managed to get only 60 votes in its favour, just one vote short. Its leaders had to resort to outside support from the Arab joint list, a union of Arab parties that sits in opposition. Only at the last minute, when the joint list’s leaders saw the coalition was set to have 60 votes and not 59 or less, they abstained so that the government can be born. On paper the coalition has 62 members of the Knesset, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. One member of Bennet’s own party, Amichai Schikli, immediately declared he would oppose the new government, pointing out that its existence is breaking an election promise by Bennett, to only take part in a right-wing government. The other issue is the Arab united list.
The united Arab list, or “Ra’am” as it’s called by initials, is an islamist, Bedouin, Arab party. It represents the southern branch of the Israeli Islamic movement, a sub-section of the Muslim brotherhood. And like the physical concept of light, which is both a wave and particle, it’s somehow both in government and outside of it. Though its chair is definitely in, the members of his party are not so clear, chief among them is Said al-Harumi. Al-Harumi lives in a house that was built illegally, and in the previous government, managed to manoeuvre the entire agency responsible for Bedouin affairs, the ministry of internal affairs and the committee for internal affairs in the Knesset, so his home would be “legalized” retroactively. Now, Al-Harumi has been appointed to the Knesset’s internal affairs committee, the parliamentary committee responsible for illegal building and Bedouin affairs. But in return, his support for the government is still not assured.
Another crisis is in the ministry of education. It is headed by Yifat Shasha-Biton, who in the previous Knesset served as chair of the “Corona committee” and became infamous for her critique of the government’s handling of the pandemic. But what started as critical thinking has devolved into Covid denial and anti-vaccine thinking. This week, she explained her opposition to vaccinating children in schools, and called the head of public health sector in the ministry of health as “crazy and hysterical”. As of writing these words, Shasha-Biton has not been sacked.
The third crisis also happened on the very first week of the government’s existence. Since 2003, to manage growing Palestinian immigration into Israel, a law has been put in place to limit the “unification of families”. The law had to be extended every year, and usually had been extended with by-partisan support. But this time, it wasn’t so.
The coalition is comprised of two right-wing parties that make up only 12 seats, and the vast majority is made up of left-wing parties. Opposition to the extension of the law was from both Arab parties and from within the coalition itself with members of the left-wing party “Meretz” saying they would vote against the law. As a result, the right-wing elements in the coalition began a hysterical campaign to shame the right-wing parties in opposition into supporting the extension, all the while claiming the government did not lose its parliamentary majority, and behind the scenes trying to induce the Arab parties into abstaining.
In response to the government’s “shame game” the opposition offered a bill of their own – a basic law, meaning a semi-constitutional law, that would completely secure Israel’s immigration policy. On the day of the vote, the debate was stretched for hours, and in the late hours of the night, the government lost the vote.
All the while disputes within the cabinet itself continue to echo in the headlines, the ministry of finance creating new taxes, and the government attempting to legislate against Benjamin Netanyahu personally to prevent the biggest threat to their existence from threatening them further.
Two months from its conception, the government is weaker than ever.