Israeli Coalition Talks Collapse Amid Worsening Violence

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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The worsening violence in Gaza and growing civil unrest in Israeli cities continue to be sources of concern for both domestic and international actors. However, instead of bringing a nascent anti-Netanyahu coalition together, the deaths and injuries of civilians on both sides of the border, coupled with the heightened tensions, seem to have brought to a premature end any hope of a “change coalition.”

Building a coalition representing the whole spectrum of the Israeli political establishment was always going to be a difficult proposition. However, that task becomes impossible when, as opposition leader Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid hinted in a recent statement reported by Haaretz’ News Michael Hauser Tov, “Political considerations were behind Israel’s military operation in Gaza…. If Israel had a working government, security matters would not interfere with politics. Lapid, who has been tasked with forming a coalition after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s mandate expired, also accused Kahanist lawmaker Itamar Ben-Gvir of having a central role in the escalation in tensions that led to rioting around the country and ultimately Israel’s flare-up with Gaza. ‘No one would let a card-carrying lunatic like Itamar Ben-Gvir set Jerusalem and then the entire country ablaze’.”

Why did the anti-Netanyahu coalition talks collapse?

Lapid is unlikely to be the last one to connect the violence with PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s failure to convince Yamina leader Naftali Bennett to enter into a coalition with the Likud party. Those suspicions are further validated by Israel Hayom’s Akiva Lam, who writes approvingly of Bennett’s desertion of the anti-Netanyahu camp, while in the process acknowledging, “The actions of Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Arab rioters stopped Yamina leader Naftali Bennett just in time from forming a government that would have destroyed the right-wing camp…. The past week has shown that many criticisms leveled at Netanyahu are correct: He disregarded Israel’s internal problems, illegal weapons trafficking in the Arab sector, and did not deal with Hamas’ growing prowess. But this does not justify forming a government with the left-wing bloc and the Arab parties. What a pity that Bennett understood this only after his own party gave him an ultimatum and violent riots broke out across the country.”

According to an Arutz Sheva report, Yamina’s Bennett had communicated directly with leaders of the so-called “bloc for change” justifying his last-minute change of heart by pointing out the impossibility of entering into a governing coalition with the Arab parties, while Arab unrest within Israel continues to remain a concern. Bennett “spoke Thursday evening with Yesh Atid Chairman MK Yair Lapid, telling him that, in the current security and social situation, he does not see an option to form a government with MK Mansour Abbas’ United Arab List. ‘A government of change as it was planned will not be able to handle the problems we are facing now, from a security and social perspective. Look what is happening in the city streets. Handling this will require strength and bringing military forces into cities, as well as a large number of arrests. These are things that cannot be done when we rely on Mansour Abbas. Security comes before civilian matters.”

Bennett has now put forward another proposal that would leave out the United Arab List and see PM Netanyahu’s Likud party and his own Yamina party joined by other members of the change coalition. The proposal was reported by The Globes’s Shirit Avitan-Cohen, who last week noted, “The negotiation teams of Likud and Yamina met today after a long stand-off, and it looks as though they are trying to put back in play Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposal for forming a government with Bennett at its head for the first year. Bennett would like to bring Gideon Sa’ar, Benny Gantz, and Yair Lapid into such a government with Likud, but there is pessimism in his circle over whether it can be done.”

What has been the reaction?

Bennett’s decision has been criticized by various editors and other Israeli observers accusing him of opportunism and cowardice. One line of thinking, put forward by a Haaretz editorial, suggests that Bennet gave in to pressure from within his party. Meanwhile, Yossi Verter, also writing for Haaretz, bemoans Bennett’s inability to live up to the moment: “Naftali Bennett could have become a prime minister of historical stature. A one-time opportunity fell into his hands: to head a governing coalition whose likes Israel has never seen, from the Islamic United Arab List to his own Yamina and Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope. The ingredients were in the pot, the fire was burning and all that remained was to stir, season and serve…. After three days of riots between Arabs and Jews, the right-wing leader may have realized that top people in his party weren’t really with him. So now he’s talking with Bibi, who loves to humiliate him.”

In a rare sign of agreement with its national and ideological competitor, the Jerusalem Post issued a strongly worded editorial urging Bennett to reconsider his decision to abandon coalition talks under Lapid’s leadership, arguing that Israel’s political climate urgently needed a changing of the guard: “The only solution is to have all of our representatives, from far-right to far-left – including the Arab parties – sit together around the same table, which will be labeled the ‘restart coalition’…. It will not deal with sensitive core issues, but with strengthening the foundations of this country as both a Jewish and a democratic state…. Every Netanyahu-led government focused on maintaining the status quo in every field. This was the way to retain office, to promise big and do nothing. And this is how we descended into anarchy. But there is still time to do something. Israel is in desperate need of change.”

Where do we go from here?

Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert has joined the chorus of voices calling Bennett and the entire Israeli political establishment to distance themselves from the “distortions” created by Netanyahu’s leadership style and policies, a move which, as he hints at in this Jerusalem Post op-ed, will require political “courage” and “valor”: “On the extreme Right is Bennett and Sa’ar and their friends, and on the other extreme is the Muslim Ra’am, led by Mansour Abbas, and next to him is Meretz, and to the Right is the Labor Party, led by Merav Michaeli. In between the two sides are Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu and Benny Gantz’s Blue and White. How do you form a government like this that is supposed to correct a significant part of the distortions created by the Likud government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu?… This can only be done if they decide to distance themselves from the behavioral patterns and tricks used by the government that they want to replace…. Bennett and Sa’ar need to detach themselves from their parent parties and, most important, connect to the parties that were the subjects of attacks, harassment and incitement by the political bodies from which Sa’ar and Bennett came.”

Facing the collapse of coalition talks and with time running out, Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid, who has been charged with creating a government, noted in an op-ed for The Times of Israel, that, given the current instability, it is incumbent on him and his partners to continue to seek a solution to the impasse: “I heard Naftali Bennett’s announcement that he does not see the feasibility of a change government happening in the current circumstances. I understand his distress, but he is wrong. You don’t bring about change when it is comfortable. Whoever waits for the right moment will find that it will never come. Change is made when you believe it is the right thing to do. When you believe your path is the right one. I have no intentions of giving up. I will continue to turn over every stone to form a government in the coming weeks. There are another 20 days of the mandate — in political terms, that is an eternity. We will continue to fight, and if we do not succeed, we will go to the most unnecessary and dangerous elections in the history of the country, and we will win.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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