Net Effect Of Netanyahu’s Fall
By Amir Oren
A new government is in power in Israel, headed by Naftali Bennet and his co-leader Yair Lapid. Binyamin Netanyahu is no longer Prime Minister. These are indisputable facts. But what do they mean, policy-wise? Is the political input going to bring about a different output?
Not yet, at least not in most respects. In recent years, Israel has preferred to avoid initiatives. It has become a reactive, status quo power, satisfied with the state of affairs, skeptical of grand visions and final solutions, waiting for someone else to come up with ideas – and then try to shoot them down or let them slip into coma.
The Jerusalem government had a waiver from working to resolve its core conflict with the Palestinians and the wider problems with Arab countries in the neighbourhood reluctant to join Egypt and Jordan in peace treaties and effective security cooperation with it. These simmering issues will eventually have to be taken care of, lest they explode, but there does not seem to be any particular rush to do it anytime soon. This is the Middle East, where the local version of manana, a tomorrow not really expected to come, is bukra, or better yet bukra fil mish-mish.
Bennett’s bukra is in the far horizon. He has to stabilise his cabinet, where he is at most first among equals. His power emenates from the constitutional requirement of garnering enough votes to present an alternative government in order to bring down the incumbent one. This is thin ice, enough to skate on only as long as it does not melt – and the temperature below it is sure to rise when the euphoria fades away. There will be constant external pressures, by a fierce opposition led by Netanyahu, and internal ones by seven partners led by barons envious of Bennett and naturally tiring of playing kingmaker when they each believes he deserves to be king himself.
Being preoccupied with survival is not a recipe for a policy revival. Bennett and Lapid – a Foreign Minister ambitious for diplomatic successes, but knowing that bold moves could cost him his contract with Bennett to rotate after two years – will first have to channel their energy inwards. Much like their predecessor, though for other reasons and with different temperament than Netanyahu’s, they will brace for a storm ir two to hit Israel, rather than generate them.
In his “I Shall Return” farewell speech, Netanyahu boasted about his record as an international statesman and belittled Bennett’s. A novice in his late 40’s is indeed much less experienced than a 70-odd veteran. But Netanyahu conveniently forgot that he has been on the other bank of the divide in 1996, when he challenged and beat Shimon Peres. Bennett, who has held several portfolios in Netanyahu’s cabinets in his eight years in electoral politics, including Defense – in Israel, second only to the Premiership – is actually more experienced now than rookie Prime Minister Netanyahu was after his own eight years in electoral politics and a mere speechmaking Deputy Minister position.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz, evidently bitter that he was passed over for Premier once his naive bet on Netanyahu relinquishing power to him came up short, stays on, bringing a senior of continuity to the most powerful of Israel’s bureaucratic establishments. A parallel can be found in President Obama keeping Robert Gates, a George W. Bush appointee, as Defense Secretary. All the more so, because in the Pentagon, the system is trained to follow the Commander-in-Chief’s ditectives, while in Hakirya, Israel’s military headquarters, the General Staff drafts strategy and its political masters usually reviews it and adopt the less controversial ones, refraining from pro-active measures.
There is no opposition in Israel to the determined campaign against Iranian hostile actions out of Syria and in supplying Hezbollah with precision guided munitions. There is also no serious effort, as distinct from rhetorical ones, to change the outgoing government’s decision to deter Hamas and defend against its attacks but not to pay the enormous costs of defeating it and re-occupying Gaza.
As for the Iranian nuclear effort, Bennett paid lip service to the discredited Trump-Netanyahu moves against the Obama-Biden embrace of the 2015 JCPOA deal, but his words lacked the messianic fervor of his predecessor. He went through the motions with full knowledge that it is an issue out of his, and Israel’s, hands. An Israeli Prime Minister cannot for long fight a U.S. President – on his own turf – and at the same time expect to be compensated for a perceived security setback by increased aid. It’s either-or. Netanyahu’s behaviour six years ago was the exception, neither forgotten nor forgiven in the Democratic Party now in temporary and fragile control in Washington.
The upshot is that the Bennett-Lapid cabinet will wait for what diplomats call “full and frank” discussions with Biden on his Iranian and Palestinian policies, and that it will not have a free ride abroad, with European governments, Russia and China pursuing their interests but having a practical alliance on these issues. Meanwhile, Netanyahu has signalled his intentions to undermine both Biden – his “friend of forty years” – and Bennett by working with Republicans for a double come-back.
The upheaval in Israeli poltics did not end Sunday the 13th. It was a major turn of events, but not a final destination, only a way station, and whatever new policies will emerge will probably be the products of events forcing themselves on the new occupants of Jerusalem Ministries.