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The Israeli Labor Party’s "Separation Plan"
The Israeli Labor Party’s "Separation Plan"
In Israel, Change Coalition Ousts Netanyahu, But Little Change Expected
In Israel, Change Coalition Ousts Netanyahu, But Little Change Expected

The Israeli Labor Party’s "Separation Plan"

Originally published in Friedrich Ebert Stiftung

After long years in which Labor did not present an alternative to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s conflict management approach and left it as the sole pertinent option, Labor’s new Separation Plan rekindles a national conversation on the matter.

Labor’s shift is remarkable. The last time the Party Convention endorsed a diplomatic plan was in 2002. In the elections of 2013 and 2015 Labor ran exclusively on a socio-economic ticket. Labor leaders and strategists considered the two-state solution a loser in national elections and instead ran slogans like “a third kindergarten assistant” and focused their campaign on reducing the cost of living.

The pressures within the party that led to championing a plan began long before Palestinian violence erupted in October 2015 and would likely have reached fruition without it. But the fact that the party discussed and endorsed the plan during such violent escalation and while it faced a dramatic electoral crisis in the polls was decisive for its focus on separation, as opposed to the overall cause of a Israeli-Palestinian agreement. Over 70 percent of the public argued the government’s policy fails in dealing with terror.[fn]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cNLiO2QbsUwHide Footnote  This when in light of the challenges of globalization and the constant security threats Israel’s Jews more than ever prioritize preservation of their ethnic identity over consolidation of egalitarian citizenship. As violence erupted support for dividing Jerusalem on ethnic lines predictably has considerably increased.[fn]While in late 2014 some 56 per cent opposed and 38 per cent supported the division of Jerusalem along demographic lines, by late 2015 some 69 per cent expressed support and only 24 per cent insisted on maintaining Israeli sovereignty in the Arab parts of the city. Zipi Israeli, Public Opinion and National Security, Strategic Survey for Israel 2015-2016, The Institute for National Security Studies, p. 119.Hide Footnote

The plan calls to first separate Israelis from Palestinians and then move toward the two-state solution. This in contrast to Labor’s traditional paradigm of direct, bilateral negotiations that lead to a final status agreement. Substantively, the Separation Plan addresses four arenas: regarding the West Bank it proposes completing construction of the barrier, avoiding construction outside of the so-called ‘settlement blocs’ and transferring civil powers to the Palestinian Authority over areas beyond the barrier; regarding Jerusalem it calls to exclude many Palestinian villages-turned-neighborhoods in East Jerusalem from the city’s municipal boundaries; on Gaza it suggests stabilizing the ceasefire and incentivizing demilitarization in return for the Strip’s development; and regionally it calls on Israel to officially respond to the Arab Peace Initiative which Israel has ignored since 2002 and convene a regional security conference that would seek to eradicate radical Islam and serve as a basis for regional dialogue regarding an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

More than any of its details, the plan’s fundamental premise that the two-state solution is currently impossible, accompanied by its emphasis on separating Israelis from Palestinians and its ethnocentric rhetoric, have raised many questions regarding its electoral and substantive merit.

Away from the two-state solution or toward it?

Claims that Labor changed its paradigm and is no longer committed to the two-state solution are unfounded. These assertions were born when the Israeli media reported from the meeting of Labor’s leader, MK Isaac Herzog, in Paris with French President François Hollande an out-of-context sound bite: that Labor’s chairperson told his counterpart that “the two-state solution is irrelevant”. Such a statement, said and reported without its full context, indeed suggests that the Israeli Right was right all along. Understandably, even prominent leaders from within Labor, including its secretary general and former chairperson, strongly criticized it.

But at the Paris meeting itself, and with more vigor and clarity after it, Herzog explained it was only a component of his overall assessment: realizing successful final status negotiations now is impossible. It is not a vision that should be abandoned but it cannot currently be realized in full. While the conditions to fully implement it are not in place now, Israel can and should strive toward (re)creating them. Indeed, Labor’s new plan maintains that the two-state solution is the only possible solution to the conflict and that the party is fully committed to it. No Labor leaders deny this in public or in private. Labor not publishing its plan more than a month after endorsing it, has been a major cause for confusion about it and, as discussed below, for the Israeli public’s limited awareness of its very existence. The plan further specifies that a final status agreement should be based on various versions of the two-state solution: the Clinton parameters of December 2000, the understandings and plans formulated since in negotiations among others by Labor’s ally MK Tzipi Livni and the broad outline presented by MK Hillik Bar.

What Labor changed is the strategy for getting to the two-state solution. Its new plan is a shift from a sole focus on final status negotiations to taking gradual steps toward a two-state reality primarily by promoting separation between Israelis and Palestinian. In the terminology of conflict studies, Labor’s new alternative to Netanyahu’s conflict management is no longer conflict resolution but rather conflict transformation. The plan calls for Israel to take actions that makes it easier to believe that its continued military control of the West Bank is a result of genuine security needs rather than its desire to realize historical claims via the settlement enterprise.

The Devil is in the Details

Reading the plan with policy lens (as opposed to electoral ones), as most external observers have done, gives a sense of a half-baked, amateurish plan whose implementation may in fact lead to further radicalization and violence. The plan is weak on detail. At one-and-a-half pages long these are at best contours for a policy rather than a full fledged policy plan. Yet, not all detail is minutiae; some can indeed be decisive.

Some of the plan’s central components appear counter-productive in achieving their declared goal. Consolidating Israeli control over the so-called settlement blocs, supposedly in order to preserve the two-state solution, is highly controversial when Palestinians and many internationally consider some areas within the Israeli definition of the blocs (above all E-1 near the settlement Ma’ale Adumim), to be decisive for the feasibility of the very same solution. Additionally, the plan's call for completing Israel's barrier along a torturous route — one that many Israeli security officials say is ghastly due to its excessively long and, at times, topographically inferior trajectory.

Similarly, unilaterally excluding large sections of Arab East Jerusalem and stripping its inhabitants of their residency rights, without coordination with any Palestinian interlocutor,  be it behind a new wall or not, would create a void in which Hamas and various criminal elements would prosper, endangering the very security for Israelis that the step purports to promote. And for a peace plan to simply assume that Palestinians would entirely give up on Jerusalem’s Old City and its environs only builds antagonism and hostility among Palestinians toward Labor’s broader intentions in the city and beyond. 

There is also no reason to think that Hamas would give up on its weapons in exchange the for reconstruction of Gaza while even for the less ambitious leaders of the movement the resistance cannot end before the West Bank and East Jerusalem are freed from Israeli control.

Making Peace with the Palestinians by Focusing on the Israelis

Whether or not Labor leaders see these as policy disadvantages, it is evident that they pursued such a plan because their immediate focus, understandably, is winning the support of a majority of the Israeli public. Their main goal is to embarrass Netanyahu: to demonstrate that he fails to address a major strategic problem. To demonstrate that Netanyahu is unable — because of his unfavorable ideological disposition vis-a-vis Palestinian statehood and its undeniable price, including letting go of most of the West Bank and Jerusalem’s Arab sections, and because of his political commitment to his pro-settlement national religious allies — to provide security for Israel’s citizens. And most importantly, Labor goal is also to highlight that the recommended steps can be implemented without taking any security risk — hence the plan’s pledge to keep the Israeli military in the West Bank to show that Labor will not repeat mistakes committed by (Likud-led) Israel during its 2005 withdrawal from Gaza.

From an electoral perspective, whether this would be the exact plan Labor would indeed pursue if it were at the helm is irrelevant. This is why Labor leaders advocate completing the construction of the separation barrier without acknowledging any of the reasons its construction was not completed. This is why they call to divide Jerusalem without coordination with a Palestinian interlocutor even though most, in fact, would prefer to do so. And this is why they sell what Israeli experts agree are empty promises regarding demilitarizing Gaza. And undergirding all these, this is why Labor presents a plan which on paper appears to be implementable without Palestinian consent: because they focus on showing Netanyahu’s omissions to Israelis.

These considerations determine also the plan’s tone, not only its substance. In contrast to the cosmopolitan win-win rhetoric and emphasis on international law which characterizes the informal Geneva Initiative that prominent Israeli left-wing leaders have crafted with Palestinian counterparts, Labor now embraced self-interest rhetoric. Upon launch of the program its chairperson declared: “I want to get rid of as many Palestinians as possible, as quickly as possible”.  

In the past Labor leaders took pride when Palestinian leaders supported their views: they cited congruent statements as evidence for feasibility. But nowadays Herzog presents Palestinian rejection of the plan — such as the PA’s objection to the separation of Palestinian villages from Jerusalem — as evidence for its value for Israelis. In this sense, the plan is presented within a zero-sum game perspective that under Netanyahu’s rule has come to dominate Israeli mindset. Worse, the plan’s strong focus on separation and omission of the option of interim agreements suggests that for Labor the PLO currently is not a partner even for more modest peace accords.

This indeed is unpleasant to foreign and, of course, to Palestinian ears. But with Labor in a dramatic electoral crisis, and with Israeli Jews increasingly granting high priority to preservation of their ethnic identity, the party leadership opted for a sharper focus than ever on separation when relating to such trends.

The Electoral Advantages of Aiming Low

The plan moves Labor rightward in the diverse spectrum of Israeli politics, toward those who seek to separate from the Palestinians in order to ensure Israel’s character as a democratic nation-state for the Jewish people but believe it is impossible to do so currently via a conflict-ending agreement. Many such people have so far opted for the Likud because they felt it is the only party that would not irresponsibly expose Israel to enormous security risks. This rationale has gained more resonance with Israelis ever since Arab states around them collapsed and faltered. Fears that Palestine would become a failed state from which rockets and mortars land on Israel seem increasingly realistic.

Prominent Likud members like Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon and MK Avi Dichter, a former General Security Service Director, base their membership in Likud exclusively on this rationale. They note in private that they are willing to tolerate the growing influence of pro-settler groups within Likud even though they prod the party to a policy that gradually renders the two-state solution unfeasible: expanding settlements and gradually applying more Israeli laws and regulations to the West Bank. At least, they explain, these steps do not immediately drive Israel into a security calamity by turning the West Bank into a launch pad for attacks against Israeli citizens.

In light of Labor’s latest plan, particularly when Palestinian violence seems insuperable, Israeli security-focused voters would now arguably find themselves confronted with a real choice between what they would see as Labor's pragmatic, security-centered policy and Likud's ideologically-tinged policy that entrenches Israel in an irresolvable problem.

Israeli politics isn’t all about strategy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There are many reasons why such security-focused voters and opinion leaders would still not opt for Labor: Labor’s condescending Ashkenazi, urban, upper-middle class image and its historic record of discrimination toward certain groups; its avowedly secular attitude; and Herzog’s lack of security credentials and charisma deficit. But while these will make it impossible for many to place a Labor ticket in the ballot box, the party’s policy shift would nevertheless make it less problematic to support centrist parties who would enter a Labor-led government. The 2015 elections were in fact decided two months before they took place when leaders of key parties — Shas and Israel Beitenu — promised, respectively, to empower Netanyahu and to disempower leftist parties. These promises were kept and Netanyahu won another term.

In Israel's coalition-based system, acceptance by potential coalition partners can be more decisive than the number of seats a party won at the ballot box. And endorsing a policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which allows political kingmakers to throne Labor is therefore consequential. The plan’s insistence that a final status agreement would provide for mutual recognition between the two nation states — seen by Israelis as the most indicative signal of a change in Palestinian intentions — and that the agreement will be brought to a national referendum (rather than by a Laborite leader alone in his office) is helpful in making Labor and its plan easier to stomach — if only as allies.

Implications for 2016

What if anything would this plan change? It is far from clear that it would place Labor as the centerpiece of Israel’s next government. But it likely would affect Israel’s national conversation. Two initial changes and an important trend can already be identified.

First, a single day after Labor endorsed its Separation Plan, Netanyahu, who has not done so since he entered office in 2009, committed publicly to complete the separation barrier (as part of a broader project of surrounding the country with defensive walls). Three weeks later Netanyahu passed a cabinet decision to continue construction of the barrier (around Jerusalem and the South Hebron Hills) despite opposition from pro-settler forces in Israel and within his party,[fn]Settler leaders fear that the barrier would deem the roughly 92 percent of the West Bank beyond it — including 75 Jewish settlements, home to roughly 85,000 settlers — as areas that would fall outside of Israeli sovereign claims and ultimately become a Palestinian state.Hide Footnote and despite reservations of the defense establishment regarding the barrier’s inferior route.

Second, since the publication of the plan the wisdom of Israeli rule over the Arab parts of Jerusalem — unchallenged for nearly a decade — has been put in question. Labor politicians like MK Omer Barlev, MK Hilik Bar and former Defense Minister MK Amir Peretz defend the proposal in the Israeli media and the hard-line Education Minister Naftali Bennett clashes with Herzog over the proposal by declaring 2016 a year in which Israel's education system will celebrate Jerusalem’s unity. British Prime Minister David Cameron’s statement days later in a parliament debate that the “effective encirclement of East Jerusalem… is genuinely shocking” strengthened the pro-partition position and may serve as an example for how statements by the West can positively affect the internal Israeli debate.

While Labor’s potential allies in the Jewish part of Israel (centrists, ultra orthodox, Russian speaking, Sephardic) generally received the plan positively, Israel’s Arab-Palestinian citizens clearly view it negatively. Its ethnocentric rhetoric reinforced existing trends that push the state’s national minority toward alienation, falling out with Israel's political establishment. When even the opposition among Israel’s Jewish majority does not propose an alternative, inclusive policy toward the state’s national minority, the likelihood that Arab citizens would ultimately withdraw from participating in Israel’s electoral democracy increases. Moreover, Labor’s own chances to reassume power may well require the support of Israel’s Arab parties — a support which the plan makes only less likely.

What the Future Holds

The plan’s relevance would be determined also — for some primarily — by events. Specifically, if violence continued or escalated, then advocating separation, perhaps tragically, would become more relevant for Israelis. Depending on the origin of its perpetrators, Jerusalemites or West Bankers, separation in Jerusalem and completing the separation barrier would likely, respectively, gain popularity.

Though some significant pundits associated with the center-left lauded Labor for finally endorsing a pragmatic plan and many ideological leftists criticized Labor for abandoning humanistic values, so far Labor failed to place the proposal at the center of the popular debate as a prominent alternative. Labor now promotes a plan that according to polls wins clear majority support — some 65% of Israelis (even more among the Jewish citizens). But only a minority of Israelis actually identify the plan with the party. It would be Labor’s failure if prominent center-right figures like former Netanyahu adviser Yoaz Hendel and MK Michael Oren, Netanyahu’s former ambassador to the US, could continue to advocate similar plans without even referring to Labor’s plan when doing so.

How Labor would seek to operationalize the plan is another open question with potentially significant consequences for Israelis at large and more specifically for the party itself. Herzog does not have a bold leadership style. Internal party dynamics ultimately pushed him to endorse the plan. Labor MKs Hilik Bar and Omer Bar Lev have both published progressive diplomatic plans many months before violence erupted in late 2015. So did MK Amir Peretz of HaTnuah (who has since returned to Labor). Notably, it was based on MK Bar’s plan 700 Labor Convention members forced Herzog to summon the party gathering on the issue in which a plan was ultimately adopted. Would Laborites prod their party to take a further step? If past is precedent, Herzog would not do so himself. Would a subset of Labor MKs now promote Knesset bills based on the progressive components of the different plans which were not taken into the party’s plan? Would Labor MKs, for example, now support a voluntary evacuation-compensation bill for settlers beyond the barrier as Bar’s plan did? Would they pass a bill calling the Israeli government to declare that Israel seeks to separate from most of the West Bank lands and the Palestinian population there as MK Bar Lev suggested or to recognize the State of Palestine as MK Bar has proposed?

To the extent Europe and others in the international community seek to propel such actions by the Israeli government and support for them by the Israeli public they could harness public diplomacy to the cause. They would do well to ask publicly, in their capitals and in Israel, why the Israeli government avoids these and other pragmatic modalities that do not endanger Israeli security and lie in the spectrum between full resolution of the conflict and its tactical management.

It is impossible to predict how the plan and Labor’s promotion of it would make Labor stronger in the next elections. This would depend on many other things and on the changing context and personalities. Even if the context would make the plan more relevant, it is at least as plausible that other parties would embrace it to preempt Labor’s rise. To the extent that Likud would do so, Labor would be robbed of its distinctiveness but compensated by affecting Israeli policy. If centrist parties adopted similar agendas, Labor would not be able to significantly increase its power in the Knesset but it would increase its acceptability among king makers, turning it into real contenders for Israel's premiership.

A supporter (C) of Israel's newly-formed government "change coalition" holds a placard reading in Hebrew "yes to unity government" during a rally in support of the coalition in the Israeli city of Tel Aviv, on June 6, 2021. JACK GUEZ / AFP

In Israel, Change Coalition Ousts Netanyahu, But Little Change Expected

A new Israeli government is set to replace long-serving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. As Crisis Group expert Mairav Zonszein explains, however, not much but antipathy for the ex-premier holds the prospective cabinet together. It may well struggle to survive.

This publication is part of a joint initiative between the International Crisis Group and the United States/Middle East Project (USMEP) to help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

How did the Change coalition come about and what does it look like?

Barring last-minute twists, a new Israeli government will be sworn in on 13 June. The new cabinet, a tenuous coalition known as Change, will take the helm after twelve years with Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister and four elections in two years that ended with no clear winner. The last election, held in March, likewise produced no obvious victor, leaving Netanyahu to try forming yet another governing coalition of his own. But he failed to gather the necessary 61 Knesset members within the prescribed 28-day window, and so President Reuven Rivlin charged centrist Yair Lapid, head of Yesh Atid, the second largest party after Netanyahu’s Likud, with the job. On 2 June, just an hour before the deadline, and following an eleven-day war with Hamas in Gaza that froze coalition negotiations, Lapid brokered a power-sharing agreement among eight parties ranging from the religious nationalist hard right (Yamina) to the secular right (Yisrael Beiteinu and New Hope) and centre (Yesh Atid and Blue and White), what remains of the Zionist left (Labour and Meretz) and even a conservative Islamist party, the United Arab List.

Under the coalition agreement, ultra-nationalist Naftali Bennett of Yamina, who supports the annexation of Palestinian territories, will serve as prime minister for two years, with Lapid as foreign minister. After Bennett’s term expires, and assuming that the coalition lasts that long, Lapid will become premier. The fact that Bennett will serve as prime minister first despite Yamina getting just seven out of 120 Knesset seats (around 6 per cent of the vote), compared with Yesh Atid’s seventeen seats, is testament to how far right the Israeli body politic has moved that centrist and left party leaders were willing to make that sacrifice. It also shows how much Netanyahu has shaped the positions even of his political opponents. Such a coalition could only arise in the first place because three of its leaders – Bennett, Gideon Sa’ar and Avigdor Lieberman – are right-wing politicians who have defected from Netanyahu’s camp over the years. Another, Defence Minister Benny Gantz from the soft-right Blue and White, was left holding his own worthless rotation agreement with the outgoing prime minister as he came to realise that Netanyahu would never honour it.

The coalition labels itself Change. Its two main features are the absence of Netanyahu and its relative ideological diversity. For the first time in over twenty years, Meretz, an anti-occupation leftist party, is part of the government; for only the second time in Israeli history, a Palestinian Arab – Meretz’s Issawi Frej – will be a minister. (He has the regional cooperation portfolio.) Labour, which dominated Israeli politics until the mid-1970s and remained strong through the 1990s, is also in the government. In its present emaciated state, the party was formerly a partner for Netanyahu, but of late it has adopted a more liberal and resolutely anti-Netanyahu tone under the new leadership of Merav Michaeli. If Change does not collapse at the eleventh hour, it will also be the first time in fourteen years that a government is formed without Likud or ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties like Shas, the traditional standard bearers of the right.

The List’s inclusion, while historic, is a double-edged sword.

The new government also marks the first time a Palestinian Arab party – the United Arab List – has signed on as part of a governing coalition. Arab parties have provided only outside support in the past. The List’s inclusion, while historic, is a double-edged sword. The presence of a non-Zionist party representing Palestinian citizens could be a stepping stone toward more representative government in Israel. But it is noteworthy that when a non-Zionist party finally joined a government, the one that did so broke from the unified Joint List of four parties representing the Palestinian Arab population. It also did it without mentioning key issues that matter to Palestinian citizens of Israel, namely ending Israel’s siege on Gaza and the overall occupation of Palestinian territories. The image of Bennett, Lapid and the List’s leader Mansour Abbas signing an agreement is laden with symbolism. But only time will tell whether the List’s inclusion will herald a new politics addressing Palestinian aspirations or instead help legitimise a hard-right annexationist as prime minister.

In any case, while the inclusion of left Zionist and Palestinian parties is significant, it does not mean that these forces will be able to sway the direction of Israeli governance. The right remains clearly in the ascendant.

Since the coalition negotiations began, those on the right seeking an alternative to Netanyahu have dictated the new government’s terms, since without the right it could not exist. Israel’s left wing, even those elements of it closer to the centre, has become so weak that it was almost certain to agree to serve in a government – even one in which its foe Bennett is prime minister – if invited. To join, Labour and Meretz had to make significant concessions, reflected in the distribution of ministerial portfolios: most of the critical ministries, those defined as “ideological” – interior, finance, justice and education – have gone to members of the right, while defence will remain under Gantz, who led several Gaza operations under Netanyahu.

Netanyahu has repeatedly accused Bennett of putting together a left-wing government that will endanger Israeli security; in turn, Bennett has repeatedly said that his government will be even more right-wing than its predecessor. Spin aside, a Bennett-Lapid government will be deferential to its hard right and in effect have a majority-right “security cabinet” in charge of major decisions. It is hard to see either Lapid or Gantz providing an ideological counterbalance, as neither has shown strong political vision and both have served under Netanyahu in the past. Netanyahu’s apparent new gambit, acting from the opposition, is to play on tensions within the coalition in an attempt to bring down the government by pushing Bennett to alienate either his coalition allies or members of his own faction, who see him selling them out.

Who are Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid?

Naftali Bennett, 49, is the self-declared leader of Israel’s national religious movement. The son of Jewish immigrants to Israel from California, Bennett is a former army commando and former head of the Yesha Council (the main political body representing Jewish settlers in occupied territory), where he led the campaign against the settlement freeze that President Barack Obama called for in 2010. Yet he does not live in a settlement like some of his colleagues in the coalition. A successful hi-tech entrepreneur, Bennett has seemingly preferred “making money to settling hilltops”. Nonetheless, he is poised to become Israel’s first kippa-wearing, observant prime minister. Bennett served as chief of staff for Netanyahu in 2006-2008. He first entered politics as part of Likud in 2007 but quickly broke away. In 2013, he won twelve Knesset seats as head of the religious, pro-settlement Jewish Home Party, but failed to cross the threshold in the April 2019 election. He served as minister of economy and religious services in 2013-2015, as education minister in 2015-2019 and as defence minister in 2019-2020.

Bennett is a territorial maximalist. He categorically opposes a two-state solution and the formation of a Palestinian state. In 2013, he told The New Yorker: “I will do everything in my power to make sure they never get a state”. He has advocated for Israel’s unilateral annexation of 60 per cent of the West Bank, namely the parts that the 1993 Oslo accords designate as Area C, which have remained under full Israeli military control pending the – highly unlikely – fulfilment of those agreements. Bennett has also called for increased Jewish control over the Holy Esplanade (Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif) in Jerusalem. When it comes to flashpoints of conflict in East Jerusalem, like Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan, Bennett is not expected to calm tensions. Dvir Kahana, one person Bennett is considering as director general of his office, has held senior positions with Elad, a right-wing settler organisation dedicated to settling Jews in occupied East Jerusalem.

Bennett’s position can be summed up by a Talmudic verse that appears in his party platform: “If someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first”.

On relations with hostile neighbours, Bennett’s position can be summed up by a Talmudic verse that appears in his party platform: “If someone comes to kill yourise up and kill him first”. In October 2018, Bennett stated that if he were defence minister, he would institute a shoot-to-kill policy directed at Palestinians attempting to walk across the boundary between Israel and Gaza. He has proposed that Israel should strike Tehran in response to any attack in Israel, whatever its origin, that seems in any way related to Iran. He has also called for turning Syria into “Iran’s Vietnam”.

Yair Lapid, 57, is a former TV host, author and journalist. He first came into politics in 2012, when he formed Yesh Atid (There is a Future) following demonstrations against the high cost of living. Lapid campaigned on redistribution of state funds away from subsidies for settlements and ultra-Orthodox Jews. He served a short stint as finance minister in the Netanyahu government in 2013.

A self-defined liberal and centrist, Lapid has often shifted his positions when politically convenient, at times putting himself squarely in the right-wing camp with appeals to soft-right voters. For example, he does not call for an end to Israeli occupation, and he has railed against Israeli anti-occupation and human rights groups like B’tselem and Breaking the Silence. His Yesh Atid party officially backs a two-state solution but has never put forth a program for how to achieve one, and in any case his opposition to dividing Jerusalem renders his support for a two-state solution nominal.

At the same time, Lapid has sharpened his political positioning since breaking his alliance with Gantz after the latter entered a coalition with Netanyahu in March 2020. In doing so, Gantz reneged on his main campaign promise to replace the long-serving prime minister. Lapid stood his ground and refused to cooperate with Netanyahu. In a significant shift, Lapid, who once mocked all Palestinian Arab Knesset members as “Zoabis”, a reference to former Knesset member Hanin Zoabi of the Balad Party, who angered her Zionist colleagues with her strong critiques of state policy, announced in March that he would seek to work with Palestinian Arab parties in forming a government. 

What is the biggest challenge this cabinet is likely to face?

Survival. This coalition is extremely fragile. The glue keeping it together is determination to oust Netanyahu. Now that he is out, it will be very difficult for the Change coalition to do much else. Its main goal is to prove that the country can move on from Netanyahu, but Netanyahu is likely to continue doing everything in his power to undermine the new coalition, assuming that he remains head of the opposition. He has already started pursuing a scorched-earth approach, castigating his opponents as dangerous to Israel’s security in an attempt to ignite a base already up in arms about the new coalition, to the point that the Shin Bet (General Security Service) warned that his online incitement could lead to physical harm. The Shin Bet has assigned security details to several coalition members, including Bennett and some of his Yamina colleagues, due to threats against them and their families.

The coalition will find it challenging to make major decisions, as the underlying agreement requires consensus for every bill submitted to the Knesset. Despite its name, Lapid and Bennett have indicated that the Change coalition will not consider any policy shift on Israeli-Palestinian issues. It will focus instead on areas on which agreement is possible, such as the economy, infrastructure and basic government operations, which have been stuck as a result of the political deadlock of the last two years.

Considering that stalemate, the very act of replacing Netanyahu is seismic.

Considering that stalemate, the very act of replacing Netanyahu is seismic. As someone who has lost much of the public’s trust, made numerous political enemies and refused to step down after being indicted on several corruption charges, Netanyahu is an embattled figure. His obsession with promoting his own interests led him to make ministerial appointments from an ever-narrowing circle based heavily on loyalty over merit, while he tried to impose his will on the police, the courts and the media. Replacing Netanyahu holds out the possibility that the new government will offer, at least at first, a degree of professionalism and perhaps even a mild counterweight to the hard-right, divisive politics of the Netanyahu era.

But Netanyahu’s hardline policies, including consolidating Jewish-Israeli sovereignty in the occupied territories and employing excessive force against Palestinians, are uncontroversial in Israel. They have majority support among the Jewish public and in the Knesset. On that front, little will change.

The coalition’s likely first task will be to pass a budget, which no cabinet has done since 2019. The new government may also try to pass electoral reforms including term limits for political leaders, which could prevent Netanyahu from running for office again. But the fate of such draft legislation – different versions of the bill are floating around – is unclear. Should Netanyahu remain Likud leader, he will have a base in the Knesset from which to exploit divisions within the coalition in order to stage a comeback. But if his party colleagues get rid of him, the Knesset’s right-wing majority, then under a new Likud leader, would be in a strong position to put together its own governing coalition without going to still another general election.

The coalition agreement includes a clause about legislation regarding the Supreme Court’s powers, a flagship right-wing issue of late. The proposed Basic Law on Legislation would determine whether the Court has the authority to strike down Basic Laws, and whether a Knesset majority could overrule it if it did so, potentially stripping the Supreme Court of its ability to soften any particularly egregious policy. Both Bennett and Sa’ar, leader of the secular right New Hope, are committed to reforms that shift power away from the judicial branch. In that respect, the new government’s right-wing members have the same agenda as Netanyahu, but one driven exclusively by ideology rather than concerns over lawsuits pending against them personally.

The ultra-Orthodox have been unrelenting and even incendiary in their attacks on the new coalition

On matters of religion and state, Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu has a list of secular demands for the new government to support that include drafting Orthodox Jews who study in yeshivas into the military (at present, religious students are exempt from service), as well as a bill allowing civil unions, ending the monopoly on certification of kosher food and establishments, and promoting the study of core curricula in ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools. It is unclear if any of these measures will go through, because Bennett and Sa’ar want to maintain their relations with the ultra-Orthodox – a core right-wing base – in service of their long-term political ambitions. The ultra-Orthodox have been unrelenting and even incendiary in their attacks on the new coalition, and may prove to be a disruptive street presence opposing the incoming government.

The United Arab List’s Abbas says the coalition agreement includes a pledge to spend billions of shekels in state funding for infrastructure and crime fighting in Palestinian towns in Israel; to extend state recognition to some Bedouin villages; and to discuss an amendment to the Kaminitz Law, which allows for demolition of Palestinian homes lacking building permits when Palestinian citizens are unable to get such permits due to discriminatory zoning practices. Abbas will also serve as chair of the Knesset Interior Committee, which oversees government policy on internal security, planning and building – all matters of utmost concern to Palestinian citizens.

How might this coalition affect Israeli-Palestinian dynamics?

This coalition is likely to maintain the status quo when it comes to the Palestinian question. But as the April-May violence throughout Israel-Palestine showed, there is no status quo regarding the Palestinians, only deepening de facto annexation and continued systematic denial of basic rights and freedoms – a situation that is increasingly proving volatile. Bennett is committed to a Greater Israel ideology, by which Israel should cede no square inch of land to the Palestinians. But he has gone into a government with partners whom the hard right considers “leftists”, so critics may question his devotion to that project. Bennett has also reaffirmed that he will not flinch from resuming strikes upon Gaza if he deems it necessary.

The major escalation in violence in April-May, which traversed the different domains of Israeli control over Palestinians, is still at the front of many minds.

There is a broadly held view among domestic commentators, and even some coalition members, that this government won’t be able to focus on anything other than domestic issues, and will have to steer clear of the controversial Palestinian question. This notion cannot survive the test of reality. In its own way, the occupation is also a domestic issue. Things will happen: demolition and dispossession orders will come up to be carried out (including in Sheikh Jarrah and elsewhere in East Jerusalem), as will new settlement construction and infrastructure projects. There will be new restrictions on Palestinian movements, as well as more arrests and military raids. The major escalation in violence in April-May, which traversed the different domains of Israeli control over Palestinians, is still at the front of many minds. Netanyahu has also intentionally placed some landmines waiting to explode, such as toughening conditions under which relief aid and reconstruction funds will be allowed to enter Gaza. Pressure to protect the right flank will likely drive policy.

Bennett and Lapid, like Netanyahu, are both committed to ensuring deterrence through force vis-à-vis Hamas in Gaza and Hizbollah in Lebanon, and offered no alternative vision. The consensus military approach of conducting “wars between wars” (targeted campaigns to pre-empt perceived threats) will likely endure. The new government may be at greater risk of miscalculation as Bennett and his top advisers find their feet amid dynamics of internal competition. External pressure, particularly from Hizbollah, could pose a serious test for this new and untried leadership.

The government is very likely to seek to improve relations with Jordan, which became severely strained under Netanyahu. It may try to reintegrate Jordan into management of the Palestinian file, especially concerning the Holy Esplanade.

What about the delicate interplay between Israel and the U.S.?

Tension is likely to emerge within the government over relations with the U.S., which has long been Israel’s closest ally and its main protector from international pressure regarding the Palestinian question. Some of its members want to continue Netanyahu’s overt partisanship – favouring Republican politicians over Democrats – while others, like Lapid and Gantz, wish to get past this tactic and work more closely with the Biden administration. Will Bennett, egged on by the hard right, take a hard line with the White House? He very well might. From the U.S. side, many within the traditional pro-Israel lobby, the Democratic Party’s more conservative wing and the Biden administration itself have an interest in resetting the U.S.-Israel relationship away from the Netanyahu era. This would involve depicting the installation of this Netanyahu-less government as turning a new page and thus try to drown out voices of criticism toward Israel among left-leaning Democrats. It could also mean trying to bypass Bennett and communicate primarily with Foreign Minister Lapid and Defence Minister Gantz, who can give a moderate face to what will continue to be hardline and illegal Israeli policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians. 

A U.S.-Israel reset will also be severely tested as the Biden administration continues trying to restore the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. From his new perch leading the opposition, Netanyahu may use the Iran issue as a main line of attack, homing in on the new leaders’ inexperience. The government’s ability to survive is therefore far from guaranteed.