America needs a stable Israeli government

An earthquake has hit the Israeli political scene. Its longest-serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, now leads the opposition after 12 years. For an America that counts on a strong and stable Israel as part of its core security interests, this profound change in Israeli politics is a moment of both potential and vulnerability.

After four stalemated elections in two years, an unprecedented unity coalition has crossed what were thought to be unbridgeable political, ethnic and religious divides for Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to take office on Sunday. He is Israel’s first Orthodox Jewish prime minister. Alternate prime minister Yair Lapid will be foreign minister for two years. In the Biden administration, no one will shed a tear over Netanyahu’s departure. President Biden congratulated the incoming government, saying in a statement released by the White House that “the United States remains unwavering in its support for Israel’s security.”

The political spectrum of the coalition ranges from the left, Meretz and Labor, to the centrist Yesh Atid, which won the most mandates, all the way to the right-wing Yamina and New Hope parties. What was even more groundbreaking was the willingness of an Arab party to join an Israeli government, choosing to advance its interests instead of being perpetually intransigent. As a result, the Raam party was able to negotiate a commitment to fight rising crime in Arab-dominated cities and garner half a billion shekels of aid for its constituents’ communities.

Critics claim the only thing that binds the coalition is its animus against Netanyahu. However, what may be overlooked is that this ultimately was not about Netanyahu but, rather, is proof of the strength and vitality of Israel’s democracy, which thrives on differences of opinion, debate and a genuine electoral process and judiciary — despite being surrounded by enemies threatening to end Israel’s existence.  

To know if this coalition has a good chance of lasting, keep an eye on their ability to pass a two-year budget. Netanyahu chose not to do that, most likely because it would have stabilized his government and forced him to hand the reins of government and the premiership to Blue and White Leader Benny Gantz later this year. Gantz will remain as defense minister, but Netanyahu will exit.

The coalition realized that focusing on social and domestic issues, and  avoiding the contentious issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was the only path forward to keep together a government in which just one lawmaker could bring down the house of cards. Unhelpfully, Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Sunday called for the new Israeli government to restart talks for a two-state solution to the Palestinian conflict as soon as possible. Unless Schumer wants the government to fall, he would be wise to withhold his advice.

At the beginning of the first new government since 2009 not led by Netanyahu, the United States must be supportive and give Israel a chance to find its footing. With American and Israeli enemies looking for any daylight between the two partner nations — especially after the recent Gaza war — America must strongly support the new government from the outset. 

When one looks closely at what was agreed to in negotiations between the coalition factions, Americans may be surprised at how familiar their issues are to ours. Actually, the two democracies share many values and interests.

Let’s start with the agreement to advance full gender equality with more rights for the LGBTQ community in Israel. Then there was the commitment to bring the remaining Black Ethiopian Jews to Israel over the next three years, as well as an expansion of religious pluralism. A right-wing party insisted on the decriminalization of marijuana. Also addressed was creating a model for how Palestinian citizens of Israel can commit to their Israeli nation by an alternative national service instead of joining an army that fights against their cousins in the West Bank.

For the U.S., a stable Israeli government is essential to American national security interests. As America’s attention pivots away from the Middle East and toward the Far East and China, a strong Israel that supplies unrivaled intelligence, prepositioning of weapons stockpiles, joint research and development that created the Iron Dome anti-missile system, and the last bulwark against Iranian expansionism, is more crucial than ever.

Bennett is the first prime minister not to represent one of the leading vote-getting Israeli parties. In fact, four parties received more votes than his Yamina party. However, he is a knowledgeable person who has shown a willingness for pragmatism that should help him avoid overreaching beyond the narrow mandate of the new government. This may be exactly what Israel needs at this time, especially with Netanyahu already a thorn in its side, speaking now from the opposition.  

President Biden’s “unwavering support” of Israel is appreciated by Israel. But he also needs to step back, for now, and support the government without making premature demands, to give the new coalition a chance to succeed. It will be challenged domestically, and by Hamas, Hezbollah  and Iran, in the near future. This government’s stability is in America’s interest.  

Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He regularly briefs members of the U.S. Senate, House, and their foreign-policy advisers. He is the  senior editor for “Security” at the Jerusalem Report/The Jerusalem Post.

Tags Benjamin Netanyahu Chuck Schumer Joe Biden Knesset Naftali Bennett Politics of Israel Thirty-sixth government of Israel Yamina

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