Israel: After the Political Crisis but before Consolidation

Israel: After the Political Crisis but before Consolidation

07/2021  | Reading time: 10 minutes

Naftali Bennett’s coalition, formed on 13 June, draw a two-and-a-half-year-long domestic political crisis in Israel to a close. After the political manoeuvres leading to establishing the new government and ending Benjamin Netanyahu’s rule, there is an essential question to be posed: To what degree will the Jewish state be able to utilise the upcoming years for gathering internal strength, needed for expanding its state power. And what kind of opportunities will this process offer to Hungary?

Naftali Bennett, head of the Yamina party, has surely set a record in political history by becoming prime minister with having only 5% of the parliamentary mandates, while the two largest factions, Likud and Yesh Atid, had 25% and 14%, respectively. Bennett’s right-wing pedigree aided the new national unity government in representing not just the left- but also the right-wing voters of the Israeli society. Other mechanisms also guarantee that the new government will be able to work by bridging national rifts. One of them is a fundamental component of the Bennett–Lapid rotation deal: the right wing has a six-to-five majority in the security cabinet, which makes the most important decisions.

Beyond the wide ideological spectrum of the new government, it is also important to highlight the changes in its ethnic and religious dimensions. Breaking the ultra-Orthodox dominance characterising the Netanyahu governments, figures from the other main streams of Judaism—namely, from Reform Judaism, Conservative Judaism, and religious Zionism—gained leadership positions, while further reforms spanning the whole structure of the state and society are also to be expected. In the meantime, the United Arab List, an Arab political party which is completely independent of any Zionist political force, could enter the Israeli governing coalition for the first time in history. As a conservative Muslim Arab political group being a full member of the executive branch, it will fight for the Arab Israeli citizens’ goals.

From a Hungarian perspective, another important factor of the Bennett–Lapid government is that four of its ministers, including three party leaders, are of Hungarian origin: Minister of Foreign Affairs and prime minister in waiting Yair Lapid, Minister of Defence Benny Gantz, Minister of Transportation Merav Michaeli, and Minister of Science and Technology Orit Farkash-Hacohen. This factor must not be overestimated; however, it can still serve as an important element in developing our relations.

 

Naftali Bennett, the new prime minister of Israel
Source: Gil Cohen Magen/Shutterstock

So, what can be expected from the government as far as its domestic policy is concerned? It is important to highlight that the Bennett–Lapid government’s mandate is quite fragile: from the 120 members of the Knesset, only 60 voted in favour of the new government (one member of the United Arab List abstained, while one member of Yamina voted against the government). As the relative majority of votes is sufficient to pass most of the legal motions in the Knesset, it is not impossible to govern successfully in the above conditions; however, it requires constant and intensive coalition negotiations. Consequently, the government will focus on the most important issues enjoying consensus, such as welfare, restarting the economy after the pandemic, and strengthening social cohesion.

Besides these, restoring the normal daily operation in the ministries and other state institutions will come to the forefront after the paralysis and chaos during the last two and a half years of domestic political crisis. In order to achieve this, the most important priorities will be voting on a two-year state budget, as it has been renewed only on a monthly basis since 2019, and renewing the mandate of the experienced heads of various state agencies or appointing new, trustworthy, and effective experts to these positions. These all serve, first and foremost, the wellbeing of Israeli citizens; however, they also hold regional and global significance due to the influence of the Jewish state.

During the seventy-three years since its establishment, Israel has developed into a country having a population nearing ten million and become a global actor in military, technological, and economic terms. Under Netanyahu’s premiership in the last twelve years, the Jewish state witnessed an epochal transformation; however, it needs a period of consolidation in many areas. And precisely this is what the new, fragile national unity government with its limited ambitions can offer: because of the coalition’s fragility, it needs to focus its attention on the immediate practical challenges Israel faces. This period of consolidation can ultimately lead to the increased power of the state and has legal, societal, infrastructural, and foreign policy dimensions.

The legal aspect means a focus on redefining the branches of power, a recurring issue in Israeli democracy. According to the right wing, the courts are too activist, while the left wing says they are not activist enough. This matter must be settled by the new government, which will only be possible if the question is not burdened by daily politics as it happened under Netanyahu, when the topic was highly politicised by the PM’s supporters and enemies alike.

In the societal field, the new coalition aims to rebalance relations between Jewish denominations, which is an Israeli domestic issue, having, however, significant foreign policy implications due to the global presence of the Jewish diaspora. All parties in the coalition have differing visions of how to settle this issue, but they all agree that the privileges obtained by the ultra-Orthodox parties supporting Netanyahu must be withdrawn. As part of this effort and according to the goal of the leftist and centrist parties, the liberalisation of Jewish institutions will commence in the Reform and Conservative Judaist directions, and it will also entail nominating nationalist-leaning, strongly Zionist rabbis to important positions. This will help revoke the privileges of the ultra-Orthodox sector of the society, promoting its deeper integration into the economic and military life and increasing the country’s capabilities.

The goals of the United Arab List, which aims to further the integration of the Arab citizens, will also directly strengthen the Jewish state, as, apart from the ultra-Orthodox, Arab Israelis also participate less in the country’s labour market and innovation than the non-ultra-Orthodox Jewish majority. Another priority is infrastructural development, which also helps less developed communities with new transportation lines, hospitals, schools, police stations, and agricultural and energy-sector investments and will lead to a greener and more sustainable Israel.

As it can be seen, there are many differing motivations in the members of the national unity government, but these all will ultimately lead to increasing the state’s power, even if their direct goal is different. If managed successfully in the upcoming years, this process will also profoundly affect foreign and security policy in the Middle Eastern region and beyond.

Tel Aviv, the economic centre of the Jewish state
Source: The World in HDR/Shutterstock

Regardless of the claims that the Israeli government has shifted to the left, the political change will not have a significant effect on the country’s foreign policy, as its goals will remain the same, and only the particular strategies, tools, and the tone will be modified under the new leadership. Stability on the level of the grand strategy is guaranteed by right-wing parties remaining a significant part of the coalition and by the Israeli Zionist left that has very similar foreign policy views to that of moderate right-wing parties, including Likud, led by former PM Netanyahu. Israeli foreign policy is first and foremost guided by its security interests, defined by the military sector’s conceptual framework, due to the threats the state has been facing for decades, and the Jews for millennia. The three main goals of the Israel grand strategy are strengthening its existing relations with the country’s main patron, the United States, deepening Israel’s international (and, within that, regional) partnership network, and deterring every kind of (but primarily Iranian) threat the country faces.

In the case of relations with the US, Netanyahu developed an exceptionally good relationship with Donald Trump, which helped Israel gain a number of advantages such as the recognition of Jerusalem as its capital and its sovereignty over the Golan Heights or the endorsement of the Abraham Accords. The new government aims to recalibrate this former one-sided relationship with the Republican Party by strengthening its relations with the Democratic Party and the Biden administration.

Besides its primary ally, Israel maintains an extensive network of partnership spanning from Russia through China and India to the European states. The greatest achievement of the Netanyahu era was developing Israel’s regional cooperation frameworks with Greece and the Republic of Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean, with—openly or semi-covertly—the Gulf states to the south-east, and, in Africa, within a wide belt spanning from Morocco to Sudan. Just like in the case of domestic policy, after the grand ceremonies in Washington marking the end of the latter two processes, a quieter period has now arrived, building on the present foundations. This, however, does not decrease the coming period’s importance: the real practical cooperation will now start by launching direct flights to new partners and paying those kinds of working visits to each other which do not get into the international limelight but are vital for deepening joint work.

Finally, the (non-official) Israeli military strategy will not change at all under the new government; it will be characterised by the same regional assertiveness as before because early warning, deterrence, and decisive victory will remain its main doctrines, while defence (paradoxically) will play only an auxiliary role in it. This stability is guaranteed by Benny Gantz’s continuing as minister of defence and Aviv Kochavi, whose term as chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces is extended by one more year. Israel will keep doing everything in its power to roll back the security threat by Iran and its nuclear programme, may it need clandestine operations, sabotage, targeted killings, or conventional strikes against Iran and its regional proxies with the aim of deterring and destroying Tehran’s land-based assets from Lebanon to Iran and in the Western part of the Indian Ocean.

Foreign Minister of Israel Yair Lapid, who is also its prime minister in waiting according to the coalition agreement
Source: Gil Cohen Magen/Shutterstock

To conclude, I would answer here the question I also asked at the beginning of this article about how these trends and dynamics will affect Hungary. Firstly, we can safely assume that Israel will remain a predictable actor from a security perspective, even if this predictability means a constant low-intensity conflict involving regional actors. The Jewish state will remain an active player in Europe’s south-eastern neighbourhood, so there will not be any foreign and security policy vacuum in the region which would pose a threat to Europe. Regardless, the period of consolidation will result in a degree of internal focussing, unlike during the grand foreign initiatives of the Netanyahu era.

This new period will provide ample opportunities to Israel’s established partners like Hungary. Since the Israeli economy remains “overheated,” it is eager to invest its capital and utilise its technology in markets which can provide it with a higher rate of return and with new business opportunities. This can also be achieved in emerging markets other than Central Eastern Europe, so Budapest must utilise its advantages to attract Israeli investment to the country. One of these advantages is the role it plays in the V4, and the fact that, with the Polish–Israeli relations which have unfortunately soured, Israelis prefer to deepen their relations with Hungarian actors.

An important opportunity which I have already mentioned is that four members of the new cabinet are of Hungarian origin, and all of them serve a strategic role from a Hungarian perspective. These politicians had already been in significant positions in Israeli political life before the election; however, in the ministerial and prime ministerial seats they occupy, they can make decisions which can provide key technologies, capital, and other resources to Hungary through partnerships. Naturally, this is also true the other way around; it is not irrelevant form a Hungarian perspective, either, if a negotiating partner has Hungarian roots. While developing our relations, Hungary can offer its exceptional European location, high-level partnering institutions, development projects, knowledge, profit, and a secure environment, the latter being crucial to the Israelis.

We also have to bear in mind that domestic debates on Hungarian historical narratives about World War II are now affecting the members of the political leadership of a leading foreign power directly, the most notable example being Yair Lapid, for whom his father’s struggles in war-torn Budapest is a defining memory. Negative feedback from Jerusalem is definitely to be avoided, as it would also cause political–diplomatic backlash against Hungary from other Western capitals.

In summary, there is a fascinating process going on in Israel from a political history standpoint, which poses no foreign and security policy risk but provides ample opportunities to the country’s international partners like Hungary. The stability of the new Israeli government is, of course, not guaranteed; however, the country is now in a more welcome state than it was during the political turmoil of the last two and a half years. The steps of the Bennett–Lapid government will lead to a greatly restructured Israel in the upcoming months and years, which external actors must calculate on while looking into the possibilities for cooperation this process is likely to open up.

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