Thomas O. Falk
Al-Jazeera / July 31, 2021
Analysts say ex-Israeli PM, removed in June after a 12-year tenure, is using a raft of tactics to undermine the government.
On top of all the challenges Israel’s new Prime Minister Naftali Bennett already faces in trying to hold an unlikely, ideologically-diverse ruling coalition together, analysts say he also has to deal with a concerted attempt by his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu to sabotage the government’s work and bring it down.
On June 13, Israel’s parliament swore in a new eight-party coalition government – led by right-wing nationalist Bennett – featuring an alliance of left-wing, centrist and right-wing parties, as well as a party representing Palestinian citizens of Israel.
It brought an end to the 12-year premiership of Netanyahu, the most dominant Israeli politician of his generation, who had failed to form a government after Israel’s March 23 election – its fourth in two years.
Netanyahu’s ongoing corruption trial, on charges he denies, has only deepened his desperation to return to power, and as the Knesset’s new opposition leader and the head of Likud, the largest party in parliament, he and his allies have been using a range of political tactics to frustrate the government.
“Netanyahu and Likud are determined to undermine the ability of this government to function properly,” Donna Robinson Divine, Morningstar professor emerita of Jewish Studies at Smith College, told Al-Jazeera.
“They are deploying every Knesset rule and procedure to oppose anything the government proposes.”
“They have added to the disorder in what is typically not an entirely civil discourse. So, Netanyahu’s approach is to set up all sorts of roadblocks to the reforms and legislation the coalition wants,” she said.
“Netanyahu has embraced three strategies in his desperate attempt to enable his own return to power and by doing so, perhaps, escape yet again having to face an assortment of criminal charges against him,” Ian Lustick, professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania, told Al-Jazeera.
He said the first strategy is to use a variety of procedural devices, insults, and personal smears to create an image of the new government as illegitimate or fraudulent.
“This includes disrupting Knesset sessions, refusing until recently to vacate the prime minister’s house, and insisting that his followers continue to refer to Netanyahu as prime minister,” Lustick said.
Netanyahu has also undermined Bennett’s authority by acting as if he were still in power, including when he recently informed the public that he had called the CEOs of the pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and Moderna to acquire new supplies of COVID vaccine doses for Israel.
Secondly, Lustick said Netanyahu and his allies have sought to use filibusters to frustrate and delay government legislation and to create tensions within the governing coalition by tabling a succession of bills on controversial subjects designed to exploit their ideological divisions; particularly between Bennett, a former settler leader and hard-right religious nationalist who has called for the annexation of most of the occupied West Bank, and other parties.
“Legislative and political manoeuvres are deployed to create tensions within the governing coalition by raising issues related to issues such as settlements, the rights of [Palestinian citizens of Israel], or how vehemently to oppose US outreach to Iran, that have the potential to strain the coalition by forcing it to unite on a position that either its left or right flanks – or both – find difficult to accept,” said Lustick.
Thirdly, the opposition is also making efforts to cajole or entice members of the coalition, including Defence Minister Benny Gantz, to desert it in favour of a deal that would result in a new government featuring Netanyahu.
United by ‘virulent antipathy’
The coalition’s margin for error is slim and it has already suffered a few major defeats in the Knesset, including failing to extend a law that denies citizenship and residency rights to Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip who marry Palestinian citizens of Israel.
Netanyahu has previously backed the law but opposed its renewal during the vote in early July.
Moreover, since this is a government of relatively inexperienced politicians, it has made several errors during its first month in office – such as when Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy accidentally voted against a government-backed bill.
“The coalition is going to have to become much more adept at working with the procedures to prove it can govern,” said Divine.
“There is every incentive for all of them to climb the steep learning curve quickly if they want a political future in Israel.”
However, Lustick says the new government has also proven to be reasonably skillful at defying Netanyahu’s attempts at sabotage and has set aside controversial subjects that could widen rifts within the coalition.
“Although the coalition contains elements that occupy vastly different positions on the Israeli political spectrum, the issues that have traditionally defined that spectrum – what to do with the [occupied Palestinian] territories … and whether to negotiate a two-state solution – have been entirely removed from the agenda,” Lustick said.
Crucially, the coalition has been united by its shared resentment towards Netanyahu.
“The parties in the government are united by a virulent antipathy to Netanyahu, fear of the consequences of the Likud’s return to power with its ultra-orthodox allies, and by their desire, after so long in the political wilderness, to enjoy the perks and power of holding ministerial positions,” said Lustick.
Uriel Abulof, visiting associate professor at Cornell University, told Al-Jazeera that not only has the coalition successfully navigated the traps and challenges set by the opposition, it has also had some success in outlining its own political agenda.
The coalition has launched bills intended to advance plans to tackle corruption and nepotism, ease draconian limits on the agriculture sector, and reform trade bureaucracy.
“It not only survived but has started to change the agenda and set some ambitious goals, outlining many much-needed reforms,” Abulof said.
“Still, some critical mistakes – like boosting the defence budget – may impair its prospects and appeal.”
The coalition will face a crucial litmus test in November when the new budget needs to pass the Knesset – for which it requires a simple majority.
Abulof said that Israel’s political system, while shaken after four elections in two years, has long faced aggressive tactics – including from Netanyahu himself as part of the opposition in the 1990s, when his conduct was “far more aggressive, and worse” – and a post-Netanyahu era offers opportunities to move to a less rancorous, divided way of doing politics.
“Tribalism reached its apex under Netanyahu. If anything, tribalism may begin to decline now, but much depends on the coalition’s capacity to both survive and offer a fresh, exciting vision for Israel, one that both embraces the various tribes and sets a joint way forward,” said Abulof.
But Netanyahu is likely to continue pursuing a return as prime minister if at all possible, especially with the threat of prison hanging over him.
“He will do whatever he can to resume power,” Abulof said.
Thomas O. Falk is a London-based political analyst and freelance journalist who focuses on US affairs and the Middle East