Israel: Self-interest the winner in government’s settler bill defeat

In the back Meretz's Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi and Ra'am's Mazen Ghanaim during a Knesset session (AFP)

Lubna Masarwa & Huthifa Fayyad

Middle East Eye  /  June 8, 2022

Personal gain, not ideological positions, define premier Bennett’s waning coalition, analysts tell Middle East Eye.

The Israeli parliament’s failure to extend a routine bill on Monday has exposed the dominance of personal motives over ideology in Israeli politics, in the latest sign of the ruling coalition’s waning grip, analysts said.

Two members of the government bloc voted against the bill’s extension, which ensures Israeli settlers in the West Bank have civilian rights while Palestinians are subjected to military rule, meaning the bill was defeated 58 to 52.

Left-wing and anti-occupation politicians voted in favour, despite the law ostensibly supporting the right-wing settler movement’s agenda. Meanwhile, Jewish nationalists in the opposition, along with Palestinian parties, voted against.

The topsy-turvy vote exposed three fundamental aspects of Israeli politics today: Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s unwieldy coalition is weaker than ever; decisions are taken due to paranoia about letting Benjamin Netanyahu back in office; and there is a clear irreconcilable line separating Zionist and Arab parties. 

“Politics in Israel at this point is just tribalism stripped of content,” Lev Grinberg, an Israeli professor of sociology, told Middle East Eye.

“Tribalism is actually dichotomous: you are for or against, and you cannot take a more complicated or sophisticated position; you can only be for us or against us.”

The failure to pass the extension of the bill, in place since the 1967 Israeli occupation of the West Bank, is a major blow to Bennett and his fragile coalition, concocted of right-wing, centrist, left-wing and Arab parties. 

It is a “temporary” measure renewed every five years and set to expire by the end of June, and Bennett’s government is now running low on options. 

There is a small window to table the bill for another vote before its expiration. But with growing differences among the government’s members and the Netanyahu-led opposition’s insistence on bringing it down, little hope is left for the coalition’s long-term survival.

Personal not ideological divisions

The Monday vote, tabled by Justice Minister Gideon Saar, was postponed from last week when no clear majority was secured.

Opposition right-wing parties, led by Likud’s Netanyahu, said they would oppose any legislation submitted by the government to put it under pressure, although in principle they support the extension. 

At the same time, trouble appeared to come from within the coalition. 

Raam, a party representing Palestinian citizens of Israel, was on the fence as the original date for the vote came a day after Israeli raids on al-Aqsa Mosque and the right-wing “flag march” in Jerusalem, where Israeli police and ultra-nationalists assaulted Palestinians.

Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi, an MP with the left-wing Meretz party who had briefly quit the coalition last month, was also vague about voting for the extension, citing her objection to the occupation.

The emergency law, which imposes two different legal applications on Israelis and Palestinians, is seen by many Palestinians and anti-occupation Israelis as enshrining apartheid.

Saar, head of the right-wing New Hope party and former ally of Netanyahu, slammed the opposition for its boycott, warning of the consequences it would have on settlers. 

“The game being played by the opposition is not only unprecedented but dangerous,” he said last week.

Yet by Monday, Saar’s warnings and cajoling of MPs within the coalition failed to bear fruit.

Raam MP Mazen Ghanaim and Zoabi both voted against, joining the right-wing opposition as the bill was struck down in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset.

Amal Jamal, a political scientist at Tel Aviv University, said the voting on Monday showed that despite efforts to integrate Ra’am into the fold of Israeli politics, bigger issues regarding the Palestine question remain a stumbling block.

The party’s strategy of breaking from the other Palestinian parties and joining Bennett’s government “may be beneficial to achieve some simple local goals for his constituency,” Jamal told MEE. “But in more important issues, like this vote, this strategy clearly does not work. Because there are red lines.”

At the end of the day, Jamal said, not extending the bill represents a temporary procedural crisis in parliament, rather than an ideological one.

“There are around 80 right-wing MPs from the various parties in the Knesset, who form the majority. They share a deep ideological agreement among them regarding Israel’s strategic and security policies,” she said. 

“They all just have personal issues with Netanyahu… If he leaves the political scene, the problem could be reconciled.” 

‘Without Bibi, there’s no coalition’

The defeat was a damning one for the coalition, but the alternative is still unclear. 

One of the likely scenarios is that the vote will be put forward again next week as coalition leaders try to get their house in order in the meantime.

Yair Lapid, foreign minister and architect of the coalition, hit out on Tuesday morning against its MPs who voted against, urging them to resign. 

“Those who can’t live with this coalition should leave. Those who can should commit to it. You can’t play both sides,” Lapid said.

His comments suggest that Ghanaim and Zoabi could be pressured into quitting their respective parties and replaced by others committed to the coalition. 

However, such manoeuvring could require some time and may not be realised before the end-of-June deadline.

Another possible outcome is that the opposition will persuade right-wing factions within the coalition to defect and bring down the government.

All eyes are on New Hope leader Saar.

The justice minister, who split from Likud in 2020 and vowed not to serve under Netanyahu, was fierce in his criticism of the former prime minister, calling his decision not to back the bill “cynical and irresponsible”.

Despite this animosity, separate reports from Israel’s Ynet and Channel 12 last week said Saar has been in talks with Netanyahu to form an alternative government in case Bennett’s is voted out.

Both Likud and New Hope denied the reports, and on Tuesday Saar reiterated his unwillingness to sit down with Netanyahu.

Either way, Grinberg said, the Monday vote reaffirmed that the government, which brought disparate parties together in an attempt to jettison Netanyahu from office after a decade in power, continues to be overshadowed by a fear of his return. It’s a situation that only aids him, he said. 

“Any time someone puts forward something unacceptable, they say: what, do you want Bibi to come back?” Grinberg said, using a popular nickname for Netanyahu.

“It’s not politics. There is no platform or principles, only opposition to Bibi,” he said.

“Without Bibi, there’s no coalition… In my opinion, this is only making Netanyahu stronger.”

Lubna Masarwa is a journalist and Middle East Eye’s Palestine and Israel bureau chief, based in Jerusalem

Huthifa Fayyad is a freelance journalist