Early actions of Israel’s month-old governing coalition – including preparations for new Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s forthcoming visit to Washington sometime in the coming weeks — suggest a marked departure from the era of Benjamin Netanyahu in domestic, regional, and international arenas. These initial steps demonstrate the critical role that Bennett’s relations with U.S. President Joe Biden — and the engagement of the Biden administration overall — are likely to play.
The elections that led to this government — headed by Bennett and Yair Lapid, its foreign minister, who will swap positions in two years if the fragile government remains intact — breathed new life into Israel’s democracy, as evidenced by the coalition’s composition. It excludes the most extreme, racist, xenophobic, anti-democratic segments of the society which, to our shame, made it to the Knesset. At the other end of the spectrum, for the first time ever it includes an Arab party. The broad Jewish public support for its inclusion reinforces the conclusion that a prolonged, despicable, racist incitement against a fifth of the citizenry failed to accomplish its objective.
However, a note of caution: the pockets of racists in Israel’s midst are not negligible, and it still has self-centered, cynical politicians who can be expected to play on these dark sentiments. While this coalition does not meet the dreams and aspirations of any of its components, nor of those who voted for each of them, it comprises a diverse group of parties and politicians who so far have proved mature and responsible enough to find common ground.
Though the new government’s critics refuse to acknowledge the changes it has already introduced, the shifts are evident. They include Bennett’s vow to “challenge any attempt to make America a partisan political issue in Israel and Israel a partisan political issue in the United States,” which Netanyahu had been widely criticized for doing; the decision to avoid a public clash with the Biden administration over the Iran nuclear deal; Bennett’s approval of a vaccine deal with the Palestinian Authority (PA) that Netanyahu had held up for months; Israel and the PA reviving the Joint Economic Committee to promote Palestinian economic activities and remove obstacles to its development; Bennett and Lapid repairing relations with Jordan, which were severely damaged under Netanyahu, including a secret meeting between Bennett and Jordan’s King Abdullah in Amman and Israel’s doubling the amount of water it provides to Jordan; and Bennett’s and Lapid’s broad policy directive to strengthen the PA while isolating Hamas. All these steps reverse Netanyahu priorities.
It is too early to predict how durable the changes will be, how the coalition will perform, or how long it will last. On the one hand, to ignore its internal contradictions would be naïve or overly optimistic. Its cohesiveness is bound to be tested, primarily by a pull-no-punches former prime minister who rejects the verdict of the electorate. On the other hand, there are significant forces that might extend its longevity. The oft-mentioned fear of a Netanyahu comeback is one. Another is the wish of all the coalition’s members – in the Knesset and even more so in the Cabinet – to not risk their newly acquired positions of influence prematurely via another election. With governing responsibility replacing vicious campaign sloganeering, equally significant are public (and private) confessions by its members of having realized that policy differences and differing priorities do not an enemy make.
Much like other issues over which Israel is divided, policy regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is bound to be affected by the composition of this unprecedented coalition. Parity mechanisms assure each side of the coalition’s political divide that the other will not run away with unacceptable initiatives; should either side opt for a move that exceeds the narrow consensus, it must persuade someone from the other camp to break ranks.
Consequently, for the foreseeable future, both a historic breakthrough with the Palestinians and a devastating annexation of West Bank territory are off the table. Even to a steadfast proponent of a negotiated two-state solution, averting an ill-prepared peace initiative is not such a bad thing. Bringing the parties to the table prematurely is a prescription for failure, and each failure carries a heavy price tag in both reinforcing the erroneous conclusion that “it just can’t be done” and occasionally in blood, as was the case with the Second Intifada that followed the collapse of the 2000 Camp David summit. Thus, if this mutual ambition-canceling mechanism prevents ill-timed peace initiatives and forecloses the option of legislated annexation, that’s a good start.
The Gaza crisis in May provided all of Israel’s leaders with evidence that the status quo regarding the Palestinians was an illusion. It also demonstrated, tragically, that insulating the West Bank from Gaza, both of them from Jerusalem, and all three from Israel’s cities was illusory, too, as a match lit in Jerusalem (in this instance, the Temple Mount and East Jerusalem neighborhood, Sheikh Jarrah) ignited all. Likewise, it reminded the Biden administration that, left unattended, the conflict tends to force itself onto any White House agenda.
With this vivid collapse of Israel’s previous strategy and in the absence of opportunities for major breakthroughs in both Jerusalem and Washington, “stability first” has emerged as the new buzzword. In the words of Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the United States expects the parties to “remove… potential catalysts for a renewed cycle of violence,” and to “build on that…[in] start[ing] to improve people’s lives and add a real sense of dignity and hope,” all in order to “produce a better environment in which ultimately there’s a possibility of resuming the effort to achieve a two-state solution.”
Stability is incompatible with provocations (on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, in Sheikh Jarrah, and elsewhere), but requires steps to reduce tensions. Thus, the nascent Biden-Bennett relationship should prove a critical factor in three ways.
First, none of the coalition leaders is as self-centered as their predecessor to offend the president of the United States in order to score points with an incited political base at home. This is certainly the case when the president has a solid record of support for Israel and Israelis cannot be expected to buy accusations to the contrary. It is even more so when this president is not expected to ask Israel to take such divisive steps as resolving the core issues of a permanent deal with the Palestinians, when he is busy with an overwhelming domestic and international agenda.
Learning the Lesson of One-Party-Policy Risks
Second, all members of this coalition are committed to repairing relations with the Democratic Party in the United States, and to restoring bipartisan support for Israel, as evidenced by Bennett’s vow (noted above) to avoid making either the United States or Israel partisan political issues. They have all learned the lesson of the damaging one-party-only policy of their predecessor.
Third, even though the Biden administration has relegated the conflict to a lower priority, the Gaza crisis injected a greater sense of urgency in dealing with it. Consequently, early appointments at the National Security Council, the State Department, the Pentagon, and elsewhere of the most experienced professionals (and others still pending congressional approval) all indicate that the administration intends to have a fully staffed, dedicated, inter-agency team that is empowered to carry out the mission without involving the president or secretary of state in its day-to-day affairs.
A case in point is the six-day visit to Jerusalem, Ramallah, Bethlehem, and Tel Aviv by recent Biden appointee Hady Amr, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Israel and Palestinian affairs. At the conclusion of the visit on July 16, the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem issued a statement, saying, “The current focus of the United States is on improving the situation on the ground and relations between Israelis and Palestinians, which together are important in their own right, and are also important as a means ultimately to advance towards a comprehensive peace.”
The sum total of these three factors provides the Biden administration with the opportunity to make good on its stated priority of securing stability. Thus, when members of Israel’s Cabinet debate steps that enhance or undermine stability, American input will be seriously considered.
Even before being sworn in as prime minister and certainly since, Bennett, long a proponent of settlements and annexation, has moderated his tone. Some attribute this to the Biden factor mentioned above, others to his ambition to expand his political base beyond diehard settlers. Still others even argue that the more mature Bennett is more sober regarding the contradiction between annexation and a Jewish-democratic Israel.
Whatever the reason, in practice he has already made two things clear: first, in making decisions on settlement construction, Israel must factor in the position of the Biden administration. Second, the lesson learned from the previous failed policy is the need to embrace a new strategy. With the noted effect of coalition diversity ruling out both ends of the spectrum – annexation or a breakthrough for peace – all eyes are on the ‘in-between.’
That space, though, means different things to different people. The Biden administration looks at a phased approach, where “stability first” is followed by improved lives, opportunities, and dignity and thus revived hope, all designed to lead to an eventual negotiated two-state solution (as presented in Blinken’s statement above). To Bennett, that train reaching its final destination is hardly an option. Hence his embrace of the phrase “shrinking the conflict” (borrowing from the author Micah Goodman).
Regardless of the different framing, much common ground can be found when translating “stability first” and “shrinking the conflict” into concrete steps. Should Biden choose to impress his forthcoming Israeli visitor with the need to focus on the urgent, there lies the key to reducing tension now, while preserving – and improving — conditions for a negotiated, two-state solution later.