Thursday, Jun 30, 2022

Israeli PM Naftali Bennet Faces Political Uncertainty Amid Coalition Tensions, Palestinian Attacks

Bennet is facing a tough time with loss of parliamentary majority, non-cooperation from a coalition partner, and Palestinian attacks.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett File Photo

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennet is set to face a challenge from the Opposition led by the country's former leader Benjamind Netanyahu.

While he is expected to survive an immediate threat of being toppled, his long-term prospects are uncertain as his government is facing a string a crisis in less than a year of its formation. 

Last month, Bennet lost parliamentary majority. His own religious-nationalist party is crumbling, and a key governing partner has suspended cooperation with the coalition. 

Boaz Toporovsky, the acting coalition chairman, acknowledged the coalition is in the midst of a “serious crisis” but said he was optimistic it would survive. He told the Israeli public broadcaster Kan, “Everyone understands that we're at a crossroads that can bring about, heaven forbid, elections in Israel" 

Such a situation is worsened as the government is deeply divided over major issues and the country is facing an ongoing wave of Palestinian attacks in which at least 18 Israelis have been killed over last two months. A confrontation with the United States over West Bank settlement construction is also looming.

Bennet's government made history when it took office last June, ending prolonged deadlock in which Israel went through four rounds of inconclusive elections in just two years. Racing to prevent another election, Bennett brought together an ideologically diverse coalition of eight parties with little in common beyond their shared disapproval of the then prime minister Netanyahu.

The new coalition included hard-line religious nationalists that oppose Palestinian statehood, dovish left-wingers, and an Islamist Arab party. They agreed to sideline the country's most divisive issues and focus on areas of broad consensus. Since then, the government has managed to pass a budget, navigate the coronavirus pandemic, and strengthen relations with both the Biden administration and Israel's Arab allies. Bennett also has emerged as a surprising mediator in the Ukraine-Russia war, regularly speaking to the leaders of both countries.

Although Bennett, who leads a small religious-nationalist party, has ruled out peace talks with the Palestinians, he has tried to reduce tensions by taking steps to improve living conditions in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

This cautious approach has repeatedly been tested. One member of Bennett's Yamina party defected when the government took office, accusing him of abandoning their nationalist ideology. A second member followed suit last month, leaving the coalition and Opposition equally divided in the 120-seat parliament. 

The ongoing violence between Israelis and Palestinians, mostly at the Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque, prompted Mansour Abbas — the leader of the Islamist Arab Ra'am faction in the coalition — to suspend cooperation. Abbas has not said whether he will resume cooperation or join the Opposition in attempts to topple the coalition this week.

“We're in a not so simple crisis with Ra'am,” said Toporovsky, the coalition chairman. He added that he understood the Islamist party's disappointment in the slow pace of effecting change for Israel's Arab citizens. 

Netanyahu is weighing whether to introduce a motion this week to dissolve parliament and trigger new elections. Such a move is risky. It would require at least one of the remaining members of the coalition to join him and there is no guarantee that will happen. If he fails, he would not be able to introduce a similar motion for the next six months as an ongoing corruption trial against Netanyahu moves ahead.

Yohanan Plesner, a former lawmaker who is now president of the Israel Democracy Institute, said he expects the coalition to weather the storm, at least in the short term. He said that even unhappy coalition members would have much to lose if the country were to plunge into new elections. Abbas, for instance, is just beginning to see the huge budgets he has secured to flow into the impoverished Arab communities he represents. 

But any member of the coalition can now pressure the government into pushing pet projects opposed by other partners. This week, an Israeli planning committee is expected to approve plans to build some 4,000 new homes in Jewish settlements  in the occupied West Bank despite vociferous opposition from the United States and most of the international community. 

The construction project is being pushed by members of Bennett's own party, which draws much of its support from the settler community.

Plesner said, “The next few days will allow us to know whether the coalition is in critical but stable condition or critical but unstable condition. The immediate areas to look at are either the Ra'am party, as a whole or parts of it, or elements from within Yamina.”

(With AP inputs)