The new Israeli government, formed with a narrow margin, is expecting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to realign the political system in a way that ensures that it is able to adapt to changes in the domestic balance of forces, and put an end to polarisation based on ideologies, ethnicity, socio-economic levels and personal conflicts.
A few months ago, Yair Lapid, who was a presenter of a talk show on Israeli television, was most interested in doing well in an annual poll among Israeli women, in which he had already been voted on numerous occasions as ‘the most exciting man’. Today, he heads Yesh Atid, the second largest party in the new ruling coalition, and serves as minister of finance, one of the most important of three major ministries in government – even though Yesh Atid contested elections for the first time. Similarly, until a few months ago, forty-year-old Naftali Bennett ran a technology company. Today he heads HaBayit Ha Yehudi (The Jewish Home) religious party, considered the third largest force in the new government (although not the third largest party in the Israeli parliament), and holds the position of minister of economy and commerce, the second most important economic ministry in Israel.
The shifts in the balance of power, as reflected in the new cabinet, is an indicator of further changes in the domestic balance of power, and will produce new frameworks for domestic policy. However, these changes do not guarantee a change in Israel’s foreign policy; quite the contrary, in fact. The composition of the new government in terms of parties and individuals represents a determination to continue the policies of settlement and Judaisation and a refusal to respond to the conditions necessary for a political settlement to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. There are also factors that lead us to believe that Israel will plunge deeper into settlement and Judaisation projects, become more severe in terms of its relationship with Palestinians in particular and Arabs in general, and more willing to resort to force in dealing with Iran.
Polarisation within the right
The Israeli political map suggests that the competition for the leadership of the State of Israel will remain confined for many years within the political right, between its secular and religious camps. However, the new government will see a clear shift in terms of the relationship between Israel’s rightwing alliances. Since the political transition in 1977, when the rightwing came under the leadership of the Likud Party, secular rightwing parties and forces collaborated with religious parties and forces to ensure the continued rule of Likud. In the last decade, the religious sector was able even to penetrate rightwing secular parties.
The formation of the new government represents a turning point in the relationship between the components of the Israeli right, with two distinct camps crystallising: a secular and a religious camp, each of which seeks to employ its presence within the new government to boost its chances in the competition for the country’s leadership. One of these camps is represented by Yesh Atid, a secular party from the ‘centre right’, which aspires to concretise a new camp that includes components of the secular right, including Likud after it is liberated from the weight of religious forces inside it and is led by Moshe Zalman Feiglin, Ze’ev Elkin and others.
The other camp is led by The Jewish Home party, which also aspires to lead Israel in future. It seeks to form a large alliance which includes the diversity of religious parties. Bennett will be helped in his quest by the overwhelming discontent sweeping the religious Haredi camp, specifically the rivalry between Shas and Yahadut Hatorah (United Torah Judaism), which no longer form part of the government. Except for a very short period, these two parties have been an integral part of the ruling coalition, which have successively managed the affairs of Israel since 1977. Yesh Atid had insisted that these two parties not be recruited into the new government on the grounds that their followers do not perform military service. Thus, for the first time, Shas and Yahadut Hatorah will be absent from the circle of influence that had ensured the financing of their religious, educational and social institutions. The Haredi parties also feel a great deal of anger towards The Jewish Home party since it accepted their exclusion from government. However, the leaders of these parties are aware that, in light of the existing balance of power, they have no choice but to cooperate, in future, with The Jewish Home in order to build a religious front to confront the secular trend.
It is clear that, with the new polarisation, Netanyahu’s opportunities to manoeuvre to ensure that he remains at the helm have shrunk dramatically. This explains his desperate attempts to include the Haredi and centre-left parties into government; these parties, after all, do not present themselves as substitutes for Netanyahu as head of government. He was keen to exclude Lapid and Bennett from government because he realised that their parties would threaten his political future as they would employ their spheres of influence in government in order to improve their abilities to compete for the future leadership of government. He also realised that they would deepen polarisation within the right, which could lead either to the disintegration of Netanyahu’s Likud party, or convert it into a marginal party, since it is currently based on harmony between the secular and the religious right. Netanyahu understands that the new reality will push the secular elites within Likud to join the secular camp, which Lapid seeks to form, while the religious elites will move towards the camp led by The Jewish Home.
In light of the new balance of power, no one takes the leftwing parties – Labor and Meretz – into account any longer. These two parties will remain on the margins of Israeli political life for a long time into the future.
Government for settlements and Judaisation
Despite their other differences, there is no dispute among the main components of the new government – Likud, Yesh Atid and The Jewish Home – that doubling the pace of Jewish settlement in the West Bank and occupied Jerusalem will be at the top of government’s priorities. Yesh Atid, which held its founding conference in the settlement of Ariel, one of the largest Jewish settlement in the West Bank, defends the ‘right’ of settlers to build in the large settlement blocs, just as it supports projects for the Judaisation of Jerusalem. In contrast, The Jewish Home, whose leaders are mostly considered to be from the settler movement, wants the government to increase the pace of construction, even in remote settlements which are not annexed to the larger settlements.
The Jewish Home is keen to be successful with its ministerial positions in ways that would enable it to impose its settlement-related agenda. Faure Ariel, vice president of the party and one of the most prominent settler leaders in the West Bank, will be minister of housing in the new government and, through this position, will control the issuance of government tenders for construction in settlements. Ariel rushed to dispel any doubts about plans in his new position. He made it clear he believed that the West Bank (which he calls Judea and Samaria) was an integral part of the ‘Jewish national home’, and stressed his commitment to intensify construction for Jews in all parts of the West Bank.
Furthermore, Bennett has been appointed minister of industry and commerce and will thus be able to determine what is known as areas of ‘national priority’. These are areas that receive a greater share of government investments and whose residents enjoy substantial tax concessions. Bennett explained that he will be eager to establish industrial zones in the vicinity of Jewish settlements and in other operational facilities to encourage Jews living in the centre and peripheries of Israel to move to the settlements. Any efforts to strengthen Jewish settlement in the West Bank will receive the support of Likud ministers and parliamentarians, especially those in Likud’s religious wing led by Feiglin and Elkin.
Chances of a third intifada
It is clear that the new Israeli government will reduce any political manoeuvrability of the leadership of the Palestinian Authority (PA), and drive them to difficult choices. Despite intense pressures on the PA from the USA and the European Union, it cannot return to negotiations in light of continued settlements and Judaisation. PA president, Mahmoud Abbas, has publicly committed himself not to agree to a resumption of negotiations unless Israel commits to halting settlements. This condition will not be agreed to by the new Israeli government. To complicate matters, the growing settlements and Judaisation are associated with the campaigns carried out by groups of Jewish settlers who attack Palestinians in the West Bank.
Furthermore, the PA is obliged to continue its security cooperation with Israel. Both the USA and Israel are also exerting great pressure on the PA leadership for its failure to achieve national reconciliation that would end internal division. This was explicitly recognised by Fatah leaders. Abbas also fears that terminating security cooperation with Israel and orienting towards reconciliation with Hamas will lead the Americans and Europeans to cut aid to the PA, which will lead to a further deterioration of economic conditions in the West Bank. It is possible that the blocking of political horizons, the economic deterioration and the settlement expansion that confront Palestinians will result in a mass reaction that may flare up as a third intifada that will dramatically reshuffle the cards for Palestinians and transform the relationship with Israel.
Revival of ‘The sting of Arab consciousness’ doctrine
Arguably, the greatest impact on the Israeli military’s behaviour towards Palestinians and Arabs will be the appointment of Moshe ‘Bogie’ Ya’alonas minister of defence. Netanyahu has been besieged by rightwing polarisation, and his two main partners in government, are not from rich military backgrounds. Such a governmental environment will provide a suitable opportunity for Ya’alon to put into effect his military principles on how to deal with Arabs. Ya’alon, who once led the Sayeret Matkal military unit which is responsible for assassination operations in Arab countries, and who took command of the intelligence division and the presidency of the general staff of the army, believes that ‘The sting of the collective Arab consciousness’ can be suppressed through the use of force. According to his doctrine, which he theorised in his 2008 book A long short road, only force can convince Arabs to recognise Israel’s existence in the region, and ‘what cannot be achieved by force will be achieved by greater force’. It is thus widely expected that the new government will step up its military operations against Palestinians using any pretext. The application of this policy may be delayed by an aggravation of the situation in Syria and the possibility that the prolongation of the Syrian crisis will impact on Israeli security in some way.
Growing support for attacking Iran
Israel is aware that any of its plans to confront the Iranian nuclear programme cannot ignore the international and regional environment, especially the position of the USA, which reserves the option of using armed force against the Iranian nuclear programme. Also, the ruling political elite are aware that there are differences within the military about the chances of success of any military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, and its long-term viability.
Despite this, Netanyahu specifically sees the elimination of the Iranian nuclear programme as the project of his life, according to his close associates. He believes that allowing Iran to possess nuclear weapons will mean the creation of a nuclear race that will enable Arab and Islamic nations to own this weapon. He is particularly concerned about Egypt and Turkey, and believes the international community will be unable to question the legitimacy of their access to nuclear weapons if Iran possesses such weapons. There is a clear majority within the new Israeli government that supports armed action against Iran if economic sanctions and the secret war based on electronic warfare do not dissuade the Iranian leadership from further development of the nuclear programme.
In summary: the new government in Israel will continue settlement construction and Judaisation and will be more willing to pull the trigger.
Expanding the margin of Palestinian manoeuvrability
The policies of the new Israeli government will increase the challenges facing Arabs and Palestinians in particular. A response will require a multi-level strategy focusing on Palestinian, Arab and international dimensions to confront Israel and reduce the margin of manoeuvrability it enjoys. They can work towards the elimination of international legitimacy for the new government. In this respect, there are elements that can be built upon after recognition of Palestine as an ‘observer’ state at the United Nations. It is highly unlikely that the majority of countries in the world will agree to the new Israeli government implementing a programme based on expansion of settlements and Judaisation of the Palestinian state’s territory, which has received international recognition. It goes without saying that this calls for Arabs to clarify to the White House that it is not in their interest or the long-term interest of the USA to accept the unprecedented political cover – which gave the Israeli government an open mandate to do whatever it wanted – granted by President Barack Obama to Israel during his recent visit. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas should employ all his cards based on Palestine’s membership in the United Nations – particularly the filing of urgent lawsuits against Israel before the International Criminal Court because of the ongoing projects of settlements and Judaisation, and the massacres perpetrated against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip during the 2008 and 2011 wars. There is no doubt that one of the trump cards possessed by Palestinians in the face of the new Israeli government is to achieve Palestinian reconciliation and consensus on a comprehensive national programme that includes all active Palestinian forces, in order to reduce the ability of Israel and others to use Palestinian fragmentation to accumulate more achievements.
*This article is published in terms of a partnership agreement between AMEC and AlJazeera Centre for Studies