The limits of a fragile coalition

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We are intrigued by the experiment in governance being pursued by the eight-party coalition that currently runs the State of Israel. It is the creation of prime minister-in-waiting Yair Lapid, and is currently led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. The coalition has studiously avoided dealing with potentially divisive political or policy issues, and is much more focused on self-preservation.

Few observers believed that the bizarre coalition of West Bank annexationists, two-state solution advocates, centrists and an anti-Zionist Islamist party would last as long as it has. They have been able to do so, however, by jointly putting the coalition’s political survival — and the preservation of the trappings of leadership they share — ahead of principle and policy.

Israel has paid a price for this extraordinary exercise. With only minor exceptions, the focus on self-preservation has neutered government and left virtually every aspect of the Netanyahu government’s programs and policies in place, with all players recognizing that material changes to the status quo could shatter their fragile coalition construct.

Yet here we are, three months in, and the government is still in place. Not only that, but earlier this month it passed the first of three readings of a state budget law, something that hasn’t been done since 2018. And, as observed by Yohanan Plesner of the Israel Democracy Institute, the coalition players “will continue to make appointments to a slew of senior positions in the public sector that have remained vacant in recent months and years. From this perspective, one of the government’s main achievements has been to restore stability and reduce the levels of incitement and hatred in public discourse.”

All that said, what good is all that if government can’t get anything done? Focusing only on issues with broad national consensus and avoiding those that could lead to serious disagreement means that none of the meaty issues of government (on which there is deep disagreement) can be addressed. That paralysis simply extends existing policies that were themselves the subject of intense debate through four inconclusive national elections, and makes it near impossible to move forward.

A significant victim of the paralysis are the Palestinians, who comprise more than one third of the total population under Israeli control. Engagement with the Palestinians remains in limbo, with no prospect for change. And, on that, Bennett makes no secret of his view: “I oppose a Palestinian state — I think it would be a terrible mistake,” he said. “I won’t do that.” In that respect, today’s Bennett-led government seems to be pursuing a policy that is identical to the one pursued by the Netanyahu government.

It is, of course, up to the Israeli electorate to decide on its leadership. If a “do-no-harm to our fragile governing coalition” is what Israelis want, then they have it in today’s construct. But then they can’t turn around and complain that the self-preservation mantra interferes with sound government and has paralyzed their country.

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