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How the Israeli government shake-up will affect US-relations

The Biden administration will find it tricky to navigate the political scenarios emerging after PM Naftali Bennett lost his majority last week.

Analysis | Middle East

The Israeli government was thrown further into political chaos last week as Prime Minister Naftali Bennett lost his parliamentary majority. Depending on what happens now, Israel could face new elections, more years of stalemate, or Benjamin Netanyahu’s return to power. The repercussions will be felt all the way to Washington.

Knesset Member Idit Silman of Bennett’s own Yamina party, bolted the government and ran into the arms of Netanyahu’s Likud party. That left the government with 60 seats, and the opposition with the same number. The result is that this government — which, due to its mix of right-wing and left-wing groups was already unable to agree on much in the way of legislation — will now be practically unable to pass any legislation at all.

Still, it does not necessarily mean that the Bennett government is about to fall. Because six opposition MKs belong to the Joint List (a coalition of mostly Arab, leftist parties) and they are unlikely to cooperate in a process that is almost certain to end with a more right-wing government than the current one, the opposition lining up behind Netanyahu has 54 potential no-confidence votes. 61 are needed to topple the government.

Still, because Silman’s defection happened entirely behind the prime minister’s back, that does open the possibility for others to bolt the coalition.

Silman and other right-wing MKs in the coalition have been branded traitors by the Israeli right for their participation in a government that includes left-wing and even Arab parties. They face harassment and ostracism from the religious and nationalist communities they are part of. MKs from Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope Party, Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party, as well as more from Bennett’s Yamina might be enticed out of the coalition by similar pressures, especially after seeing the warm welcome Silman got.

Bennett and Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid, are now working to keep what’s left of their coalition together. It won’t be easy. At least one MK, Nir Orbach of Yamina, has already made demands of Bennett, based on the threat of bolting the government, and at least one other, Ayelet Shaked, has expressed her discomfort with sitting in a government with leftists and Arabs.

Orbach’s demands include reconvening Israel’s planning council for West Bank settlements, the body which decides on new settlements set up by the government. That body last met in late October, and its announcement of 2,800 new settlement units did not sit well with the Biden administration. The official decision to build settlements begins the settlement expansion process and is usually the step that draws the most public and international scrutiny. Bennett and Defense Minister Benny Gantz have, therefore, restrained those deliberations while continuing to build settlements that had already been announced.

This decision has been a key point for the nationalist right, which is constantly pushing for more settlement expansion, and Bennett will now have a much harder time resisting when MKs like Orbach can threaten his coalition. President Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken will need to be prepared for Bennett to try to mollify his right flank with more settlements, making it harder for them to keep the already threadbare dream of a two-state solution in the air.

From the perspective of American domestic politics, and its effect on U.S. foreign policy, the fragile state of the Israeli government is going to present electoral concerns as well.

The coalition as it stands will likely not be able to cobble together a budget when that issue arises again late this year, and failure to do so will mean the Knesset must dissolve and new elections must be held. It was barely able to avert that outcome last November, passing the budget by a razor-thin 61-59 margin.

That means it is now less likely that Yair Lapid, who has deeper personal and ideological ties to Democrats in the United States than Bennett does, is not likely to become Prime Minister in August 2023, as stipulated in the coalition agreement between him and Bennett. New elections are almost certain to be held before that time, and Lapid, even if he does well, will face the same numbers problems that other candidates from Israel’s center and center-right have faced for years. Unless the Israeli electorate shifts significantly, he is going to find it nearly impossible to cobble together a 61-seat coalition.

On the other hand, while Netanyahu is not going to return to his long-held office right away, the loss of Bennett’s majority is a big step forward for him. And should Bennett manage to keep his government alive until the budget showdown at the end of this year, Israel’s election race will overlap with the beginning of the 2024 U.S. presidential races. Netanyahu’s deep ties to the Republican Party will surely come to the fore in both races.

That should worry Biden, who is already having trouble getting foreign policy decisions that Israel has any stake in past a Congress that has only a slight Democratic majority, and includes a number of Democrats who tend toward hawkish Middle East policies.

But Biden will have more immediate concerns with Israeli elections looming. With a complete inability to pass domestic laws, Israeli leaders will look to security and nationalist issues to make their mark. That will not only apply to Lapid and Bennett, but also to Netanyahu, and other prominent leaders. For example, Gantz, as minister of defense, may try to get back into the political center ring, perhaps by building on his relationship with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas while cracking down on Hamas in Gaza. There has also been speculation about Gantz potentially returning to an alliance with Netanyahu’s Likud party, which could change the whole game.

While an Israeli attack on Gaza could complicate matters for Biden, Iran will be the focus of Israeli leaders’ tough talk. Whether or not the JCPOA is revived, Iran will continue to be Israel’s primary international concern. And despite whatever Israeli security experts may say, Iran is a political issue for Israelis, and the stance of most Israeli leaders, across most of the political spectrum, is that Iran is an existential threat, deal or no deal.

The Bennett government has made no secret of its opposition to reviving the JCPOA, and it has been increasingly vocal about it. While it has long been clear that Israel will continue to press for isolating Iran, and that it will likely continue its occasional cyberattacks and other efforts at sabotage, the prospect of looming elections, and the need for Israeli leaders to distinguish themselves as tough on security, could lead to escalations in both rhetoric and actions.

Biden needs to take this opportunity to remind the American public that even Israeli military experts agree that the Iran deal worked and should not have been abandoned. With Israel’s government in such turmoil, he and his senior staff need to stand up for the deal as well as for their opposition to Israeli settlement expansion. He needs to send the message that these are the policies that Americans support. That message, in a time of a teetering government, is one Israelis need to hear.

President Biden meets with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the White House. August 27, 2021 (Photo: White House)
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