Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in Jerusalem, May 22, 2022
Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in Jerusalem, May 2022
Ronen Zvulun / Reuters

On June 6, the Israeli opposition led by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blocked the renewal of legislation extending Israeli civil law over some 450,000 West Bank settlers. The defeat of the bill seems confounding at an ideological level: the legislation has been renewed every five years without fanfare since 1967 and forms the silent crux of Israel’s hold over the West Bank. For Netanyahu and his allies, which include the most fervent religious nationalist and pro-settlement parties in Israel, the law is crucial to giving their own settler supporters the same rights as other Israeli citizens, while applying Israeli martial law to Palestinians in the same places.

But Netanyahu is wedded to the more urgent goal of destroying the governing coalition that ousted him one year ago, which is led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, his former ally, and included an improbably broad spectrum of parties. And this time, Netanyahu was helped by several members of the coalition itself, who also refused to support the law in the Knesset. The defeat brought the government, which had already lost its parliamentary majority, to the brink of collapse. And if that happens, it will fulfill what doomsayers have been saying for months, and some from the start: that such an unwieldy ruling alliance was destined to fail.

Largely lost in the noise, however, is a more remarkable fact. Against all odds, an Israeli government that included parties from both the left and the right—and even, for the first time, an independent Arab party—held together for a full year in power. The latest crisis may precipitate its downfall, but for the past 12 months, the current leadership succeeded in transcending Israel’s political deadlock and keeping Netanyahu on the sidelines. Along the way, it put forward a fundamentally different style of governance, moving from Netanyahu’s populist antagonism to a spirit of compromise and consensus. In an effort to contain widely disparate political forces, it often settled for grudging cooperation and mere survival. But it also had significant policy accomplishments, including passing a budget for the first time in several years, advancing needed reforms in domestic areas, and establishing a redirected and more pragmatic foreign policy. For these reasons alone, the experiment with coalition rule has opened up a new dynamic, suggesting that it is possible to break what looked like a permanent status quo of unfettered populist, nationalist, right-wing rule.

Staying Alive

From the moment Bennett’s coalition government was formed, exactly one year ago, analysts were almost unanimous in predicting its demise. The circumstances themselves were hardly auspicious: the government was formed, with the barest of majorities, after two years of near-total political paralysis, during which four different elections had failed to produce an outright winner. After the fourth election, in March 2021, Netanyahu was again unable to form a government, although his party held the most seats. It was at that point that the leader of the next-largest party, Yair Lapid, teamed up with Bennett, whose party held just seven seats but lost one en route to forging a new kind of coalition: cobbled together from eight disparate parties, it also included a rotation deal for the prime minister, whereby Bennett would turn over the post to Lapid after two years. The coalition members, who were said to have hardly anything in common other than opposition to Netanyahu, included Ra’am, an Arab party representing the Islamist Movement in Israel; the liberal left-wing Meretz; the right-wing secular nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu; and other parties long considered irreconcilable.

Though exhausted from deadlocked election cycles, the public was skeptical. Some Israelis were shocked to have an Arab Islamist party in executive power. Others were dismayed to have a prime minister who had earned just 6.21 percent of the vote. The coalition itself held only 61 out of 120 seats in the Knesset; in May 2021, when the coalition was first taking shape, polling data showed that a majority of Israelis did not think it would be able to hold together—including sixteen percent who thought it wouldn’t even make it to the swearing in. For his part, Netanyahu, out of power for the first time in 12 years, was enraged. Although he faced three charges of corruption, his party, Likud, had won 30 seats in the March 2021 elections—13 more than the closest contender and over four times as many as Bennett’s party—and he was determined to retake the top job.

Israelis were shocked to have an Arab Islamist party in the government.

By the spring of 2022 it looked increasingly like Netanyahu would get his chance. A new outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian violence set the stage for a series of coalition crises. In early April, Idit Silman, the coalition whip from Bennett’s party, defected, albeit over disagreements related to religion and state. Now the government was left with just 60 out of 120 Knesset seats. Soon after, Ra’am, which controlled another four seats, briefly suspended its participation in the coalition, citing an Israeli Defense Forces crackdown on the al Aqsa mosque during Ramadan. Then, in May, an Arab parliamentarian from Meretz announced a surprise exit as well, leaving the coalition now in a minority with only 59 seats. Although the Meretz MP was coaxed into remaining with the government, she then joined the opposition in voting against the law on Israeli jurisdiction over settlers on June 6, ensuring its defeat.

But despite these continual setbacks, the government somehow clung to power and Netanyahu failed to retake the throne. In the process, Bennett and Lapid proved surprisingly adept at crisis management, demonstrating a degree of political acumen that was once exclusively associated with the former prime minister himself. Even if the next step for the coalition is collapse, its survival for a full year is an achievement that almost no one predicted. Still more unexpected, though, was the extent to which the coalition was able to lead the country. 

Policy Over Politics

Given the coalition’s complex party arrangement and its unending struggles to survive, it may seem surprising that it has managed to govern at all, let alone effectively. Until 2021, Bennett and his Yamina party represented a hardline camp prone to criticizing Likud from the right, and neither he nor the party were known for their compromising spirit, though Bennett had developed a personal rapport with Lapid when they both served in Netanyahu’s administration in 2013. Like any government that represents a broad and often conflicting set of interests, the coalition’s achievements have often been partial at best. Nor has there been a clear ideological direction to the policies implemented. Nonetheless, throughout their year in power, the coalition leaders have shown a surprising sense of purpose and urgency, as if they know their days are numbered.

The government’s economic policies, for example, have led to a firm economic recovery. The government's first and biggest hurdle was the national budget, which, because of the two-year election quagmire, had not been renewed since early 2018. Five months after it came to power, the coalition passed the new budget, defying those who had predicted its nonviability. Meanwhile, the government has overseen a strong resurgence from the first years of the COVID-19 pandemic, with unemployment recently hitting a 50-year low of 2.9 percent and growth surpassing eight percent in 2021, reaching what one news report called “staggering” levels during one quarter. The government has also implemented agriculture reforms, taken measures to lower Israel’s exorbitant consumer costs, and made genuine attempts to reduce crime and violence in long-underserved Palestinian towns inside Israel. Notably, the Orthodox Jewish minister of religious affairs, a member of Bennett’s own party who has since resigned from his portfolio, led a series of reforms to curb the excessive influence of the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate over various aspects of public life. For a religious Jew and a party once closely associated with religious settlers, the move was unusually bold, but it was in line with the preferences of a broad swathe of the public. Similarly, the transportation minister, who is the head of the Labor Party, has sought to increase public transportation on the Sabbath—another move supported by a large majority of Israelis but until now largely blocked by the ultra-Orthodox parties. (Progress on this endeavor has stalled, in part due to the coalition's instability.)

Another critical divergence from Netanyahu is the coalition’s shift away from the relentless politicization of the judiciary over a period of years. Since the early 2010s, right-wing populist forces that Netanyahu nurtured either in his own party or among allied parties sought to delegitimize the Supreme Court. Their main aim was to stop the court from blocking controversial legislation they sought, which included targeting Arab citizens or left-wing civil society, or promoting the notorious law designating Israel exclusively as a Jewish state (which ultimately passed in 2018). Then, when prosecutors began investigating Netanyahu for corruption, the attacks on the judiciary spread beyond the Supreme Court to include the attorney general, the state prosecutor, and the police. Once it was clear that he would be formally indicted, Netanyahu personally joined the campaign against the judiciary, making public attacks that drew on the language used by fellow populists such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and U.S. President Donald Trump. At the same time, Likud and its rightwing coalition partners—led largely by former justice minister Ayelet Shaked of Bennett’s Yamina party—sought to push through judicial reforms to tighten partisan control.

The current justice minister, Gideon Saar, has taken a decidedly different approach. Although he is a committed right-winger and former member of Likud, Saar has quietly set aside Netanyahu-era proposals such as stacking the judicial selection committee with partisan political figures and a law that would allow the Knesset to overrule the Supreme Court. Instead, he has worked on a series of meaningful reforms to the court system—including a bill for a new Basic Law for defendants’ rights to due process, which has advanced in first readings but not yet passed into law, and the introduction of public hearings for Supreme Court justice appointments. The latter could potentially defuse populist accusations of nontransparency. But perhaps nowhere have the coalition’s achievements been more notable than in redirecting Israel’s position in the world.

Outward Overhaul

During the coalition’s year in power, foreign affairs has been one of its most visible and coherent areas of government policy. This is not necessarily a measure of success so much as of clear intent. The biggest difference is a broad move away from strongman populists and authoritarian allies toward Western democracies. During his later years in office, Netanyahu cultivated relationships with illiberal strongmen in Hungary, India, Brazil, and famously, the United States. By contrast, Lapid, who is the foreign minister in the coalition government, announced Israel’s commitment to the community of liberal democracies in an address to EU diplomats soon after taking office. He described shared interests, shared values such as the primacy of human rights (despite Israel’s own human rights failings), and a commitment to, in his own words, the “basic elements of democracy.”

In other areas, the changes go beyond rhetoric. Under Netanyahu, for example, Israel’s relationship with Jordan soured at the level of political leadership due to Netanyahu’s dismissive approach and unnecessary provocations, such as his threats to annex large parts of the West Bank, even as security ties with Amman broadly endured. But Bennett quickly changed course, making goodwill gestures to Jordan, such as increasing Israel’s supply of water to the kingdom and cementing a personal relationship with King Abdullah.

Israeli foreign policy shifted from antagonism to pragmatism.

A similar shift has occurred with Turkey. Under Netanyahu’s leadership, relations with Ankara reached a nadir around 2010, but hardly improved in the decade that followed; the sides recalled their ambassadors in 2018. In March 2022, however, with the coalition in power, Israel’s president (a ceremonial position) visited Turkey, laying the groundwork for the Turkish foreign minister to come to Israel in late May—the first such visit in 15 years, yielding pledges from both sides to improve economic and security ties, and raising hopes that full diplomatic relations might be restored.

Bennett has also held a first-ever official Israeli visit to Bahrain, and Israel recently signed a historic free trade agreement with the United Arab Emirates. There are hints of progress toward normalization with Saudi Arabia, with the help of the Biden administration, though full diplomatic relations are still likely far off. Although the 2020 Abraham Accords—which established Israel’s relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco—were a centerpiece of Netanyahu’s final year in office, the Bennett government is proving that it, too, can master the new regional thaw.

Israel’s reluctance to denounce Russia for its war on Ukraine and to join the West in Russian sanctions has drawn severe criticism at home and abroad. The fence-sitting may do little to strengthen Israel’s ties to the West, but it has a coherent security logic, given Russia’s presence in Syria and Israel’s frequent airstrikes on Iranian-backed targets there. The implementation of this approach, moreover, is clearly coordinated: the prime minister remains muted when commenting on Russia, while the foreign minister issues the condemnations and reassures the West about which side Israel is on.

In other foreign policy areas, the new government has demonstrated continuity with Netanyahu’s policies while projecting cooperation rather than antagonism. The Israeli government continues to reject U.S. efforts to revive the Iran nuclear deal and has reverted to launching attacks inside Iran, as well as on Iranian targets in Syria. Still, the new government has communicated repeatedly that it prefers to keep criticism tempered in public, while working quietly and cooperatively with the Biden administration—in contrast to Netanyahu, who relentlessly attacked the Obama administration over the deal.

Taken together, these policies can be considered to be middle-of-the-road given Israel’s highly nationalist but also bitterly polarized electorate. Most notably, the government has diligently avoided Netanyahu’s heavy-handed security rhetoric, mired in talk about “existential threats” and paranoia about internal enemies—warnings that also served to underscore that Netanyahu alone must rule.

Western partners have had high hopes, probably too high, for a liberal-democratic remaking of Israel after Netanyahu. But Israel’s relationships with its own stated allies in the United States and Europe have been less antagonistic than they were, and its relationships with newer partners in the region, as well as with its older but sidelined regional allies, have been on track for improvement.

Victory in Defeat?

When it came to power a year ago, the coalition promised to show Israelis that a different, cooperative, and respectful kind of governance was possible. It set out to put Israel back on track where the budget and other domestic policy priorities had been neglected. The members of the government also acknowledged that they had no agreement on the toughest issue—the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—and agreed to set those aside. To a considerable extent, the coalition has achieved the first two aims, though its failure on the third—the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—could trigger its downfall.

More telling, however, may be the contrast that the coalition has made with the Netanyahu governments that preceded it. Netanyahu sold himself as the toughest leader on Iran, yet his aggressive lobbying against the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in Washington and the subsequent U.S. withdrawal from the deal, which he eagerly cheered, has brought Iran closer than ever to developing nuclear weapons while significantly damaging U.S. bipartisan support for Israel. At the same time, although Netanyahu prided himself on macroeconomic growth, the country continued to suffer from huge inequality, and the deficit grew. Under his leadership, Israel fought three wars with Gaza, bringing Hamas rockets deeper inside Israel. The last of these wars, in 2021, sparked the worst internecine violence in Israeli cities in years—pitting Israeli Jews against Israeli Arabs, thanks in part to Netanyahu’s years of legitimizing ethnic incitement.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict may prove the coalition’s downfall.

Against this record, the extent to which the coalition was able over the past 12 months to distance Israel from some of Netanyahu’s worst policies and to disavow his legacy of divisive populism should be recognized as a significant success. Yet the simmering Israeli-Palestinian conflict may prove to bring those achievements to an end. In reality, in attempting to set aside the issue, the coalition largely fell back on a continuity of Netanyahu’s policies—reinforcing Israel’s post-1967 history of expansion, settlement, and incrasingly permanent control, and thereby perpetuating the conflict.

By making no change on these issues, the coalition paved the way for more violence and ensured that any stability will always be temporary. Few Israelis were surprised by the escalation of violence around Ramadan this spring, but many voters ignore the relentless grind of settlement expansion through housing tenders, Palestinian home demolitions, pressure on Palestinians in Area C, de facto annexation of Palestinian lands, and the deterioration of Palestinian leadership and authority over its people. Notable steps that the Israeli government took toward relief measures for Gaza, such as issuing more work permits, have made no more than small dents in the economic desperation there. And there is, for the moment, no plausible path toward political resolution.

This spring’s wave of attacks, raids, and crackdowns are just the latest manifestation of a conflict that will not go away. The government was unable to withstand the inevitable political fissures provoked by these events, and they may prove to be its demise. Clashes over al Aqsa during Ramadan prompted Ra’am’s temporary exit from the coalition. The Meretz legislator Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi first defected due to the same clashes, as well as the killing of the Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh and the Israeli police aggression at her funeral. And the final blow to the government was Israel’s attempt to renew a law that had passed repeatedly, unnoticed, for 55 years—a law providing the enduring, too often invisible, infrastructure of Israeli occupation in the West Bank. Deep polarization around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and security fears will always help Netanyahu, and could, in the coming weeks, help return him to power. Still, there is little evidence of a groundswell of support for him; only one out of a dozen polls in the last two months showed Likud and its likely coalition partners with enough seats to form a new government.

If the coalition does collapse, Israel will have nonetheless demonstrated that it can be governed through low-drama, pragmatic compromise and respectful disagreement, and that it is capable of setting a course toward better foreign relations. Critically, Israeli Jews have finally accepted, if grudgingly, that the 20 percent of its citizens who are Arab can participate in the governing body—something which should have happened long ago. It may be too soon to know if this new form of governance will leave a durable impression on the cynical Israeli electorate. But after 12 years of Netanyahu, for whom citizens often voted on the basis of the idea that “There’s no one else,” a new perspective has now presented itself: the option of a different approach to leadership.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now