New Israeli leadership leans to the right with settlers’ agreement, hinting at approach
JERUSALEM – Few things bind the new Israeli government. It is a heavy and incoherent coalition of right-wingers, leftists, centrists and Islamists who many fear will only survive a few more months, let alone years.
But two recent decisions, both related to Israel’s most controversial issue, the Palestinian conflict, show how the government seems to have found, so far at least, a way to maneuver through a maze of sensitive issues while avoiding the collapse: lean to the right, while giving its left and Arab members just enough concessions to justify staying in the alliance.
The latest example is how he dealt with a new, unauthorized Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank that sparked daily protests from local Palestinians. Pull him down, and Naftali Bennett, the far-right prime minister, risked angering his pro-settler base. Let it stay, and he could have encouraged his leftist and Islamist allies to reconsider their involvement in the coalition.
On Thursday, his government finalized a response that kept the coalition together, although it angered its left flank and did nothing for Palestinians living nearby. Settlers will be leaving the site for now, the government said in a statement, but their homes will remain and soldiers will be stationed at the site to protect it.
The government will also investigate land ownership, the statement said. If it decides that some or all of the land belongs to the Israeli state, rejecting the property claims of local Palestinian farmers, the government will then allow the construction of a religious school on the site, allowing the settlers to return. .
It was a phrase that mimicked the government’s approach of a far-right march through Palestinian areas of Jerusalem, staged in the dying days of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s tenure. The march took place on the second full day of the ruling government.
The coalition gave him the green light, appeasing his far-right and centrist voters while outraging his left-wing and Islamist supporters. But he made a concession to the latter by modifying the course of the march by moving away from the most provocative areas.
The government was formed on June 13 with the sole unifying aim of forcing Mr. Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, to step down after 15 years in office, the last 12 of them at once. But beyond that, the eight coalition parties agree on little, and they have little room for maneuver if they disagree.
In the parliamentary vote that gave them power, they failed to secure an overall majority, defeating Mr. Netanyahu’s bloc with one voice.
To avoid falling out, leading government figures Bennett and his centrist Foreign Minister Yair Lapid initially vowed to avoid hot topics that would cause immediate divisions, such as anything to do with the Palestinian conflict. .
To some extent, they have been successful in keeping that commitment by pursuing less controversial issues such as presenting a united front in the face of an increase in coronavirus cases last week, working on a new budget, and announcing a high-level investigation into a disaster at a religious site in April that killed 45 people.
But the Palestinian issue is so closely tied to the day-to-day business of an Israeli government that it has proven impossible to ignore it.
From the first day of its mandate, the government had to vote on the far-right march, whose opponents feared the outbreak of a new round of fighting with militants in Gaza. In his second week, he was already locked into a debate over how to handle the new West Bank settlement, named Evyatar by its founders.
Another crisis looms over an upcoming parliamentary vote to expand a 2003 law that effectively bans the granting of citizenship to Palestinians who marry Israeli citizens.
For right-wing members of the coalition, this is an essential security measure to protect Israel from militants they fear will seek to infiltrate the country by marrying an Israeli citizen. But for leftists and Arab members, it is discrimination aimed at excluding Palestinians.
The government’s decisions on the march and the settlement gave much greater satisfaction to the Israeli right than to the left.
“There’s only one side that swallows frogs,” said Shira Efron, Tel Aviv analyst for the Israel Policy Forum, a New York-based research group. “And that’s the left.”
Ester Alosh, spokesperson for the Shomron Regional Council, which represents settlers in the area surrounding Evyatar, said his side had not achieved everything it had hoped for.
“We are a little happy and a little sad; it’s not exactly what we wanted, ”she said. “But on the other hand, if they stick to their side of the deal, then there’s a good chance this place will remain in Israeli hands.”
But for the Israeli left, including within the coalition, the deal gives little cause for optimism. Instead of removing the colony, this potentially only temporarily removes the settlers themselves, and it gives state support for eventual legalization of the site.
“It’s terrible – it’s something I can’t understand,” said Mossi Raz, an MP from Meretz, a left-wing coalition party. “It’s a white government flag, and it poses a lot of problems for the future because the settlers will do it over and over again. They have what they want, even more than they expected.
And for Palestinian farmers who claim the land, and who have not been able to work it since the settlers arrived in early May, the announcement simply proves what they have always said: that any Israeli government, no matter how political color, works with the same objective of gradually seizing more Palestinian land.
“If the army seizes it and builds a synagogue, or uses it as a military camp, or guard as a settlement, my land is always stolen,” said Mohammed Khabeisa, 68, who said he had planted an olive grove. on the site. from the colony in the 1960s and cultivated the land until he was forced to leave the site in May. “I ask you, what difference does that make? “
Mr. Khabeisa does not have a document conclusively proving his ownership, but the Israeli government has admitted that his family and four other Palestinian families paid property tax on land on or near the hill in the 1930s, without specify where.
The deal to temporarily expel the settlers may be “a compromise to avert a crisis in government,” said Khaled Elgindy, analyst on Palestinian-Israeli affairs at the Middle East Institute, a Washington-based research group. “It is not a compromise with the Palestinian community that is most affected.
The government survived the settlement debate intact, but the citizenship law feud proved to be a more difficult test. The government twice withdrew a parliamentary vote on the law amid signs that it would not pass.
The far-right faction of the government has said it will not change the wording of the text, while Raam, the Islamist coalition party, has said it will not sign it in its current form. Arab families affected by the law said they would consider Raam traitors if they supported the extension of the law.
For now, most analysts say that a faction is unlikely to withdraw from the coalition in the immediate future. If they did, however, it could provide an opening for Mr. Netanyahu to return to power.
“I just don’t think at this point any of the parties would risk destabilizing this coalition for anything – anything, to be honest,” Dr Efron said.
For a party like Raam, which could lose all of its seats in an election, “it’s like a binary choice,” she added. “It has to be a success for them, or they stop being.”
Reporting was provided by Irit Pazner Garshowitz from Jerusalem; Gabby Sobelman from Rehovot, Israel; and Asmaa al-Omar from Beirut, Lebanon.