On Sunday, Israel’s parliament will vote to confirm a new coalition government. If the new government, which is set to be led by Naftali Bennett, receives a majority, it will end the 12-year rule of Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving prime minister. Netanyahu’s controversial corruption-ridden and highly divisive reign as prime minister has over the years led to increasing right-wing, extremist and anti-Palestinian sentiment in Israel. However, most observers are skeptical if Bennett’s government or policies will be any different.
The coalition set to replace the government led by Netanyahu’s Likud party claims to be a “government of change” but several of its leaders have been key members of previous Netanyahu-led governments. Some of them have effectively been mentored by Netanyahu and espouse similar policies, ideology, rhetoric and style of functioning.
The prime minister-in-waiting, Naftali Bennett, is leader of the far-right pro-settlement Yamina party, which has only six seats in the Knesset following the elections of March 23. He is to occupy the top post as per a rotation deal between him and Yair Lapid, leader of the self-described centrist Yesh Atid party. Several news reports in recent weeks have highlighted Bennett’s extreme hate-filled views about Palestinians, which have been described as genocidal. He has earlier claimed to have “killed many Arabs in his life” and is vehemently opposed to the two-state solution and a future Palestinian state. He has also supported the repeated Israeli invasions of Gaza.
Bennett at the helm as prime minister does not inspire much hope for a change in Israeli policies or actions towards Palestinians. During the recent raids on the Al-Aqsa mosque compound and the Israeli assaults on Gaza, which killed over 250 Palestinians including 68 children and injured over 2,000 others, Bennett expressed xenophobic and hateful views against Palestinians.
Other parties in the incoming coalition, including Yesh Atid, Labor, Avigdor Lieberman’s ultra-Jewish nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu and Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White are also extremely right-wing or have tilted towards the right over the years. This is evident by their approach towards the Israeli occupation, the blockade on Gaza, Israeli military assaults, East Jerusalem and the Al-Aqsa mosque complex, illegal Israeli settlements, and negotiations with Palestinian political organizations. They have often tried to outdo each other in appeasing the majority right-wing and Jewish supremacist sections in Israel. Together, these parties have managed to win 57 seats in the March elections, falling four short of the majority needed to form the government. These were the fourth elections to be held in Israel within two years.
To cross the majority mark, the coalition parties have agreed to include the United Arab List, once treated as untouchable, which is one the representatives of the approximately 20% Palestinian-Israeli population living inside the current state of Israel. Members of the United Arab List are considered as anti-Zionist and anti-occupation by mainstream political parties. On several occasions in the past, Arab leaders in Israel have voiced opposition to Israeli settlement construction, human rights violations and war crimes in the occupied Palestinian territories. However, with the shared goal of removing Netanyahu from power, these parties have decided to overlook their stark ideological differences and agreed to be in the same coalition. The fact that these parties don’t see eye to eye on most other issues has led many political analysts to question the long-term survivability of the coalition government.
The United Arab List has also come under heavy criticism for joining the coalition. The List was formed after the break-up of the previous Arab parties’ coalition which had won a record 15 seats in one of the elections last year. It has defended its decision by arguing that it has secured an agreement for allocation of funds worth 53 billion Shekels (USD 16 billion) for infrastructure development in Palestinian-majority towns and villages in Israel. It also claims to have secured funds for crime prevention in these areas, which have seen a major spike in such incidents in the last few years.
Several Palestinian activists have dismissed these claims made by United Arab List’s leader Mansour Abbas. Palestinian lawyer and activist Diana Buttu told Al Jazeera, “The idea that somehow Abbas is going to be able to muster up enough support to even introduce legislation that is going to counter some of the racist legislation that Palestinians face is a joke.” She called it a “laughable, very naïve and a fundamental misunderstanding of Israeli politics and Zionism.” Leader of the Palestinian Balad party, Sami Abou Shehadeh, called the decision by the United Arab List “dangerous” and expressed concern that the new government will also work against the interests of Palestinians in Israel as well as in the occupied territories.
PLO representative Bassem al-Salhi said that prime minister-designate Bennett will “make sure to express how extreme he is in the government.” Former PLO executive committee member Hanan Ashrawi said that the members of the new coalition – all former allies of Netanyahu – will “maintain his legacy” and the “built-in systems of racism, extremism, violence and lawlessness” from the Netanyahu era. Hamas spokesperson Hazem Qassem also expressed doubts about this so-called ‘government of change’, saying that “Palestinians have seen dozens of Israeli governments throughout history, right, left, center, as they call it. But all of them have been hostile when it comes to the rights of our Palestinian people and they all had hostile policies of expansionism.”
Several Palestinian and Israeli pro-peace and anti-occupation activists and journalists have expressed similar sentiments about the prospective new government. According to Palestinian writer and journalist Yousef Munayyer, the long-running brutal policies and actions of the Israeli government and military towards Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, which have for long been blamed on the ‘ultra right-wing’ rule of Netanyahu, will now have a new mascot. As a silver lining, this will expose the inherent nature and workings of the Israeli state regardless of who is at the helm. According to him, the countless crimes of apartheid, oppression, subjugation and human rights violations against Palestinians are not the personal traits of one man, but the overarching character of the Israeli state.