With Israel’s Budget Passed, US Policy Could Be Next Big Test for Bennett Government
Major challenges could come from Biden administration’s policy toward Palestinians, political analysts say
The members of Israel’s government coalition breathed a collective sigh of relief at the start of the weekend.
In a move seen as a key victory for the Bennett-Lapid government, lawmakers passed a state budget ahead of a looming November 14 deadline.
The 2021-2022 budget was the first to be approved in over three years, following a prolonged political stalemate that had seen the country catapulted into a seemingly never-ending cycle of elections. Had it failed to pass, Israel would have gone to a fifth round of elections in the space of about two years.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman on Saturday hailed the move, calling it the end of “three years of instability.”
Yet even with the first major obstacle behind Israel’s coalition government, which is made up of diverse parties from across the political and ideological spectrum, several important tests could upset its stability.
Dr. Batia Siebzehner, an expert in Israeli politics and research fellow at the Harry S. Truman Research Institute at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said that the Biden administration’s pending decision on whether to open a consulate in east Jerusalem for Palestinians could prove to be a pivotal moment for the coalition.
“The question is how far the Biden administration is willing to push,” Siebzehner told The Media Line. “They are discussing the consulate in east Jerusalem, which could snowball into a [political] crisis.”
She added that: “The left-wing parties in the coalition – Meretz and Labor – will also be forced to decide whether they support or oppose this motion.”
There is pressure on Bennett from within his own party and other parties in the coalition, as well as pressure from the Biden administration
Both Bennett and Lapid have presented a united front in their opposition to reopening the consulate and suggested instead that it be placed in the Palestinian city of Ramallah, the current seat of the Palestinian Authority. Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as the capital of a future state, while Israel holds that Jerusalem is its indivisible capital.
US President Joe Biden has vowed to reopen a consulate in Jerusalem, which was closed by former President Donald Trump in 2018 when the US Embassy was moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, but has not yet given a firm date on when that would occur.
Another hurdle facing the coalition is construction in West Bank settlements, according to Siebzehner. Last month, the Construction and Housing Ministry announced that 1,300 new housing units would be built in several settlements in the West Bank, also referred to as Judea and Samaria.
While Washington and a number of parties in the Bennett-Lapid government are opposed to new building in Jewish settlements, right-wing parties in the coalition – including Bennett’s own Yamina party – have long evinced a pro-settler policy.
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“There is pressure on Bennett from within his own party and other parties in the coalition, as well as pressure from the Biden administration,” Siebzehner said.
Nevertheless, she added, “at this point none of the parties can afford to break from the coalition and take the risk of Israel going to another election.”
Amir Oren, a senior Israeli political analyst, believes that now that a budget is no longer an issue, the government will do what it can to avoid taking risks.
“The coalition cannot really agree on any common policy and therefore there will be no initiatives,” Oren told The Media Line. “That means that the only way for the country to go forward, for instance, on the peace process is for someone else – namely the Biden administration – to come up with its own initiative so that the government will have to react.”
As long as the glue that holds everyone together – the distrust of Netanyahu – is relevant, and as long as Netanyahu is still in the system, there is a chance that the coalition can survive
Professor Gideon Rahat, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute and professor of political science at Hebrew University, believes that there is only one thing holding together the Bennett-Lapid government: former Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who remains the opposition leader.
“As long as the glue that holds everyone together – the distrust of Netanyahu – is relevant, and as long as Netanyahu is still in the system, there is a chance that the coalition can survive,” Rahat told The Media Line. “Netanyahu gambled and gambled and gambled and, in the end, he shot himself in the foot. He created a situation in which Israel was dragged over and over again to elections.”
Now that the initial obstacle in the form of the state budget has been won, ideological differences between coalition members are more likely to come to the fore.
“This is not a simple government,” Rahat argued. “They’re liable to get into conflicts in this area; and I believe that someone will try to light the fuse to ensure that these conflicts do arise.”