Despite last-minute parliamentary maneuvering to delay, just days from now a historically diverse political coalition is expected to be sworn in as the new government of Israel. With hard-right Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett as the first of two new prime ministers, conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12 years in power would come to an end.

It’s an unlikely alliance of eight parties with views that include far-right Jewish as well as Arab Islamist that have agreed to share power in order to break Netanyahu’s seemingly iron grip on Israeli politics. The new government’s viability will be tested almost immediately by the outgoing prime minister.

Netanyahu, now on trial for criminal corruption, charges he denies, is unlikely to exit the political stage, analysts say. If ousted, he would remain in Knesset, Israel’s parliament, as government opposition leader, a perch that assures Netanyahu’s continued relevancy and one that neatly dovetails with his political outsider brand.

Robert M. Danin
 is a senior fellow with the Future of Diplomacy Project at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. A former career State Department official, Danin served as deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs overseeing Israeli-Palestinian issues, director for Israeli-Palestinian affairs and the Levant at the National Security Council, and head of the Jerusalem mission of the Quartet under Tony Blair. The Quartet is a diplomatic group set up to mediate the Israeli-Palestinian peace process that includes the United States, the United Nations, the European Union, and Russia.

Tzipi Livni served as an elected member of Israel’s parliament from 1999 to 2019, representing Likud, Kadima, Hatnua, and Zionist Union parties. She held numerous ministerial posts, including vice prime minister, the first woman to do so, and foreign minister. A global figure now retired from politics, Livni is the Future of Diplomacy Project’s Fisher Family Fellow.

Danin and Livni discussed the possibility of a new government and what it could mean for both Israel’s and Netanyahu’s future.

Q&A

Robert M. Danin and Tzipi Livni

GAZETTE: What’s the significance of this moment for Israel?

DANIN: Let’s be clear on where we are: Yair Lapid [of the centrist Yesh Atid party], who was tapped by Israel’s president to form a government after the prime minister and the Likud party failed to do so, just concluded a coalition agreement signed by eight Israeli political parties. This government cannot be sworn in, however, until it is ratified by a vote of confidence in the Knesset. As of now, there is a distinct possibility that it will not happen. So [we] have to leave open that caveat that the government may be stillborn.

That said, assuming this government is sworn in, it will be historic for a number of reasons. First, it will mark the end of 12 years of continued rule by Bibi Netanyahu, who has dominated Israeli politics for over a decade now without real challenge. That, in and of itself, is significant. It could be the end of an era. That said, we have to recognize that Netanyahu will become the leader of the opposition. Unlike American politics, where traditionally, after one is defeated, one is finished politically, that’s not the case at all in Israeli politics. Netanyahu had also been prime minister in the 1990s, and after losing power was able to come back. Netanyahu will now be in the Knesset leading the opposition and the head of its largest party [Likud]. So he is not leaving the scene, as it were. This is particularly important, given the uniqueness of the government that is to be formed.

Unlike most Israeli governments, this will not have the ultra-orthodox Jewish religious parties in it. Instead, the new government will be a largely secular coalition that encompasses two left-wing parties, three right-wing parties, and two centrist parties. Added to that, for the first time, you have an Arab party as a coalition signatory, which breaks a traditional taboo in Israeli politics, and which is important and critical, especially given what happened last month with the violence that took place within Israel between Jewish and Arab Israelis. To have an Arab political party as a full participant and signatory to an Israeli government is historic. Not only is it an Arab party, but it’s an Islamist party. So, this will be a very unique government.

At the same time, the very diversity of the government, and the way in which it is structured, with numerous rotating positions among ideologically-opposed partners, raises the fundamental question of how durable is this government? Will it actually live to see the rotations it has agreed to fulfill? Will Bennett relinquish the prime ministership in 2023 to Yair Lapid? When the current government that Netanyahu heads was formed, it too called for a rotating prime ministership, but very few Israelis expected it to last and for that rotation to take place. But that skepticism had to do more with the distrust of Netanyahu personally than it had to do with the durability of the government. Sometimes governments in Israel are more durable than many expect. Given how difficult it is to form an Israeli coalition government — here we are now, it took four elections in two years to form a government — the government coming into being will not want to dissolve itself too easily or quickly.

GAZETTE: How significant is it that an Arab party is joining the coalition?

LIVNI: It’s an historical moment. In the past, we had the situation in which the Arab party supported the government, but sometimes you had ad hoc support on issues. But now, joining the government is something that is really historic. And I hope, especially after what you saw during the last few weeks in Israel, in what we call the mixed cities, between Jews and Arabs, maybe this will ease the tension — I hope so anyway — in an understanding that they are not only legitimate citizens and equal-rights citizens, but also legitimate parties within the Israeli coalition and government.

In 2014, Netanyahu fired me from the government, and since that day, what he wanted was only right-wing governments. And now, we are having a mix of different opinions, different ideas. I believe in a government that truly represents one guidance, a vision that all support. But here, under the circumstances, succeeding to have this agreement between all of them and sitting together, is quite an achievement.

GAZETTE: This coalition appears to have formed strictly out of political expediency. What challenges will it face and what could potentially fracture this new government?

Tzipi Livni.

Former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

Sebastian Scheiner/AP Photo

LIVNI: There are some issues that they cannot agree upon, and therefore, what they decided is to try to work together in order to heal Israel’s economy, to deal with the aspects needed after COVID. I hope that they will heal also Israel’s democracy. It’s clear that when it comes to what Israel needs to do regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there are huge gaps. And these are not the only the only gaps that you can find within the government. It’s about the rise of LGBT; it’s about different meanings of equality. It’s different parties with different agendas and different platforms that decided to join together in order to beat Netanyahu and to take him out of office.

DANIN: What it means is that the range of issues that the new government can address will be extremely limited and circumscribed. This is a government in which it will be impossible to reach agreement or form coherent policies on a number of very critical issues. First and foremost, Israel’s relationship to the Palestinians: You’ll have a prime minister who advocates annexing the West Bank. And at the same time, you have, sitting in the government, parties that are adamantly opposed to that. So what that means is this government will be unable to formulate a policy on that issue. And there will be a number of other issues that it will be unable to formulate policies on because there’s just too much structural division. In many ways, it will be a caretaker government. It will be one that will be unable to initiate dramatic change, especially when it comes to Israel’s existential conflict with the Palestinians.

First and foremost, this government came into being with one fundamental objective, and that was to remove Benjamin Netanyahu. It will do that. Then the question will be: for how long and will Netanyahu not return? Beyond that, this government aims to restore and to re-empower the institutions of Israeli governance, and to revitalize Israel’s democratic institutions. So, a lot of it will have to do more with addressing governance processes than outcomes. That said, what ultimately brought down the current Israeli government was its inability to pass a budget. Israel has not had a budget now for a few years. That’s the kind of issue that will be challenging for any government, especially such a diverse one. So one could imagine that the budgetary issues will form a large challenge for the new government.

A second issue will be what happens if violence erupts, or if Hamas initiates violence from Gaza into Israel, and this government then finds itself in active conflict? That could put a real strain on the coalition government. I think the biggest challenge to the government is going to be the following: The new prime minister, Bennett, is avowedly a very right-wing leader. Ideologically, he is further to the right than Netanyahu. His biggest political challenges come from within his own party and from his own constituents. And this same constituency challenge also exists for Mansour Abbas [of the Islamist United Arab List] heading into this government, and even some of the left-wing parties. So the biggest challenges could come from within their own constituents who feel that their representatives, or their leaders in this government, are just too compromising. Netanyahu understands this. Given that this coalition is going to be so diverse but with a thin governing majority, it won’t take many defections to bring it down. The leader of the opposition is going to be Netanyahu, who’s going to attack this government from the right. So he’ll be attacking a right-wing prime minister for not being right-wing enough, and for having made too many compromises with the left, which is a dirty word in Israeli politics. Bennett is then going to have to answer to the right — his own constituents — and explain to them what he is delivering to them by being in bed with the left with an Arab Islamic party. So he’s going to be vulnerable from Day One, and Netanyahu is going to hammer away at this.

GAZETTE: As foreign minister, you oversaw negotiations with the Palestinians. How would this new government affect the prospect for real movement on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

LIVNI: It is clear that they will try not to touch it. But the real question is whether the statement is sustainable or not. This is something that we’ll find out in the future.

GAZETTE: As leader of the opposition, could that perhaps even help put Netanyahu back in power given how narrow and frail the coalition is already, and how much Netanyahu enjoys playing the role of renegade or outsider?

DANIN: Absolutely. Netanyahu was successful and able to gain power and maintain power as the outsider candidate. That’s how he branded himself throughout his political career, as the voice of the marginalized and the outsiders, with the Sephardim or those of the poorer economic classes, never mind that he himself comes from none of that. So, yes, he will be very well-positioned to mobilize opposition from the outside, populist opposition. There’s a lot of concern in Israel about increased political violence. Already, the security for a number of the would-be members of this government has been stepped up. So the potential for populist violence exists. We saw it last month. And yes, Netanyahu, has won elections that way in the past, and he will be well-positioned to do so. And let’s not forget the context: Netanyahu desperately wants to be prime minister. Here’s a man who is in the midst of a trial with three major indictments for corruption that could send him to jail for a long time. So he’s not only fighting for his political survival, he’s fighting for his personal survival. There are no incentives for him to exert moderation and every incentive for him to attack and mobilize from the right, from the street, against the government for being too compromising, for being too accommodationist.

GAZETTE: How would Netanyahu’s ouster affect his legal troubles?

Robert Danin.

Robert M. Danin, senior fellow with the Future of Diplomacy Project at the Belfer Center.

Benn Craig/Belfer Center

DANIN: Never before has there been a sitting prime minister who’s been undergoing trial while in office. There’s no case law here. Israel has been in unprecedented territory, and no one has known the answer to this. It has forced the judiciary and the Supreme Court to play an unprecedented role and potentially make decisions that it’s never had to face before. This is one of the reasons that Netanyahu, as prime minister, adopted such a populist approach and went to war with the judiciary. Netanyahu branded the Supreme Court and the judiciary as being politicized in order to portray his legal battles as political ones and not related to crimes that he may have committed. Israel does not have a written constitution. And in many ways, the Netanyahu era has taken Israel into unprecedented legal territory that has raised questions regarding the powers and immunities and the responsibilities and the accountability of its prime minister to the rule of law. That’s one set of the questions that Netanyahu being prime minister had raised. Clearly, he will be much more legally vulnerable now that he is no longer prime minister. But he will still be a member of the Parliament, which is not insignificant.

GAZETTE: Where is Israel today compared to where it was when Netanyahu first became prime minister?

DANIN: What people, especially people internationally, don’t appreciate, I think, is that a big part of Netanyahu’s durability was derived from this sense that he projected to a plurality if not majority of Israeli voters that under his rule, Israel has had a safe pair of hands. Despite the bravado and the tough rhetoric, Netanyahu has not been an adventurist. He’s not someone who was quick to initiate war or employ the use of force. He’s quite judicious and restrained, oftentimes, when it came to areas where others even to his left would have been more hawkish. One need look no further than the kind of informal and tacit arrangements that he has reached over the years with Hamas in Gaza. In many ways, it was very much his right-wing credibility, his right-wing bravado, that allowed him to make the kind of compromises that have allowed for Hamas in Gaza to receive money and supplies via Israel that Netanyahu in the opposition would have criticized.

Secondly, he has overseen the expansion of Israel’s global relationships quite dramatically — Israel’s relationships, especially when it when it comes to Africa, when it comes to South Asia and Asia, Russia, and Eastern Europe, and most notably recently, the Gulf. So there has been this sense in Israel, for a polity that is pretty jaded and disenchanted with politics, of, “We may not like this guy; we may not love this guy; but he doesn’t keep us up at night.”

Over the course of his 12 years, rivals came and went, but there have been no sustained political heavyweights who have managed to emerge to challenge him.

This is either a prelude to Netanyahu’s return or what we’re seeing is a transition to a new era in Israeli politics. By definition, the new government is not designed to and does not offer a vision for Israel other than domestic rebuilding and getting Israel’s house in order. But it’s a prelude to a new era in its politics, and we just don’t know what that is going to look like. But one of the biggest reasons this new government agreement is getting so much attention is that for the first time ever, the Arab parties in Israel are a fully accepted part of the game in a way they had never played before. And that’s unprecedented.

LIVNI: People tend to think that it’s personal about Netanyahu. The situation in which different parties, different political leaders, different people or different parts of Israeli society were against Netanyahu and took to the streets in order to demonstrate, as well, it’s because what happened within Israel, or the trends that he led inside Israel, were basically against Israeli democratic institutions, against the Supreme Court, against enforcement. It’s about what he did. He was delegitimizing — not only delegitimizing political opponents, but also describing them, including myself, as traitors, as those who represent the interests of the Palestinians, according to his words. And within the Israeli society, this was something that led to internal clashes and mistrust. I hope that this political unity will lead to a completely different way of internal discussion within Israel. Yes, it is true, we have different opinions, and there’s a debate. To make the decisions that are needed within Israel there’s a need to have this debate. From my perspective, unity is not just sitting quietly, not opening debate or not speaking about what needs to be done. And there are controversial issues. I hope that this political unity will lead to a completely different way of discussion — by respecting the other, by understanding that we have different opinions [about] where Israel needs to go, but all of us represent the interests of our country the way we see [it]. In the last few years, the debate was more about blame, about delegitimizing the other, and not a full discussion.

GAZETTE: What effect, if any, would Netanyahu being out of power have on the agreements Israel has reached with others in the region in the last few years, the so-called Abraham Accords, and do you see any early indications from Israel’s neighbors or others, including the U.S., that suggests how they may engage with this new leadership?

DANIN: I don’t think it’s going to have a dramatic impact on Israel’s most recent diplomatic openings. The UAE [United Arab Emirates] and Bahrain, and others, made their peace with Israel for geostrategic reasons of self-interest and that’s not going to change because Netanyahu is gone. But I would also add that I think this new government, if it comes into being, will also provide a real opportunity to perhaps change the dynamics in the U.S.-Israel relationship. Israel under Netanyahu really changed the way in which the U.S.-Israel relationship is conducted. Netanyahu, particularly his decision to not only oppose the standing president of the United States, President Obama in 2015, but to come to the United States and speak in the Congress against the standing president of the United States, was quite dramatic. And what it did was it really broke down the traditional bipartisan approach toward Israel in the U.S. It aligned Israel under Netanyahu with the Republican Party, and Netanyahu and Trump were quite closely aligned.

This new government, while headed by a right-wing prime minister, will have an opportunity to try to realign the U.S.-Israel relationship back toward a more bipartisan relationship in which the Israeli government’s alliance is bipartisan and with the United States, not with the Republican Party. Now having that said, we’re seeing changes here in the United States that were manifest last month even in the public discourse regarding Israel. And so, while I would say it’s an opportunity, it’s also going to be a challenge to reconstitute a real bipartisan consensus around support for Israel or in the U.S.-Israel relationship, particularly because, as I said earlier, there’s going to be an Israeli government that is going to be virtually incapable of conducting a coherent policy toward the Palestinians. And that’s going to be very frustrating for us.

I would say, as a former diplomat on the ground, that while the prospects for high-level diplomacy and major diplomatic breakthroughs is limited to nonexistent, opportunities for progress remain. There’s still a lot of room for real, tangible, and material on-the-ground changes that could be brought about with international mediation, and this could improve the relationship and the real-life realities between Israelis and Palestinians. We have to get out of this mindset that it’s either we broker a peace agreement or we can do nothing and watch a continued negative trajectory. I think there’s room for active diplomacy, for active steps on the ground that will not address the first-order questions, but nonetheless will affect the lives of all sides concerned. I’ve been involved in such efforts in the past, and the contribution it made to improving Palestinian and Israeli lives was demonstrable. We tend to lose sight of watching this from afar, but what you see up close is that a lot of the issues that really matter to people on the ground are these daily issues of land use, of movements and access, and all sorts of things that can help Israelis and Palestinians get on with their lives despite the fact that the very real core existential disputes remain. There’s a tremendous number of things that can be done, short of resolving their existential conflict.

Interview has been edited for clarity and length.