Why the Israeli government failed but isn’t a failure

Bennett and Lapid’s coalition government will leave a legacy on Arab-Jewish political partnership that should inform future progressive strategies


By Abe Silberstein, The Forward

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid announced on Monday the end of their governing coalition, which had just recently marked its one-year anniversary. Lapid will assume the premiership until the formation of a new government after elections, the fifth in three years.

The possibility of losing a vote of no confidence in the Knesset later this week, combined with the failure to extend emergency regulations that enable Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank to live under Israeli law appeared to be the main impetus for this decision. Once the Knesset dissolves, it will have done so on the initiative of the government, always a better appearance for the incumbent parties heading into an election. The dissolution will also result in an automatic seven-month extension of the West Bank regulations, which were set to expire on July 1.

The short lived Bennett-Lapid government will be justly remembered for two things: removing from power Benjamin Netanyahu, who had become singularly obsessed with using his office to thwart his corruption trial; and being the first Israeli government to include an Arab party, Ra’am, in its coalition.

Yet it would be a mistake to view this government’s accomplishments in such purely negative and symbolic terms. Stopping Netanyahu and showing that Arab-Jewish partnership is possible were certainly important, but the coalition, despite its narrow and often shaky majority, made concrete advances toward building a shared society for Jewish and Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel.

One of the most pressing domestic issues for Arab citizens of Israel has been rampant crime and violence in their communities. While international audiences are used to seeing violent police responses to Arab demonstrations in Jerusalem and other major cities, a very different problem has been taking place elsewhere in the country. The police have neglected Arab cities and towns for years, where gangs and mafias proliferate.

To his credit, Netanyahu started to address the issue near the end of his time in office after illegal guns started seeping out of Arab-majority locales into more Jewish ones. But the current government made an unprecedented investment of NIS 2.5 billion ($725 million) toward making everyday life safer for Arab citizens. In a contrast to the Netanyahu government, these funds were not only directed toward the Israeli police but also aimed at addressing some of the root socioeconomic causes of crime and violence. Just as important as promoting positive measures, government ministers from the center-left have successfully opposed bad ideas from the right, including supporting private Jewish militias in mixed Jewish-Arab cities.

The government also put forward a five-year plan for economic development for Arab communities worth some NIS 30 billion ($8.7 billion). It is unclear how much of this will now be implemented, but its importance should not be trivialized. The government unfortunately did not undertake the politically difficult decisions of completely ending discrimination in town planning and recognition of Bedouin villages that predate the existence of the state, but its budgetary priorities effectively acknowledged these past and present injustices.

Furthermore, Jewish-Arab partnership in the Knesset has not stayed there. Last month, I traveled throughout Israel with my employer, The Abraham Initiatives, and witnessed firsthand how local governments in the Negev and Galilee regions were inspired by the example the national government set. I was especially heartened by the dedication of municipal officials in the mixed city of Acre to implementing a shared learning program for Jewish and Arab students, less than a year after youths participated in horrific intercommunal violence. (Jewish and Arab students in Israel attend separate school systems, which means there is often little meaningful interaction between children of these communities.)

The Bennett-Lapid government was a watershed moment for Arab-Jewish political partnership in Israel. It may not have lasted long, but its existence will not recede from memory. Taboos lose their incapacitating power over our imagination once they have been so openly broken. A non-Zionist Arab party was in government and had a seat at the table. Israel’s first kippah-wearing prime minister relied on the support of the Shura Council of the Southern Islamic Movement.

I am not overly optimistic about the future of Israel and its democracy. Despite the presence of an Arab party in the government, the coalition was committed to a fundamentally rejectionist policy toward ending the occupation and realizing Palestinian national aspirations. Discrimination and violence against Arab citizens of Israel did not disappear — far from it. It is disappointing that while Ra’am was a member of the coalition, its leader Mansour Abbas was not seated in the cabinet. Netanyahu returning to power with the support of the Kahanist and far-right Jewish Power party is a terrifyingly realistic possibility.

But the experience of the last year should inform future progressive strategies. Something different and positive took place this last year, and it would be foolish to pretend as if nothing has changed.