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Israel was promised change in 2021. Yet Netanyahu's politics still dominate

The departure of Israel's longtime prime minister was heralded as a new era. So why is everything exactly the same?
An elderly Palestinian watches as an Israeli bulldozer demolishes a home in Jawaya village near Yatta, in area "C," in the southern part of West Bank town of Hebron, on 3 November (AFP)
By Lily Galili in Tel Aviv, Israel

Two recent videos best portray the end of 2021, a milestone that coincides with the first six months of Naftali Bennet's "government of change". Strangely enough, neither of them is of the new government, but rather of the opposition, whose spirit still dominates the political and social scene of Israel.

In a recent infamous incident, far-right MP Itamar Ben-Gvir, who was single-handedly propelled to parliament by Benjamin Netanyahu as he unsuccessfully sought to win the election, pulled a gun on a Palestinian citizen of Israel working as a car-park guard, claiming he felt "threatened" by him.

A few days later, Ben-Gvir posted a video of himself on Twitter saying: "Israel has to go back to targeted eliminations, not just in Judea and Samaria [the occupied West Bank], but in Ramla and Lod as well. It's time to take them down."

In other words, an Israeli MP openly encouraged killing Palestinian citizens of Israel in mixed Arab-Jewish cities. Have you heard any public outcry? Any sanctions imposed by the coalition government or at least the left-wing part of it? Neither have we.

Itamar Ben-Gvir: Far-right Israeli MP pulls a gun on two Palestinian security guards
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Before that, Netanyahu, now leader of the opposition, warned the western world that the government that replaced him was attempting to ruin Israeli democracy.

These kinds of statements are common from Israeli opposition politicians – but about Netanyahu himself when he was in power. Indeed, it's unprecedented for Netanyahu, who in office behaved like a one-man machine bent on degrading Israel's democratic institutions, to do so in English, in what seems to be an urgent appeal to western legislators to save Israel from the people who dethroned him.

After all, he is the one who led campaigns against Breaking the Silence, the Israeli NGO dedicated to making public the atrocities performed by Israeli military authorities in the occupied territories.

A common motif of all attacks on Israeli human rights activists was querying why they made statements in English and not just keep it on the domestic level by communicating in Hebrew. Well, that was when Netanyahu was prime minister. Out of office, the rules changed. Or rather, there are no rules.

These two incidents of seemingly little importance certainly do not reflect any promise encapsulated by the title "government of change". They do expose a sad reality: Netanyahu and his proxies still cast a giant shadow. Or, as someone wittily phrased it to Middle East Eye, "the new government is like Bibi's government, just more polite".

A lack of ideology

Truth has to be told: there is in fact little change, other than the absence of the constant background noise generated for years by Netanyahu. This is good news for many exhausted Israelis, but it is certainly not enough.

The trade-off is disappointing to many, yet relatively simple to understand: a government motivated by personal needs and the need to escape its prime minister's corruption trial has been replaced by a government motivated by the political survival of its disjointed factions and the personal ambition of its foreign minister, Yair Lapid, who is set to take the premiership in August 2023. If the government lasts that long, that is.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaks with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid at a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, 5 December (Reuters)
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaks with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid at a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, 5 December (Reuters)

Survival is crucial at this point. Polls show some of the parties in the coalition barely reaching the electoral threshold needed to enter parliament. In a recent poll from Channel 13, the leftist Meretz party gets four seats in the 120-seat parliament (two less than in the last round of elections), the same as Gideon Saar's right-wing "New Hope". Mansour Abbas's Raam gets five, just like the Joint List coalition of Palestinian parties it abandoned. Thirty-six percent of respondents still want Netanyahu back in office; 14 percent are not sure exactly what they want.

These numbers, plus a prime minister who fails to gain personal influence and popular respect, are fertile ground for the abandonment of all ideology. In fact, lack of ideology is the only ideology of this government. It is not "10 degrees to the right of Netanyahu's Likud government" as promised by its right-wing components; neither does it fulfil the promised impact of the left on conduct in office. We are in a kind of ideological deadlock in a region where many decisions are ideology-based.  

Let us have a look at some facts and numbers. House demolitions in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem have always been one of the litmus-paper tests for the left to evaluate the conduct of any ruling government.

House demolitions in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem have always been one of the litmus-paper tests for the left to evaluate the conduct of any ruling government

One day last month tells the tragic story of this atrocity. According to Israeli human rights NGO B'tselem, on 23 November Israel embarked on a huge demolition campaign in the West Bank. Israeli forces "destroyed and confiscated dwellings, tents, livestock enclosures, buildings under construction and even a structure intended for burial," the NGO reported. Twenty-two people, including 15 children, lost their homes in one day. According to the report, the demolitions took place in the Jerusalem area, the south Hebron hills, Ramallah and around Nablus.

House demolition is not only restricted to occupied territories. A month earlier, on 28 October, Israeli authorities demolished the Bedouin village of al-Araqeeb in south Israel's Negev desert, once again. Haya Noah from the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality told Middle East Eye that though they do not yet have the exact figures, a campaign of house demolitions in the Negev is certainly in motion.

This is despite leftists being part of the government and Mansour Abbas's appointment as the chair of the Special Committee on Arab Society Affairs. Abbas attracted attention last week by saying "the State of Israel was born as a Jewish state and the question is how we integrate Arab society into it". But it remains just a statement with no impact on apartheid reality.

In fact, it outraged many in Palestinian society in Israel, and most of the Jews do not believe him anyway. In response, Joint List MP Ahmad Tibi said: "Leadership is about changing reality, not accepting it."

Left-wing vacuum

This "government of change" is not about change. Police brutality has not changed, towards neither Palestinians nor Jews: 122 Arabs have been killed this year in an endless chain of violence within Palestinian society in Israel, with no change so far. Police brutality flourishes, dealing with both Palestinians and unruly Jews. Settler violence flourishes unpunished under the auspices of a government still motivated by one core value: keep Netanyahu out of office.

The main change to be seen is in the response on the centre-left. History has already taught us that right-wing governments are under the scrutiny of the left, which routinely mobilises to at least verbal protests. This new right-left government is a free agent.

The left, whatever "left" still means in Israel, plays a careful game of survival. One can only imagine the left wing's rage when in opposition, had Netanyahu's government declared six Palestinian human rights NGOs "terror groups". But the decision in October was not Likud's, but that of Blue and White Defence Minister Benny Gantz. It is striking that the defence minister can perform such an act with little criticism from his coalition partners.

Lawyers demand evidence for Israeli terrorism claims against Palestinian NGOs
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Most of the fury from the left was not over the terror designation itself, but rather that he had taken the decision without consulting them. The immediate outcome is an open rift between the Zionist left and the non- Zionist left. While in opposition, both could cooperate. Now the Zionist left has become part of the government, the differences surface and the question, "Can there be Zionist left?" is raised again.

Mickey Gitzin, director of the New Israel Fund, the largest donor to progressive causes in Israel and veteran promoter of social justice, is very much aware of the complexity of the situation.

"The notion that we are no longer persecuted is psychologically almost intoxicating," he tells MEE. "But that might be exactly why we don't shout loud enough while we see no change in the way core issues are handled by this government. We are very much aware of the fact that Meretz voters care more about 'yes Bibi/no Bibi' than about 'yes or no occupation'. It feels as if other than a change in style, this government of change is almost a copy of the previous one."

Six months into the "government of change," "change" mostly means more of the same, sometimes worse. For those hoping to protect democracy and human rights, one good piece of news might be that "Bibism" seems to be fading away. On the other hand, since Netanyahu's ghost is the main raison- d’etre of this government, Bibism's absence might bring an end to this so far not particularly successful experiment.

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