Where Change Comes From

3 June 2021

For those who follow the political twists and turns in Israel closely (as I know so many of you do), this past week has been, well, a bit dizzying.

In the immediate wake of the latest eruption of violence between Israel and Hamas, some political tea readers suggested that the prospects for governmental change had dimmed. How could Yair Lapid, Israel’s opposition head and leader of the so-called “change bloc” cobble together the unlikely coalition needed to replace Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the midst of active conflict? Some even suspected Netanyahu of allowing provocative police actions in East Jerusalem to boil over in order to prevent Lapid from assembling a government. Seeing the political space for a change coalition seemingly shrink as Hamas rockets landed in Israel, Avigdor Lieberman, head of the Yisrael Beiteinu Party and a right-wing member of the anti-Netanyahu “change bloc,” quipped that “Machiavelli needs to take private lessons from Netanyahu.”

But trying to predict the future in Israeli politics is often a fool’s errand.

As of this writing, it seems that Yair Lapid — who received the mandate to try and form a government after Netanyahu failed (yet again) to assemble a right wing coalition under his leadership — has succeeded at assembling what is perhaps the strangest coalitions in Israel’s parliamentary history: a Frankenstein’s monster of a unity government, headed not by Lapid, but by the arch-conservative Naftali Bennet, leader of the ultra-nationalist Yamina Party and former chairman of the YESHA settlers’ council. If it is ratified next week by a Knesset vote, the ruling coalition will stretch from the far-right to the left, and include, for the first time in Israeli history, an Arab party.

One might be forgiven from withholding judgement at the prospect that “change,” might characterize a government led by a guy as committed to the settlement project and as hostile to the notion of Palestinian independence as Naftali Bennet. But the prospective government is more than meets the eye.

A so-called change government would mean key ministries controlled by center and left wing parties. And while Labor leaders have served in past permutations of Netanyahu-led coalitions, the last time the social democratic Meretz Party held ministry portfolios was two decades ago, under the last Labor-led government.

As Anshel Pfeffer reported for Haaretz, a change government could mean Esawi Freige, a Palestinian-Israeli MK from the progressive Meretz party might serve as Israel’s regional development minister, a portfolio key to ensuring greater equity in access to budgets for Arab municipalities that would make him the first Palestinian citizen of Israel to hold a cabinet position ever.

A new government could see the Labor Chairwoman, Merav Michaeli, as Israel’s transportation minister and a cabinet member — and her party in control of the key public security ministry, which oversees Israel’s police.

The current minister of public security, we should recall, called recently for Jewish vigilantes to take up arms to protect Jewish property in Lod, adding rhetorical gasoline to a dangerous fire, as a Jewish and Arab mobs wreaked havoc in the streets of Israel’s mixed cities like Lod.

For me, watching neighbors taking up arms against neighbors was not just painful—it was nightmarish. This is the kind of intercommunal violence that tears at the very fabric of a shared society – jeopardizing decades of work to build an equal and just society for Jews and Arabs in Israel.

That’s why NIF is redoubling our efforts investing in a shared society. Because we know that the only democratic future for Israel rests on Arab-Jewish partnership at every level.

At a moment when the gaps between Israelis has never felt wider, we are looking to bridge the divides between Arabs and Jews by investing in initiatives that foster a society and a future that is truly shared. We have developed three primary strategies: First, we’re launching a 1 million shekel fund to support new initiatives to promote and develop a shared society. Second, we are redoubling our investments in the long-term work we have been doing for years to advance a shared society, supporting the intrepid work of our core shared society grantees. And finally, we are ensuring that our emergency rapid response grants program has the capacity to respond effectively and immediately to the critical and urgent needs arising from the current crisis.

The New Israel Fund and our grantees have been on the front lines of that response, defending the idea of equal protection under law – and the rights of Israel’s Palestinian citizens who have been targeted by discrimination, and are caught between both brutal over-policing and systemic neglect by the very same police force.

This past week, NIF joined our partners from Israel’s human rights community in sending an urgent letter to Israel’s attorney general and minister of public security, calling for an end to “Operation Law and Order” — an unlawful and discriminatory policing operation to arrest and hold scores of Palestinian citizens suspected of involvement in riots over the past few weeks. The “operation” — which has been aimed exclusively at alleged Arab rioters, not Jewish ones — was marked by the unwarranted arrest of dozens of Palestinian public figures and political activists, and Israel’s civil society pushed back.

Our vision for Israel is for a country that truly lives up to the founding promise of Israel’s Proclamation of Independence. This will not come about simply because of a change in the political order. The work of defending the rights of Israel’s citizens and of striving to build a more just and equal society is the great task of NIF, our grantees, and Israeli civil society. It will remain so – just as vital, just as urgent – regardless of the composition of the next government.

But the sense that political change — an end to Israel’s political deadlock and dysfunction — could be on the horizon, is a cause for hope.

At the end of the day, no matter who occupies the prime minister’s residence on Balfour Street, those of us committed to building a better, more fair, more equal Israel have our work cut out for us. I know we are up to the task.