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This is an audio transcript of the Rachman Review podcast episode: Israel’s new political landscape

Gideon Rachman
Hello and welcome to the Rachman Review. I’m Gideon Rachman, chief foreign affairs commentator of the Financial Times. This week’s edition comes from Jerusalem. I was in Israel for the past week, for my first visit in several years, and there was a great deal to talk about. The conflict with the Palestinians remains bitter and bloody. The latest flare up of fighting in Gaza in May saw at least 260 Palestinians killed after Israeli air strikes, with 13 deaths in Israel, mainly from rockets fired by Hamas. But despite this, Israel is making progress in its diplomatic relations with the Arab world. The country’s recently normalised relations with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, and business ties between Israel and the Gulf are growing fast, and Israel’s also in a new era politically. Benjamin Netanyahu, who was in power from 2009 to 2021, is no longer prime minister. Instead, a new coalition government led by Naftali Bennett’s in power. Bennett himself is a rightwing nationalist who’s always opposed the idea of a Palestinian state. But he leads a coalition that also includes parties on the left of the Israeli political spectrum, such as Labor and Meretz, who’ve always supported a two-state solution. And the coalition also includes Ra’am, an Islamist party. All of these parties needed to come together to secure the parliamentary majority needed to keep Netanyahu out of power. It’s the complex internal politics of Israel that’s the focus of this podcast. My guest is Yohanan Plesner, president of the think-tank the Israeli Democracy Institute. So what does Israel’s new government mean for the direction of the country?

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Gideon Rachman
For more than a decade, the voice of one man has epitomised the State of Israel . . . 

Benjamin Netanyahu voice clip
Now the Jewish People’s odyssey through time has taught us two things. Never give up hope, always remain vigilant. Hope charts the future. Vigilance protected . . . 

Gideon Rachman
That was Benjamin Netanyahu speaking to the United Nations in 2013. In more than a decade in power, he specialised in pugnacious defences of Israel and dark warnings about the threat from Iran. Netanyahu was and is an extremely polarising figure, adored by his political base at home, detested by pro-Palestinian activists around the world and also profoundly mistrusted by his political opponents in Israel. That distrust was only deepened by successive investigations into corruption charges against Netanyahu. Indeed, the trial of the former prime minister was going on during the week that I was in Israel.

Voice clip
What exactly are the charges against him? Bribery, fraud and breach of trust? In short, there are three different cases against him. But what does Netanyahu say? He denies any wrongdoing and says he’s the victim of a politically orchestrated witch hunt by the media and the left to oust him from office.

Benjamin Netanyahu voice clip
It’s unfair . . . 

Gideon Rachman
But even though he’s out of power and on trial, Netanyahu’s still leader of the opposition Likud party and is clearly planning a comeback as prime minister. So I began my conversation with Yohanan Plesner by asking him if he believes that Israel is truly in a post-Netanyahu era.

Yohanan Plesner
We might be in a post-Netanyahu era, and we might be just in a small interim period before a new Netanyahu era. So it’s too early to say with the longest political crisis in the country’s history was about two years since the end of 2018, when the country rolled into an early election and then four consecutive election campaigns until we achieved the decisive outcome that allowed this government to emerge without Mr. Netanyahu.

Gideon Rachman
And it’s not that decisive . . . 

Yohanan Plesner
Exactly . . . 

Gideon Rachman
At the moment, the majority of . . . 

Yohanan Plesner
It’s a very heterogeneous government and with a majority of 61 versus 59 in opposition, the government is not about to disintegrate. But assuming it does and we’re going to a new election, former Prime Minister Netanyahu is still very popular among his own political base, is still extremely ambitious and has a strong interest also to returning to power, not only because of his willingness to affect the trajectory of the state and his sense of personal greatness and so on, but also because his best legal strategy is to become prime minister, appoint the next attorney-general and get a deal or legislate his way out of his criminal court case. So Netanyahu has a very strong interest to remain a strong figure, and therefore it would be too early to write off Mr Netanyahu and to speak about his period at the helm of Israeli politics is past.

Gideon Rachman
Right. And is it fair to say that given this incredibly heterogeneous coalition you mentioned, that the one thing that unites them is that they want to get rid of Netanyahu?

Yohanan Plesner
Yes, Netanyahu is the glue that glues this extremely unprecedented coalition that nobody would have anticipated that such political groups, parties from the Israeli right, three parties that define themselves as rightwing, two parties that define themselves as centrist and two parties from the left and one Islamist party. So I mean, really a coalition of forces from across the political spectrum. And it’s not only that they want Mr Netanyahu out of government. They also understand that their ability to remain relevant. Some political forces that have not been in power for a very long time, like Labor, admit it’s the leftwing parties throughout Netanyahu’s term now actually, it’s the first opportunity in governing and gaining government experience in serving their population and also their support for this coalition among their constituency in Israel’s center left.

Gideon Rachman
But is it enough, this fear of a comeback of Netanyahu, to keep such a heterogeneous coalition together? I mean, they have very different views on security issues, on cultural issues.

Yohanan Plesner
Well, I’m willing to predict, say, one month ahead until, you know, mid-November, when the budget needs to pass once the budget passes. This is the major hurdle that this government needs to cross in order to, I would say, ensure its stability in the upcoming two years. So, yeah, it’s a strong enough interest to bring them together that will allow them to pass the budget. And beyond that, they will start looking forward rather than looking backwards. As long as they look backward, they remember the political crisis. They remember Netanyahu that is looming out there, with the ultra-Orthodox allies ready to kick them out of power. And that brings them together. Once they become more comfortable in their ministerial seats and feel like the government is stabilised, I think some of the inherent fissures and discrepancies and differences within this coalition might begin to emerge.

Gideon Rachman
So now for the moment, he’s in the wings. It’s somebody else. And I think, you know, one of the most interesting aspects of this new government and many is the inclusion of an Arab party for the first time, I think, in an Israeli coalition government.

Yohanan Plesner
Yes, it’s true. And to a, sort of foreign ear, it would sound weird to say, how come it’s the first time? But we have to understand the unique Israeli case, the Israeli-Arab minority, many of of of those who belong to this minority, don’t only see themselves as Israeli citizens, but also part of their identity is Palestinian, and we still have an active conflict going on with the Palestinians. So for some of our Israeli citizens, that active conflict with the Palestinians is a conflict with their cousins or extended family in Gaza or the West Bank, and therefore the Israeli-Arab population did not expect and did not support their politicians to enter any Israeli government, which was considered illegitimate. You should go into parliament, represent us, but don’t join government. And the mirror image was from the side of the majority Jewish population. Well, if those politicians see themselves partially as identifying or belonging to the identity group of an active enemy, we better not rely on them in a coalition government that might have to make decisions of war and peace vis-à-vis Hamas in Gaza, the Palestinian Hamas in Gaza. And so so there’s a real difficulty here for both sides. And that explains why 70 years have gone by without an Israeli-Arab party becoming a formal part of the coalition. Now what changed is the expectations of Israel’s Arab citizens that we’ve been witnessing here ,the Israel Democracy Institute, for years. that they expect their politicians to be a lot more pragmatic. They want results. They want effective outcomes when it comes to economic mobility, economic opportunity, housing development. And they do not want their politicians to deal with, you know, the Palestinian issue, security issues where they anyway have zero influence. So there was a desire of the Palestinian population, and that was coupled with two factors. Number one, a leader that had the courage and leadership by the name of Mansour Abbas, the leader of the Islamic party that actually decided to go for this agenda. And number two, this very complex, unique, unprecedented political crisis in Israel that forced the Jewish majority politicians to seek for support in unchartered terrains.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah, and so that in a way, is a very hopeful sign for Israeli society if the Arab parties begin to play a part in mainstream politics. But on the other hand, you had the most serious violence with Gaza for some years earlier this year. And at the same time, riots among Israeli Arabs angered by what was happening there, which others saw as a very sinister sign for Israeli society, that this was the first time this has happened. So how do you balance those two things?

Yohanan Plesner
Both of these things you said, they’re right, and the second provides the rationale for the first. So there is a serious underlying challenge both of creating opportunity, economic mobility and much frustration and serious economic challenges within our Arab minority. And they were manifested in the riots back in May. On the other hand, there’s an expectation for change and this new experiment of a normalised politics, where one of the parties that represents the Arab minorities, takes part in the government, takes part in coalition politics, takes part in decisions of allocating national resources, is an experiment of let’s try to do something different about this fissure, this disparity in Israeli society. And as we speak in these days, the government is about to make a historic decision of massive allocation of shekels, dozens of billions, around 50 billion from a multiyear plan to support welfare and economic development within the Arab minority. So again, the jury’s out and we will be able to say, you know, perhaps in a few years down the line if it worked. But there’s definitely an attempt from both sides to walk on a different path.

Gideon Rachman
OK, and the second one is, in the demographic context, I mean, it is the case, isn’t it, that the two communities that are growing fastest within the overall Israeli population are the Arab minority and the ultra-Orthodox, are not together. I think they may be 50 per cent of the rising generation of the kids in school. What are the implications of that for the functioning of Israeli democracy?

Yohanan Plesner
Well, there’s a huge challenge together, they’re a little less than 50 yet, but yeah, but it’s a huge growing demographic vector. Those are two populations the ultra-Orthodox population, very traditional, at least ultra-Orthodox men. Many of them are not part of the workforce that even if they are part of the workforce, do not have sufficient human capital to become productive citizens. So there’s a huge challenge with respect to the integration of the ultra-Orthodox society, a huge challenge with respect to the Arab minority. Both challenges are not only economic, but also have to do with questions of identity for the Arab minority. We spoke about the fact of identification with an active enemy and how do we come to terms with it. And for the ultra-Orthodox, it’s a very religious community with an entirely different set of values that are not necessarily similar to those held by citizens in a democratic country. So in many ways, the trajectory of the Israeli state. You know, we can say he’s doing very well today from a macro economic standpoint, and we know the high tech sector that is doing extremely well. And Israel is a haven for innovation and for growing new multinationals and so on. But the underlying longer term challenge of how we integrate those two societies will determine whether this Israeli economic miracle and role model will continue or will take a different course.

Gideon Rachman
Yohanan, the Israeli Institute for Democracy. I, you know, I’ve just been in the states where I know a lot of people felt that the last election, American democracy itself was something under strain, the storming of the Capitol and so on. Did you feel that the twilight years of Netanyahu were posing some sort of threat actually to Israeli democracy?

Yohanan Plesner
To some extent there, unfortunately, I have to agree with you. Israeli democracy was on the verge of a cliff. Some very dangerous ideas were put forward and were promoted. And if this package of anti-constitutional ideas would have been passed by Mr Netanyahu and his allies, our democratic regime would have been void of many of its democratic characters. The very idea of checks and balances would have been significantly and negatively affected. And in this respect, it wasn’t just a vote about policy preferences. It was a vote about the nature of our democratic regime.

Gideon Rachman
What were those ideas and why was Netanyahu keen on?

Yohanan Plesner
Well, our unique democracy does not have a constitution. It’s a functioning democracy. We’re very proud of it. A very lively, vibrant democracy, very committed to our basic freedoms and our basic rights. But it has some inherent fragilities. Number one, we do not have a constitution, i.e. the very rules of the game are not secured in a special majority or in any other procedure. So a simple majority that every government would have can fundamentally change the entire constitutional make-up of the state and the risks that we saw that it can concentrate all power within the government and the political majority. So the fact that we have no constitution and number two, only one significant institution that otherwise constrains the almost absolute power of a political majority and that one institution is the Supreme Court. So in Israel, we have a strong, independent court and this court was a target for the legislation that Mr Netanyahu wanted to bring forward in a way that would significantly undermine its authority, its independence and would basically politicise it and remove it out of the picture. Now, if this would be the only institution that constrains the otherwise absolute power of the political majority, we would have remained with an absolute power of the political majority. This, perhaps, is democratic in the sense that a majority of Israelis would have elected this government, but not democratic in the deeper sense and the deeper idea of a democracy that you have checks and balances and you secure basic freedoms, and you have a judiciary that ensures those freedoms and so on. So Mr Netanyahu’s intention or desire to change those fundamental aspects of our democracy was mainly motivated as a result of the fact that he’s been indicted and he wanted to weaken the independent judiciary in the law enforcement institutions that he confronted in court. He wanted to weaken their structural institutional capacity in order to help his personal court case, but that would have been a very dear price in order to save the fate of one individual.

Gideon Rachman
And do you think he was also in some sense, ideologically quite close to some of the other sort of strongman leaders around the world? I mean, obviously to Trump, who, you know, had his own accusations to Modi in India, maybe a bit to some of the eastern Europeans or Bannon, or was that pushing it too far?

Yohanan Plesner
Well, Mr Netanyahu, we have a long experience with him as a leader. He became prime minister in the mid-nineties and began to serve again in 2009. Mr Netanyahu was a staunch Democrat and believed in a strong liberal democratic Israel. Throughout his terms until the last few years, he protected the independence of the courts. He never helped promote any of those anti-democratic measures. So Netanyahu, in the last few years, especially after his interrogations and later on his indictment, was a different kind of politician. And I would think that this is the main explanation for the change in his attitude. It’s true that what happened in Israel, similarly to other parts of the world, is a trend of personalisation of our politics. So politics became more about the persona rather than the party or the idea. And Netanyahu became a master of using the social networks and building his popularity and within his own political base. So in this sense, what happened to our democracy is similar to what’s happening throughout the democratic world.

Gideon Rachman
That was Yohanan Plesner in Jerusalem, ending this edition of the Rachman Review. Thanks for joining me. I hope you’ll be able to join me again next week when I’ll be back in London.

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