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Israel’s new government is made up of right-wing, left-wing, centrist and Islamist parties that came together in order to oust former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. On one level, the fact that these astonishingly diverse parties set aside their intense differences and formed a coalition is unprecedented. But how will this kind of government work in practice? Can this new government last, let alone succeed in accomplishing its goals, when the parties’ views on many key issues are diametrically opposed?
Take the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for example. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett of the Yamina party opposes a two-state solution. In a 2014 New York Times op-ed, Bennett argued, “For its security, Israel cannot withdraw from more territory and cannot allow for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank. If we were to pull out of the West Bank, the entire country would become a target for terrorists.”
On the other hand, Alternate Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party supports a two-state solution (but opposes any division of Jerusalem). In an interview with Foreign Policy Magazine earlier this year, Lapid explained his rationale this way: “We need two states because a new Palestinian leadership will rise up and come to Israel and demand, not a state—but voting rights… What will we do? Tell them no, and we’re no longer a democracy. Tell them yes, and we’re no longer a Jewish state.” Meanwhile, Monsour Abbas, leader of the Islamist Ra’am party, is a critic of Zionism; Ra’am’s charter refers to Zionism as a “racist, occupying project.”
As the political gridlock and multiple elections of the past two years has shown, in Israel, there’s no guarantee that any coalition will survive a full four-year term. This coalition was approved by a razor-thin majority of 60-59 votes in the Knesset, making it even more fragile than others. Tablet senior writer Yair Rosenberg wrote, “Between its numbers and its incoherent mix of internal ideologies, it’s easy to see how this government could fall apart under the weight of its own contradictions. At the same time… Netanyahu himself managed to hold power for years with a 61-seat coalition, which means it’s entirely possible for his opponents to do the same.”
What is a “team of rivals”?
This isn’t the first time that an unlikely group of politicians with clashing ideologies came together to form a government — and stayed together. In her 2005 book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin showcases the remarkable prowess of President Abraham Lincoln in keeping his cabinet of rivals together and leading them toward an ultimate political and moral victory. On May 18, 1860, Lincoln won the Republican presidential nomination, beating New York senator William H. Seward, Ohio governor Salmon P. Chase, and Missouri’s distinguished elder statesman Edward Bates, all prominent national politicians at the time.
Then, after he won the 1860 presidential election, Lincoln took the surprising step of appointing these three men to his cabinet. Goodwin writes that each one of them was “better known, better educated, and more experienced in public life than Lincoln.” When asked why he had made these appointments, Lincoln replied succinctly: “We need the strongest men of the party in the Cabinet. We needed to hold our own people together. I had looked the party over and concluded that these were the very strongest men. Then I had no right to deprive the country of their services.”
Ultimately, Goodwin writes, “the powerful competitors who had originally disdained Lincoln became colleagues who helped him steer the country through its darkest days.” How did Lincoln turn adversaries into friends and keep his Cabinet of rivals intact? Goodwin believes that Lincoln’s extraordinary personal and emotional qualities “enabled him to form friendships with men who had previously opposed him; to repair injured feelings that, left untended, might have escalated into permanent hostility; to assume responsibility for the failures of subordinates; to share credit with ease; and to learn from mistakes.”
In an interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, Goodwin further argued that Lincoln’s ability to keep this keep of unwieldy group of politicians together ultimately preserved the entire nation: “As long as he could keep that coalition together by keeping these people inside the tent, he was actually keeping those strands in the country together as well.” She extrapolated the following leadership lesson from her study of Lincoln: “In the hands of a truly great politician, the qualities we generally associate with decency and morality — kindness, sensitivity, compassion, honesty, and empathy — can also be impressive political resources.”
Bennett echoed Goodwin’s idea of Lincoln’s “team of rivals” in his speech before he was sworn in as prime minister: “The government that will be formed represents many of Israel’s citizens: from Ofra to Tel Aviv, from Rahat to Kiryat Shmona. Precisely here lies the opportunity. Our principle is: We will sit together, and we will forge forward on that which we agree — and there is much we agree on, like transportation and education — and what separates us, we will leave to the side.”
Can Israel’s new government last?
In his speech, Bennett also underscored his coalition’s diversity as a critical Jewish value, and warned against “hatred and infighting” in Israel. “Twice in history, we have lost our national home precisely because the leaders of the generation were not able to sit with one and another and compromise,” the new prime minister said. “Each was right, yet with all their being right, they burnt the house down on top of us. I am proud of the ability to sit together with people with very different views from my own.”
Similarly, Lapid pledged that “This government will work to serve all the citizens of Israel including those who aren’t members of it, will respect those who oppose it, and do everything in its power to unite all parts of Israeli society.”
David Suissa, editor-in-chief of The Jewish Journal, argued that the many parties were unified not just by their shared desire to replace Netanyahu, but also by their common values of unity and decency. “No matter how many ugly insults they got from the other side, no matter how difficult it became to bring together so many disparate parties, [Lapid and Bennett] maintained their decency while seeking unity,” Suissa wrote.
Of course, the new government would also not have happened without Yair Lapid’s impressive political moves — like offering to let Bennett go first in the rotation for prime minister and promising more economic aid for Arab communities in exchange for the Ra’am party’s participation. Yair Rosenberg highlighted Lapid’s political shrewdness: “It was Lapid who succeeded where others had failed and personally persuaded the disparate anti-Bibi factions to unite under one banner. And it was Lapid who spent these past two years building relationships with Israel’s Arab parties, resulting in the first-ever independent Arab party… joining his coalition.”
Diverse perspectives from Israelis
While Bennett and Lapid maintained that their coalition could stay together because of their shared values, many in the opposition — including former prime minister and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu — challenged the new government’s legitimacy and vowed to bring it to an end.
At the new government’s first cabinet meeting, Bennett said the following to the new ministers: “The key to our success is trust, mutual trust. The way to increase trust is that when there are misunderstandings, simply pick up the phone and call each other, and resolve things quietly, without drama.” The new prime minister added: “Now is the time for unity, and unity is in itself a critical goal.”
Meanwhile, Netanyahu warned that he would “fight daily against this terrible, dangerous left-wing government in order to topple it,” adding, “With God’s help, it will happen a lot earlier than you think it will.” Similarly, Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the Religious Zionist Party, said, “We need to overthrow this evil government and establish a good Zionist government for Israel in its place” — and that only “the right-wing government of the national camp” could do that.
In an interview on the American Jewish Committee’s “People of the Pod” podcast, Lahav Harkov, senior contributing editor at The Jerusalem Post, said that the only way for the coalition to survive is by being willing to compromise. “If the extremes on either end insist on their position, then there’s not going to be a coalition,” Harkov said. “So, we’re not going to have the Meretz [party’s] vision of withdrawing all territory Israel entered in June 1967, and we’re not going to have Naftali Bennett’s vision of extending Israeli sovereignty to all of the Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria.”
Harkov added that the government’s longevity also depends on how well it can defend itself against Netanyahu’s efforts to bring it down. “If Netanyahu causes the right to really turn on Bennett and Saar… if the pressure gets to be too much, then that could bring down the government,” she said. “On the other hand, if they are able to withstand the pressure, then Netanyahu might not want to stay opposition leader… and he might move on.”
Meanwhile, author Yossi Klein Halevi argued in a Times of Israel op-ed that the odds that the new government will last “aren’t brilliant.” Nevertheless, Klein Halevi maintained that “even if [this coalition] doesn’t survive its term, it has already won.”
“After years of officially inspired campaigns of hatred and divisiveness, contrived to serve one man’s political needs, we have the most diverse government in the country’s history,” he wrote. “If the new coalition achieves nothing more than offering a counter-vision of an Israel that strives to respect and manage its essential differences and place the country above sectarian needs — dayenu.”
Why our words and disagreements matter
Bennett and Lapid’s calls for unity and decency come amid a rise in intense rhetoric against Israel’s new government. Earlier this month, the Shin Bet (Israel’s Security Agency) issued a statement warning that the “violent and inciting discourse” could potentially become lethal, adding that “The responsibility for restoring a calmer atmosphere… rests on all our shoulders.” Many in Israel have recalled the climate of 1994, in which public rage against Yitzhak Rabin following the Oslo Accords led to his assassination.
In a recent conversation with Noam Weissman, Dan Sacker — who served as chief of staff of the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks zt’l — recounted a letter Rabbi Sacks wrote to Rabin, expressing his concern over the tense atmosphere in Israel at the time. “In recent weeks [we’ve seen] rising tensions between Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews, and between those on the left of the political spectrum and those on the right,” Sacker said. “I think there are certain similarities in terms of the atmosphere — certainly some of the threats that have been made to MKs — that are very reminiscent of what was going on back then.”
This situation is a reminder that our words have consequences. For thousands of years, Jewish wisdom has taught us that our words can be as hurtful — or as helpful — as our actions. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “Words create the world in which we live. It’s up to us to decide what that world will look like.” The intense rhetoric is also a reminder that not all disagreements are alike. The Talmud teaches that a healthy disagreement involves honoring the other side, employing humility and showing respect for the other. It’s about the pursuit of truth, which demands engaging with and learning from the other side. Rabbi Sacks wisely said, “In an argument for the sake of truth, both sides win, for each is willing to listen to the views of its opponents.”
The bottom line
When disagreements get heated, it’s time to try a different way to communicate. The current atmosphere in Israel shows that it’s most important to lower the temperature when it is hardest to lower the temperature. The way we speak to one another matters, and how we disagree with one another matters. These lessons are critical not just for all of us, but for this new coalition’s ability to function as well. To succeed as a true “team of rivals” rather than a cacophonous group of diverse parties, the new government will need to speak to one another in a spirit of decency and mutual respect, and find ways to work together despite their differences. If they can do that, they will have a chance not just of enduring as a government, but of resetting the tone in Israel as well.
Originally Published Jun 29 2021 10:45AM EDT