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August 05, 2021

In Israel, a ceasefire and a new government don't mean an end to the bloody status quo

It seemed almost by design: a week after Israel and Hamas signed a ceasefire, and order was restored to the streets of Israel after a wave of interfaith violence, a new government was sworn in, the first one not led by Benjamin Netanyahu since 2009. Naftali Bennett, leader of right-wing Yamina, became Prime Minister along with Yair Lapid, leader of Yesh Atid, who will take over in two years. Both of them lead a patchwork coalition called the ‘Change Coalition’ which includes parties from the hard-right to Ra’am, the first Arab party to be a part of an Israeli government since the Six-Day War.

Upon the confirmation vote, thousands gathered in Rabin Square; some of them jumped into the fountain, a celebratory tradition reserved for election nights and when Israel won the Eurovision. But unlike his predecessors, Bennett didn’t come to the square - those who came didn’t vote for him. The celebration was less about the forming of a new government but about the exit of Benjamin Netanyahu after 12 years. The catharsis was a culmination of two years of anti-Netanyahu protests held in front of the Prime Minister’s residence and on bridges all over the country.

This coalition is first and foremost the creation of Netanyahu: while building a cult of personality around him for the past decade, a counter-movement was created organically by Israeli left and right who simply wanted to see him out - who just wanted a change.

But what change can this ‘Change Coalition’ truly bring?

For its detractors, the new coalition is bound to fail: on the one side, you have Bennett, who was speaker of the Yesha Council - an umbrella organisation of municipal councils of Jewish settlements in the West Bank - and said in a speech that the Palestinian are a “thorn in the butt.” On the other side, there is Ibtisam Mara’ana, the Arab member of the Knesset (MK) who before joining Labor was a member of Da’am, a radical socialist party that called for a one-state. If it’s not obvious enough, what I’m trying to highlight is the fact that the ideological gaps here are irreconcilable.

More so, many of the new ministers were part of Netanyahu’s government over the years and showed outright disdain or apathy to any talks with the Palestinians. As for the Palestinian question, Ra’am chairman Mansour Abbas said, “What hasn’t been resolved in seventy-three years probably won’t be solved in the next four.”

This is Netanyahu’s legacy. Like frogs in a cauldron, Netanyahu slowly lulled Israelis into believing that any change to the current order will be disastrous. The last operation, which saw hundreds of Palestinians killed by airstrikes and scores of Israelis killed by missiles fired by Hamas into the hearts of cities, wasn’t an error - it was a culmination of the Israeli right’s strategy. To prevent the forming of a Palestinian state, it divided the Palestinians, weakening the Palestinian National Authority, a corrupt but viable partner, and instead fueled Hamas with cash that would later be used to buy and create missiles.

Netanyahu created an atmosphere where, for any future leader, ushering significant changes in Israel will be extremely difficult. That’s why so many parties who ran to replace him over the years looked more like a faded, albeit less corrupt replica of Netanyahu than an actual opposing force.

In this sense, it will be a government of vetoes from both sides, focusing on small achievements to civil society instead of ambitious reforms on a national level.

The coalition ran on ousting Netanyahu to root out corruption and extremism and reinstate the political status quo. But in Israel, where the sins of occupation and expulsion are still happening, the status quo is extreme. They may have ousted a corrupt Prime Minister, but the system in place, which was here before Netanyahu, is morally and ethically corrupt. Just in the past couple of years, The Nation-State Bill enshrined Jewish supremacy into law; expulsion of Palestinians from their homes to house settler Jews is approved time and again.

It’s not that the Israelis are inherently right-wing or racist. It’s just that for the past two decades, voices on the left have been delegitimised, attacked, and silenced. Thus, the Israeli public lost its vocabulary to express how it can end the occupation and oppression of Palestinians.

More so, like any corrupt system, it rationalises itself to those benefiting from it. Of course, this system isn’t sustainable. The renewed spotlight on Israel saw a change in international public opinion. Instagram and TikTok users are showing the reality on the ground, exposing this system to the world. The growing criticism, from young people to representatives in the US Congress, is welcome. The walls of blind loyalty to Israel are starting to crack.

However, to those expecting radical change to happen swiftly, disappointment awaits. The occupation, marking its 54th year, isn’t going to go away because both sides simply cannot imagine a different reality. The old guards in Israel and Palestine are still holding on to their seats of power, still relying on some American miracle to either support annexation or pressure Israel to withdraw. For those in Israel, it will take hard work and time - a whole lot of it.

The left needs to stop reminiscing about the Oslo Accords and reimagine a different reality for Israel in the region. The two-state solution isn’t dead; it just requires a reconfiguration. Those who want peace need solidarity from the international community to have the courage to make their voices heard again.

What’s promising in this government is that these challenges reflect Israeli society perfectly. Israel is made up of small sectors all vying for their space and power, but there’s no escaping one another in such a small society. These challenges and increasing international criticism can force members of the government to deal honestly with anything that arises because they won’t have the power to brush it under the rug.

If there’s one comforting thing about this government it’s that it is imperfect and flawed—just like the society it represents.

Etan Nechin is a writer, journalist and editor, originally from Israel. His writing has appeared in Ha’aretz, The New York Times, Huffington Post, The Independent, VICE, The Washington Post, Jewish Currents, Medium, Columbia Journal, Foreign Views and more.

Image: Cole Keister.