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Israel, along with the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, is one of the few countries in the world never to have known a moment of nondemocratic governance. And it is the only country on that list never to have known a moment of peace. In a region where elected governments are as scarce as water, and where armed conflicts are commonplace, Israeli democracy is a miracle.
But Israel's democracy has also been gravely challenged. After succeeding for seven decades in bridging the rifts in Israel’s kaleidoscopic society of secular, religious Zionist and ultra-Orthodox Jews, Western and Eastern Jews, left-wingers and rightists, Palestinian Muslims and Christians, Bedouin and Druze, the system had begun to fray.
In addition to the radicalization and polarization that has plagued democracies throughout the world, including the United States, Israel was riven into opposing camps for and against Benjamin Netanyahu, the nation's longest-serving prime minister, Netanyahu was viewed by many as Israel’s leader par excellence, a master politician, economist, orator and statesman, but by an even greater number as power-hungry, mendacious and corrupt. In four elections in two years, Israeli voters failed to break the logjam between the two camps. The result was a series of short-lived coalitions that could barely pass legislation, much less approve a national budget. Entire sectors of the economy and state bureaucracy were moribund.
The political stalemate threatened to hamstring Israel as it wrestled with the twin crises of COVID-19 and the recent war with Hamas. Though the nation led the world in fully vaccinating its population and achieved many of its military objectives in Gaza, Israelis understood that the cost of both successes was increased by the absence of a fully empowered and functional government. Israel’s inability to defend itself effectively from international criticism of its wartime actions, and to cope with the Arab-Jewish clashes sparked by them, stood as stark proof of the price of its political gridlock.
Yet the very upheavals that have shaken Israeli politics ultimately succeeded in melding seemingly irreconcilable factions. The amalgamation came about, first, with the decision of Mansour Abbas, head of Raam, an Islamic purist party, to break from the Joint Arab List and its perennially oppositional stance and express a willingness to join any Israeli government, right or left, that would pledge greater security, housing and economic development for Israeli Arab communities.
Not since 1977, when the Likud party under Menachem Begin defeated the Labor party that had ruled Israel since its founding in 1948, has an election proved more revolutionary. Suddenly, Israeli Arabs, representing a decisive 21% of the population, were part of the political game and to an unprecedented extent determining its outcome. The power of the ultra-Orthodox parties, formerly the kingmakers with 12% of the electorate, consequently diminished. This enabled the eight parties in the anti-Netanyahu camp to align with Abbas and Raam, and to piece together a coalition without the ultra-Orthodox. By the narrowest possible majority of 60-59 votes (with one abstention) in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, the opposition ousted Netanyahu.
But it did far more than that. Composed of right- and left-wing factions, Jews and Arabs, Israel’s 36th government promises to be its most inclusive. It features the first prime minister, Naftali Bennett, to wear the skullcap of religious Jews; the highest number of women ministers; and an Arab minister, Esawi Frej. Binding them all is not the usual political expediency but a genuine commitment to live up to its claim to be the coalition of change.
“This government will work for all the citizens of Israel,” said secular centrist Yair Lapid, who will replace Bennet as prime minister in two years. “It will do everything to unite Israeli society.”
Will this government last? Most Israelis are doubtful, fully expecting the Likud-led opposition to introduce legislation, for example annexing the West Bank, designed to divide the coalition. Bennett and Lapid are likely to have diverging policies on the peace process as well as domestic issues such as LGBTQ rights. And if Hamas once again fires rockets at Israel, Raam’s Abbas will not countenance an Israeli counterstrike against Gaza.
The chances of this government surviving its full four-year term indeed seem small. But a mere month ago, during the Gaza fighting, it appeared unlikely to emerge at all. Israeli politics are never short of surprises and the longevity of this government might just be another. Whether it perseveres or falls, the new coalition illustrates again the strength and dynamism of Israeli democracy, that rare Middle Eastern miracle.
Michael B. Oren, former ambassador to the United States from Israel and former Knesset member and deputy minister in the prime minister’s office, is the author, most recently, of "To All Who Call in Truth."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.