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Can Naftali Bennett handle Netanyahu's legacy?

Naftali Bennett, Israeli's new prime minister and leader of the Yamina party, speaks during a meeting of the new government at the Knesset in Jerusalem, Israel, on Sunday, June 13, 2021 [Kobi Wolf/Bloomberg via Getty Images]
Naftali Bennett, Israeli's new prime minister and leader of the Yamina party, speaks during a meeting of the new government at the Knesset in Jerusalem, Israel, on Sunday, June 13, 2021 [Kobi Wolf/Bloomberg via Getty Images]

Israel has a new prime minister for the first time since 2009. That's when Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu took office for the second time. It was not easy for him to leave office yesterday, as he faces indictments for fraud and corruption. In his final speech as prime minister in the Knesset, he said he will work tirelessly to undermine the new government. "We will be back soon," he declared defiantly.

The new government is being led for its first two years by Naftali Bennett, the head of the far-right Yamina Party. It is arguably the strangest government in Israeli history. Bennett leads the smallest party in the coalition, with only seven seats in the Knesset. One of his MKs, Amichai Chikli, actually voted against him in the parliamentary vote of confidence. The government coalition includes Yamina, New Hope and Yisrael Beiteinu from the right and far-right; Yesh Atid and Blue and White from the nominal centre; and Labour and Meretz from the left; plus Ra'am, an Arab party with an Islamic background.

READ: 43% of Israelis believe new government will fail

On his Knesset debut as prime minister, Bennett pledged that his government will solve the major problems facing the occupation state of Israel. However, the strong opposition and "negative diversity" of the government are likely to make it very difficult to fulfil his pledges. Moreover, he has inherited a raft of very difficult problems from Netanyahu, some of which were created intentionally to test the new government.

The opposition started even before the government was sworn in, when Netanyahu's people gave the go-ahead for the controversial Flag March tomorrow, Tuesday. Almost all Israeli analysts believe that this was a trap set by Netanyahu for his successor, hoping that the issue will explode in his government's face. Bennett himself recognised this.

If the march goes ahead as planned, it could lead to violence and tension at the very start of Bennett's term of office. If he cancels it, his conservative supporters and allies may disown him and fight against him. The Kahanist MK Itmar Ben Gvir has already attacked him.

During his maiden speech as prime minister, opposition MKs heckled him as a "criminal" and "liar". Three MKs were forced out of the chamber due to the insults. "Your screams make you lose people's confidence," said Bennett over the interruptions.

This was desperate stuff from the head of a party with seven seats addressing the leader of a party with more than 30 seats. "Bennett is like a little boy in the schoolyard surrounded by a very large group of gangsters," said one journalist. "What will he do in this situation? Just shout for help!"

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Then Netanyahu chipped in. "I will fight daily against this terrible, dangerous left-wing government in order to topple it," he roared. Bennett was once Netanyahu's protégé; he knows nothing about politics compared with his former mentor. "With God's help, [toppling Bennett's government] will happen a lot sooner than you think it will."

As far as the new prime minister's plans are concerned, the issues of settlements in the occupied West Bank and the demolition of Arab homes in major Israeli cities, as well as the demolition of Bedouin villages in the Negev and other areas all expose the fact that Bennett and his coalition partners hold very different positions. For example, he is a strong supporter of the demolition of the West Bank village of Khan Al-Ahmar and legalising new settlements and expanding existing communities in the occupied Palestinian territories. His partners in the Labour and Meretz parties, as well as and mainly Yesh Atid, are against this. How is this circle going to be squared?

Israel's new government: nothing is going to change - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Israel's new government: nothing is going to change – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Such issues cannot be ignored, and we can rest assured that Netanyahu will raise them solely to try to get Bennett's coalition to collapse. Any Knesset vote will be extremely close, and Netanyahu will exploit every crack in the coalition that he can identify.

One Ra'am MK, for example, voted against the government yesterday in protest at the demolition of Bedouin villages in the Negev. If he has done so once, then he can easily do so again unless there are some very positive changes in government policy.

Although the Israeli government has a puppet to control the Palestinian Authority, what can it do about the Palestinians in Jerusalem? There are daily attacks by illegal settlers who want to force Palestinians out of their homes. It is an issue which has attracted international attention, and the world will be watching to see how Bennett reacts.

READ: Gantz approves new targets for attack in Gaza

And what about Gaza, which Israel wants to remain unstable in the hope that the Palestinians there will turn away from Hamas. In doing so, however, the Israelis don't want to give the resistance movement another reason for firing rockets into Israel. Moreover, while Israel wants to maintain the siege on the enclave, there is growing international pressure for this to be eased considerably, or lifted altogether. Bennett also has to consider the matter of four Israeli prisoners being held by Hamas.

How will Bennett deal with these issues? "The members of the new coalition government have nothing in common except ousting Netanyahu," explained right-wing Israeli journalist and analyst Baruch Yedid. "When they turn to the real strategies about politics, there will be a big problem. They have no strategies."

The political legacy that Netanyahu has handed over to Bennett includes many major issues that the longest-serving prime minister in Israel's history himself could not resolve. It is highly unlikely, therefore, that his protégé Bennett will be able to do any better.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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