Is Bibi Out? It's far from clear.

But what IS clear is that these three headlines completely miss what's interesting about today's breaking news ...

Yesterday, Israel got a new President (Isaac Herzog — more on whom in a later posting), and, more significantly, may have taken a step towards getting a new Prime Minister. We shall see. While Yair Lapid (on the right, above), who leads the centrist Yesh Atid [“There is a Future”] Party, has informed the (current) President that he can form a coalition, the actual vote on this coalition will probably not take place for twelve days. Bibi will use this time to do everything he can to undermine the fragile agreement. Netanyahu contends that as long as he is Prime Minister, he cannot be convicted in his corruption trial and sent to jail; if he’s out of office, he has no such protection. We should thus expect to see some very scorched earth as he desperately (and perhaps successfully) tries to cling to power.

While the question of who will be Israel’s “next” Prime Minister remains unresolved, what is clear is that some international coverage of what is unfolding here is so myopic as to be essentially wrong. According to the “all the news that’s fit to print” world (see screen shot below), Israel is lurching to the right under the leadership of a new “ultranationalist” leader. The real story is precisely the opposite.

So with a few quick bullet points, a brief illustration of how much more complex — and hopeful — the story really is.

So, we have three headlines that purportedly encapsulate the story (the actual articles are no less misleading). What’s missing here?

  • As Mansour Abbas [not to be confused with the Palestinian Authority’s Mahmoud Abbas] of the Islamist Ra’am party (that’s him on the right in the photo immediately above, signing the agreement with Lapid on the left and Bennett in the middle) noted, this was first time that an Arab party had helped make a coalition. Israeli Arabs are entering the political process as never before. Naftali Bennett is joining with them. Yet he’s an “ultranationalist?”

  • The guy who actually put the coalition together, Yair Lapid, doesn’t make the headlines. What has emerged here, with eight very different parties joining together in what will be a rickety relationship at best, is actually a centrist government. The coalition includes Bennett but also includes Labor and Meretz, Israel’s far-left party. Here’s what really matters: this broad-based coalition, of the sort the American system could never produce at present, reflects the fact that far from the headlines, Israel is a country with a very solid political center. That doesn’t make for interesting news, so few outlets cover it, but when it comes to the health of democracy, that’s the critical fact.

  • The religious stances of the two sort-of-Prime-Ministers-elect are also worth noting. Bennett will be Israel’s first religious, kippah-wearing Prime Minister. That reflects many important shifts in Israeli life, which we’ll address down the road. (The recently published results of the Pew Research Center portrait of Jewish Americans in 2020 show that American Jews are becoming ever more distant from religion; in Israel, the trend is the opposite. The implications of those shifts for relations between the two communities are significant. More on that, too, down the road.)

    As for Lapid, the NYT wrote in one of the articles headlined above that “If the government lasts a whole term, it would then be led between 2023 and 2025 by Yair Lapid, a centrist former television host considered a standard-bearer for secular Israelis.” Not surprisingly, that is also only partially true. Lapid, to my knowledge, will be the first Prime Minister who belongs to a Reform synagogue (Reform in Israel and in the US are quite different, which we’ll cover some other time). A Prime-Minister-elect who’s a member of a Reform synagogue doesn’t fit the “ultra-nationalist” image of a country lurching right — so yup, it gets ignored.

  • During the horrific rioting between Jews and Arabs a few weeks ago (something that those who advocate a one-state solution ought to study very carefully), the popular wisdom was that any deal that depended on Mansour Abbas of Ra’am joining with Naftali Bennett or Gideon Saar (also formerly from the Likud) was dead. Yet here we are. Two takeaways: (1) many Israelis are so determined to unseat Netanyahu that they are willing to put ideology aside to form this coalition, and (2) Israelis are also committed to moving beyond those agonizing days of violence and to repairing the frayed relations between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs. Mansour Abbas joining the coalition (and being joined by right-wing Jewish parties) won’t do that work, but it’s an important symbolic step in that direction,

  • One NYT headline declared that many Palestinians were viewing Israel’s developing political story with “little more than a shrug.” That’s not terribly surprising, since when it comes to the Palestinians, Israelis are fairly united, left and right. There’s no deal with the Palestinians looming anywhere on the horizon, regardless of which parties form the coalition. So the Palestinians (who can tragically only observe democracy at work from afar) shrug. (The PA’s Mahmoud Abbas is in the 17th year of a 4 year term — yes, you read that correctly.) The question that matters, though, is not whether they are shrugging, but why is there no deal looming?

    In an implicit answer to that, another NYT article noted that “The presence of Mr. Bennett at the threshold of power is testament to how Mr. Netanyahu has helped shift the pendulum of Israeli politics firmly to the right.” This, though, ignores the fact that the Palestinians have repeatedly rejected overtures from Israeli leaders like Ehud Olmert on the left and Netanyahu on the right, and that even Barack Obama could not get Mahmoud Abbas to the negotiating table. Israeli politics moved to the right not because of Netanyahu (of whom I am certainly no fan), but because even centrist and left-of-center Israelis have despaired of the Palestinians making a deal.

    The two-state solution is alive and well—in the imaginations of Americans. Closer to home, it’s tragically seen as an idea out of a Disney movie: a sweet and enchanting idea for an ending to the story, utterly unrelated to the world we actually inhabit.

Read the stories headlined above, and you’ll learn of a small, hyper-nationalist country lurching rightward and electing someone even to the right of Bibi. The reality on the ground here is far more complex, more nuanced and infinitely more healthy.

But then again, to report that, you’d actually have to think that the Jews having a state and shaping their own destiny is a good one.

Earlier this week, in “Picture the Protesters,” we wrote about the threat of violence from some on the fringe right. That story hasn’t gone away, and merits continued attention. Since that column, one left-leaning MK fled her home after threats to her baby. In another widely reported incident, a protester against the emerging coalition threatened rivals with “execution.”

In our continuing series of podcasts, available to subscribers to Israel from the Inside, we interviewed Yotam Ben-Hillel, a noted Israeli civil rights lawyer, who explained the complex legal background surrounding the possible evictions in the Sheikh Jarakh neighborhood, a subject which contributed to the passions in the region that finally exploded in violence. We’re making a brief excerpt of the interview publicly available here.

A number of readers asked for a brief explanation of why the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas broke out now; many wanted something concise that they could share with friends, children, grandchildren, etc. So we’ve put together two quick videos, the first video covering the long-term background causes, while the second video covers the more immediate “perfect” storm that led to the fighting. We’ll post the link to the second video in the next day or two.

Other readers have asked for a list of books to read to get a more robust understanding of Israel’s history, culture and politics. We’ll soon be posting a list of “thirty-something books to read about Israel to know what you’re talking about.” They’re just suggestions … you don’t have to read all 30! Or any, for that matter.

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