If Netanyahu Goes, Israel's New Prime Minister Faces a Big Mess 1

After four election cycles, two years and one man in power since 2009, Israel appears to be on the brink of change. On Wednesday evening, eight wildly ideologically different political parties announced that they would establish a coalition, aligning behind Yair Lapid of the centrist party Yesh Atid (“There Is a Future”) and Naftali Bennett — a former leader of a council of West Bank settlers — of the nationalist party Yamina (“Rightward”) to remove longtime Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But the new government is not yet a reality. The coalition still faces procedural and political hurdles. Ideological differences nearly killed the coalition in the negotiation stage. Mr. Netanyahu reportedly has no plans to resign and has big plans to sabotage his opponents.

Despite all these vulnerabilities, Israel has the first chance in 12 years at a transition of power. And even if the new government has a short life expectancy, it must not settle for limited policies. New leadership means bold vision on the toughest issues in Israel. If it doesn’t provide a substantive vision behind the “anti-Bibi” brand, voters in the next elections, sooner or later, might decide there truly is no alternative.

Three guiding values would lead Israel toward genuine change — not only a break from Netanyahu’s leadership, which Mr. Bennett recently described as being “dictated by personal and political considerations” while “creating a smoke screen of personality worship,” but also a new path for the future. To get there, this government must shun a nationalist, illiberal governing style, re-embrace democratic norms and articulate a policy to end the occupation.

Setting out these values at the start is the new coalition’s most urgent task. The precarious government will struggle against time and tension to carry out policy — at the very least, it needs a vision.

Most immediately, the new government must make a clean break from the divisive rhetoric that Mr. Netanyahu used to poison Israeli society. It won’t be easy. Mr. Bennett, who is designated to serve as the first prime minister in a rotation agreement with Mr. Lapid, and Ayelet Shaked, No. 2 in Mr. Bennett’s party, have been key actors in Israel’s far-right nationalist politics, as was Avigdor Lieberman, another coalition partner.

But when Mr. Bennett announced his intentions to join Mr. Lapid’s government on Sunday, he spoke of unity and friendship, team spirit and compromises. For his part, Mr. Lapid has consistently projected calm and conciliation since receiving the mandate to form a government.

Reconstituting Israeli leadership is not just about words, but also about Israel’s global orientation. Which leaders does Israel cultivate? Mr. Netanyahu courted the world’s authoritarians and ultranationalists, like Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, Viktor Orban of Hungary, Donald Trump and Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan. A “change” government should ally with leaders who favor pragmatism and reason — like Joe Biden, Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron and Jacinda Ardern.

Reversing the illiberal nationalism that thrived under Netanyahu is merely the first step to stanch the bleeding of Israeli democracy. The new government must also embrace democratic values and institutions. But that requires this hodgepodge of ideological bedfellows to actually agree on what those democratic values are.

Israel’s democratic erosion has involved numerous aspects, including the passage of undemocratic legislation such as the nation-state law, a law legitimizing de facto housing discrimination, as well as a law to curtail public calls for boycott and one restricting free speech. Even the right-wing parties in the new government can, and must, refrain from this type of legislation. Ending incitement against Palestinian citizens in Israel, such as Mr. Netanyahu’s 2019 accusations that Arab Knesset members are terror supporters who want to destroy Israel, would be one step toward healing democracy.

More complex for this government will be defending democratic checks and balances, particularly the independence of the Israeli judiciary. The farthest-right coalition leaders — mainly Ms. Shaked and Mr. Bennett — have made attacks on the Israeli judiciary central to their political mission in recent years. Gideon Saar, now slated to be justice minister, has demanded judicial reforms in line with their views.

But Israel’s democracy is ailing not because the judiciary has overstepped its bounds, as the right wing argues. The problem with Israeli democracy is its refusal to define what Israel is: a theocracy, an aspiring democracy or an occupying power. All of which means nothing can be clarified if the government fails to address a third core issue: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israel’s identity and democracy have been ambiguous since the birth of the state. But from 1967, the fog of Israel’s intentions regarding the occupied Palestinian territories became a scourge.

Gershom Gorenberg’s classic book “The Accidental Empire” documents Prime Minister Levi Eshkol’s striking ambiguity about how much he would tolerate, or support, the settlement project at first. (He eventually did.) The country developed a long tradition of obfuscating its ultimate aim for the fate of those territories. Mr. Netanyahu was no different; in 2009 he announced support for a muddled vision for two states, then worked for years against such a solution, ultimately campaigning for West Bank annexation from 2019 to 2020, only to drop the plan when it no longer served him politically. Meanwhile the occupation deepens, Palestinian independence disintegrates, and the consequences accelerate: In March, the International Criminal Court announced it would be investigating Israel and Palestinian militant groups for possible war crimes; foreign and domestic human rights groups have charged the country with apartheid. A fresh conflict exploded just weeks ago, sparking shocking ethnic violence among Israel’s own citizens.

Neither of the first two aims — ending illiberal nationalism, nor strengthening democracy — can happen without a vision of how to end occupation. And there are only two real routes.

One option is to revive the commitment toward a two-state solution — preferably in the updated, more humane form of a two-state confederation based on open borders and cooperation rather than hard ethnic partition. The other is to acknowledge the reality of permanent Israeli control and begin handing out full rights to all people under Israel’s control, equally, by law.

Here the future coalition can easily run aground, with two right-wing parties — Yamina and New Hope — that broadly reject either approach. But these two parties hold just 13 seats out of 61 in the coalition. Yair Lapid heads the largest party in the new government, which he created. He needs to push this new government to set a new course on ending the conflicts.

Without a permanent government, budget or substantive lawmaking on large-scale policy for two years, the country is at a standstill. The escalation with Hamas may flare again. Israel’s election nightmare has been a manifestation of the country’s deepest disagreements. If the new leaders are serious about their promised “change coalition,” they need to start with a vision even if they don’t complete the job.

After all, Moses didn’t enter the promised land either, but at least he showed the way.

Dahlia Scheindlin is a political analyst living in Tel Aviv and a policy fellow at the Century Foundation.

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