It’s a delicate balancing act, the governing coalition in Israel, and like most balances it doesn’t characteristically rest at equilibrium, with both sides of the scale in an equal position. No, the balance of the government led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett shifts — like most — according to weight, in this case, the weight of political power and of public opinion. The trick in this kind of real-life balancing act is not to let the clear dominance of one side displace too much support from the other, so that they and their ballast slip the scale and the whole construct topples over.
The prime minister’s side, the right-wing Jewish Nationalist side, has dominated the new government’s first set of important decisions, but so far at least, the more liberal wing of this multi-party, multi-ideology, multi-ethnic, multi-religious coalition has licked its wounds and celebrated as achievements some small mitigations of Bennett’s decisions.
Take the decision, taken on the first day the Bennett-led coalition took over, to let right-wing Nationalists stage a provocative march around the Old City of Jerusalem. The “mitigation?” The government re-routed the line of march to keep the Jewish triumphalist trouble-makers out of Jerusalem’s Muslim Quarter.
As expected, and probably as intended, the marchers spewing Israeli racist/religious hatred attracted a counter-show of stick and stone-sized force by offended Palestinians, followed by forceful arrests by Israeli police.
The predictable cycle continued with Palestinians launching incendiary balloons from the Gaza Strip into southern Israel and the Israeli Air Force pounding targets in Gaza officially described as “facilities used by Hamas militants for meetings.”
Compared with the choreography that triggered the vicious 11-day mini-war between Hamas and Israel that caused communal riots in Israel and pulverized much of Gaza just weeks before, this violent song and dance was history repeated not so much as farce, as half-hearted gesture.
“But it could have been worse.” Which may serve as the motto for the non-right-wing parts of the government coalition. The parties led by Foreign Minister Yair Lapid or Defense Minister Benny Gantz, and the Arab Party Raam, led by Mustafa Abbas may not like what the prime minister does, but they can claim to have prevented him from doing worse. How long this philosophy can survive is a central question about the government whose only real unifying concept is — “we’re not Netanyahu.”
Josef Federman has been the Associated Press Bureau Chief in Jerusalem since 2014. He had written about and helped direct coverage of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza in his previous role as Jerusalem news editor.
Federman joined the AP as an editor on the international desk in New York in 1993, transferred to Charleston, West Virginia, the following year and returned to the international desk in 1995.
A native of Westborough, Massachusetts, Federman worked as an editor at The Wall Street Journal from 2000 to 2003 before returning to AP as a correspondent in the Jerusalem bureau. He was named news editor in 2006.
Federman has been a chairman of the local Foreign Press Association, an organization that promotes press freedom and safety in Israel and the Palestinian areas. He also has covered assignments in Rome, the Hague, the United Nations, Washington and Cairo and has appeared on U.S. and Israeli media.