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A Look Into What Israeli Politics Would Be Like Without Netanyahu


Israel is close to having a new prime minister. A coalition of parties is near announcing a government that would not include Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Right-wing, centrist and left-wing parties would combine in a government of national unity, replacing a leader who has endured election after election but is now on trial for corruption charges. The new prime minister would be Naftali Bennett, a former Netanyahu aide.

We've called Yohanan Plesner. He's a former member of Israel's Knesset, or Parliament, and is now president of the Israel Democracy Institute, which works to strengthen Israel as both a Jewish and democratic state. Welcome to the program, sir.

YOHANAN PLESNER: Thanks, Steve, and good morning, and thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: Does it seem to you that Israel's democratic system is working right now?

PLESNER: Well, we've experienced two years of the deepest political crisis and political paralysis in the country's history. And we hope that within a week this crisis will be over and a new government - an unlikely outcome, we should mention - will be sworn in by the Knesset and will get the country back to work, appoint a top professional staff, pass a budget, make decisions and, probably most importantly, lower the internal and domestic rhetoric and the divisive rhetoric that we've been experiencing throughout this crisis.

INSKEEP: What would Naftali Bennett as prime minister stand for, given that he is considered right wing - more right wing than Netanyahu, in fact - but he'd have left-wing parties in his coalition?

PLESNER: Well, it's a coalition, yeah, that has - about two-thirds of it are center-left parties and a third right-wing parties. One of them, Naftali Bennett's, is small party. And Naftali Bennett will be a first among equals. He'll be, of course, a prime minister, but he will govern together with seven other party leaders. And in this respect, their main job in governing will be to constantly try and achieve a consensus. It will be easier for them to do so in the economic arena and basically rebuilding Israel's economy and repositioning it for the post-COVID world.

INSKEEP: I'm feeling like it's going to be harder to achieve consensus on matters involving Palestinians and West Bank settlements. I'm recalling that Bennett has a particular view of the West Bank, essentially that it's all Israel's land and that the Palestinians who live there could be citizens of some other country if they want, but they're not going to be citizens of Israel.

PLESNER: Well, with respect to the West Bank, I think what we're going to see is a continuation of the status quo. And Naftali Bennett is a - he represents a fringe view within this government that has very moderate forces. It's important to mention that Yair Lapid, the leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party, is going to basically share power with him, and they'll have a mutual veto power. And therefore, policy in the defense and diplomatic areas would have to be agreed upon. So at this point in time, given also the situation within the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas in his mid-80s - and there's no potential for any major breakthrough, and therefore we're not going to see any - probably any major changes, not in the direction of a agreed upon peace deal, but not in the other direction as well. No annexation is on the table.

INSKEEP: Is that mutual veto power going to be practical? Are there enough issues on which the various parties agree that they can move forward?

PLESNER: Well, this would be the - a major test. There's one major thing that they agree upon, which is that they want to end Mr. Netanyahu's premiership. Netanyahu intends to remain chairman of the opposition and challenge them and in this respect, provide them a very strong incentive to stick together and to find a common denominator between these elements. And it will be their challenge. There are enough areas that need reform, that need - that require movement forward in government decision-making, including in the constitutional and democratic areas, strengthening our democratic institutions that have undergone a difficult period.

INSKEEP: If I can - just a few seconds remain - can Israel remain democratic if it continues ruling millions of people who don't have equal rights?

PLESNER: Well, of course. Israel is a strong democracy. It's a democracy with challenges. It's not ruling - the West Bank is self-ruled by the Palestinian Authority. The final status has not been agreed upon. On the other hand - and we can end with that, Steve - there is a democratic breakthrough represented in this government that, for the first time, it's based on the support of an Arab-supported party and will very much contribute to the integration of Israel's 2 million Arab citizens with policies of integration, of economic progress. And Naftali Bennett and all the government is completely committed to that.

INSKEEP: OK. Yohanan Plesner of the Israel Democracy Institute, thank you.

PLESNER: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.