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Israel's 'change' government brought down by Palestinian conflict

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid is set to take over as prime minister of the caretaker government
— Jerusalem (AFP)

Israel's unlikely coalition government, the first ever backed by an Arab party, was forged a year ago to oust right-wing premier Benjamin Netanyahu, but ultimately collapsed over the Palestinian conflict.

As a result, Israel looks headed for new elections -- the fifth in three and a half years -- and the threat of widening fissures between the groups that made up the eight-party "change" alliance.

Netanyahu, some observers predict, will battle for a comeback in part by exploiting divisions between the right-wing Jewish and Arab-Israeli groups that had managed to cooperate for 12 months.

Palestinian demonstrators confront Israeli soldiers on June 17, 2022 in the Masafer Yatta area in the Israeli-occupied West Bank that has been at the centre of a protracted legal battle

During that time, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett held together the disparate coalition of hawks, centrists, doves and Arab Islamists, united chiefly in their desire to oust Netanyahu after 12 straight years in power.

Bennett -- who is now due to hand over the top post to Foreign Minister Yair Lapid -- focussed on areas of consensus and sought to avoid the most divisive topics, especially around Israel's occupation of the West Bank.

But it was that flashpoint issue that eventually ended the unlikely coalition which, already weakened by defections, faced a revolt by left-wing and Arab lawmakers.

Former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is hoping for a comeback after incumbent premier Naftali Bennett said his governing coalition will dissolve parliament next week, forcing new elections

The bone of contention was a previously obscure law that allows Jewish settlers in the West Bank to live under Israeli jurisdiction while many Palestinians live under the rules of military occupation.

Arab coalition MPs, from the left-wing Meretz and the Islamist Raam party, refused to re-certify the law, which gives settlers equivalent legal standing to people who live inside Israel's internationally recognised borders.

- 'One big, weak link '-

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett chairs a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, on June 19, 2022

Bennett -- a religious nationalist who once led a settler lobby -- said allowing the measure to lapse by a June 30 deadline would spell security risks and "constitutional chaos".

He instead chose to end the government, thereby delaying a final vote on the issue until after another election.

Political analyst Dahlia Scheindlin said the coalition's collapse proved, once again, that "no government can afford to put aside the Israeli-Palestinian conflict".

She told AFP that Netanyahu, despite his ideological support for extending Israeli law to West Bank settlers, had told his Likud party to vote against its renewal, in order to deliver a fatal blow to Bennett's government.

Israeli security forces stand between Jewish settlers and Palestinians, accompanied by Israeli and foreign activists, each side carrying their flags, east of the occupied West Bank town of Qalqiliya, on May 9 2022

"I think he knew from day one... that there are many things that the coalition could agree on -- and that there is one big, weak link between those parties that he can (use to) wedge it apart, and that is the occupation."

The end came late on Monday, when Bennett and the centrist Lapid, the coalition's chief architect, said efforts to salvage the coalition had been "exhausted".

They said they would back a bill to dissolve parliament. Barring any surprises, such as defections to Netanyahu's camp, this would likely trigger an election that could be held on October 25.

A parliamentary committee has taken the first of several required steps, with a preliminary plenum vote to be held Wednesday.

In keeping with the power-sharing deal, Lapid will serve as prime minister of the caretaker government.

Lapid will welcome US President Joe Biden next month in his first visit to Israel as president.

The US promised to maintain its strong support for Israel ahead of new elections.

"I don't expect political developments in Israel will have implications for what we are seeking to accomplish together with our Israeli partners," State Department spokesman Ned Price said.

Israel hopes Biden's visit will help contain Iran and foster an eventual normalisation of ties with Saudi Arabia.

- 'Unforgivable sin' -

Arab-Israeli Knesset member and head of Israel's conservative Islamic Raam party Mansour Abbas, pictured on November 4, 2021

The political turmoil again throws a spotlight on lawmakers from Israel's Arab minority -- especially Mansour Abbas, head of the Raam party, which won four seats a year ago.

Abbas said he decided to become the first Arab party leader to support an Israeli government in order to improve living conditions for his constituents, including Bedouin in the southern Negev desert.

Netanyahu -- who at one stage had also made overtures to Abbas -- on Monday lashed out at Bennett for leading a government that "depended on terrorist supporters" and which had "abandoned the Jewish character of Israel".

"I will not form a coalition with Mansour Abbas," Netanyahu vowed.

Some commentators have seen Abbas's collaboration with the Bennett alliance as a game-changer that creates more space for Arabs in Israeli politics.

But the lessons are unclear, argued former Netanyahu adviser Aviv Bushinsky.

A right-wing protest in Jerusalem on April 6, 2022, with signs depicting Raam party leader Mansour Abbas besides an image of the leader of the Islamic movement Hamas, Yahya Sinwar

Some voters may say "it was an interesting experiment, with the Arab Israelis in the government, but it cost us too much," Bushinsky said.

Nahum Barnea, a columnist with Yediot Aharonot newspaper, predicted Netanyahu would focus on the issue of Arabs in Israeli politics in a campaign sure to be "brutal, malicious and nauseating".

"Likud will say that bringing an Arab party into the coalition was an unforgivable sin, an act of treason against the homeland."