The pre-war basis for hopes of a unity government was that a possible peace deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia required concessions to the West Bank’s Palestinian Authority that Netanyahu’s current coalition partners would not accept. Possibly, the Saudis would ask Israel to transfer land, autonomy or money to the Palestinian Authority. Or Washington Democrats — disliking Saudi Arabia and favoring peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority — would exact Israeli concessions in return for approving a U.S.-Saudi defense pact. Whoever made the pro-Palestinian demands on Israel, they stood a good chance of refusal by the religious Zionist parties led by ministers Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir. Preferring peace with the Saudis to a right-wing government, Netanyahu — the thought went — would ditch the religious Zionists in favor of liberal parties now in opposition.
This past Friday, a national unity government looked fanciful. The Netanyahu government’s campaign for judicial reform has caused the largest street protests in Israel’s history and drawn unusual hostility from Washington. Israel’s liberal parties haven’t won a national election for two decades and might prefer the wily Netanyahu’s downfall to saving his peace deal with the Saudis. On the other side: However much Smotrich and Ben Gvir want Israel not to reduce its hold on the West Bank (where their supporters mostly live), they might prefer cooperating with smaller concessions to the Palestinians to witnessing greater ones from the opposition.
The bloodiest day in Israel in 50 years has turned what seemed like wishcasting into a real prospect. The four Jewish parties not sitting in government issued a unifying statement: “In days like these there is no opposition and no coalition in Israel.” The party led by Gantz, a former Netanyahu defense minister, declared openness to a new coalition focused on security issues. Similarly, Lapid, whose party has 24 seats (Gantz’s has 12) in the 120-seat Knesset said he would join a “reduced, professional, emergency government” as long as it didn’t include the current one’s “extreme and dysfunctional” members — a reference to Smotrich and Ben Gvir, both of whom vehemently support judicial reform.
The judicial reform push, however justified in its broad intent, has been a political disaster for Netanyahu. Many Israelis, including liberal ones, favor some reforms to Israel’s High Court. The High Court has assumed for itself a power of judicial review (though Israel has no formally ratified constitution), has abolished limits on who can bring lawsuits, and has made itself the court of original jurisdiction for cases challenging government policy decisions. Netanyahu made the mistake of outsourcing the reform effort to two irascible members of his coalition — Simcha Rothman and Yariv Levin — and then, when public dissension got bad enough last spring, pressed pause. One piece of the reform, depriving the High Court of the power to overturn ministerial actions for being “unreasonable,” subsequently passed. Netanyahu recently said reform efforts would continue and then stop with altering the justice selection committee — mostly composed of justices themselves and unelected bar association members — but the government and an important goal incurred serious reputational damage.
Although Netanyahu, Smotrich, and Ben Gvir are all, in a sense, right-wing politicians, differences on substance and tone divide them. While Netanyahu has defended existing Israeli security arrangements in the West Bank and the settlements they protect, he has been reluctant to expand the settlements — a priority for Smotrich and Ben Gvir. Netanyahu favors some kind of judicial reform, but for a decade led the country without it. For their part, Smotrich and Ben Gvir are troublesome allies for Netanyahu, often giving tacit (and sometimes explicit) support to anti-Arab thuggery. Lapid and Gantz do not differ seriously from Netanyahu on the latter’s most important aim — to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. There is no reason to believe either one would be an unreliable partner in a campaign against Hamas, and both are readier than Smotrich and Ben Gvir to make concessions to the Palestinian Authority to secure a Saudi peace deal. Netanyahu might even persuade Gantz and Lapid to consent to a more limited, and more durable, reform of the justice selection committee and the High Court’s powers.
Numerous military risks will be easier for Netanyahu to take if his erstwhile opponents join a new coalition. The prime minister said Saturday evening that Israel will reduce all of Hamas’ bases of operations to “islands of ruin,” and urged Gazan civilians to evacuate. Previous anti-Hamas strikes were largely airborne attempts to degrade Hamas’ missile-launching capabilities while leaving the group intact — this time, Israel may try to destroy Hamas itself. That will take a while, it will almost certainly require a large ground invasion, and it may cost hundreds of Israeli lives. A broad coalition will reduce Netanyahu’s electoral worries should the military campaign go awry or get stuck, since those who would otherwise gain at his expense will share responsibility.
The strategic gains for Netanyahu from a unity government extend beyond who’s in the cabinet. Many Israelis saw the judicial reform as an attempt to specifically disempower liberals. Whatever the merit of that belief, it was strong enough to motivate many Israeli army reservists — including air force pilots — to threaten not to serve. Including liberal leaders in the coalition will help restore to health a crucial part of the Israeli body politic.
Arab participation in the government would be especially valuable, depriving Hamas of its claim to lead a cause of Arabs worldwide. Mansour Abbas, Israel’s most prominent Arab politician, has rebuked Hamas’ call for a general Arab uprising, and specifically urged Arab citizens of Israel to remain peaceful. The attack by Hamas seems to be aimed at thwarting a Saudi-Israeli rapprochement — by provoking the Israelis into an inhumane response, and by encouraging Arab Israelis to rebel against the Israeli government. A deal between Riyadh and Jerusalem would mean that the Arab-Israeli conflict had been abandoned by the most important Arab state. Hamas, whose founding motive was the elimination of Israel, would be left together with Lebanon’s Hezbollah as a ward of Iran, both a pariah state and the most fearsome enemy of the Gulf Arab monarchies.
An Israeli unity government may also relieve some diplomatic headaches for Netanyahu. The Hamas practice of using Palestinian civilians as human shields — including the notorious use of Gaza’s Shifa hospital as a base of operations — makes it impossible for even the most humane army to target militants without also killing civilians. In recent years, whatever support American and European governments offered for Israel’s anti-Hamas campaigns evaporated quickly. It will last longer if the urbane Lapid and former general Gantz are Netanyahu’s partners in executing and publicly defending Israeli strategy.
The final gain for a unity government concerns Iran. Unlike its Hamas proxy, Iran stands an outside chance of destroying Israel — if it acquires a nuclear weapon. Although the Biden administration’s initial efforts to resurrect the Iranian nuclear deal are currently on ice, they may be revived, either by the current president or by a successor. Israel’s clandestine attempts to eliminate the Iranian nuclear program may, in the end, not substitute for an overt attempt to destroy Iranian facilities. An American administration may find it easier to accept — and Netanyahu may more vigorously pursue — an Israeli attack on Iran if Israel’s government includes liberal parties.
The relationship between Washington and its most important Middle East ally has suffered in recent years. The Hamas attack provides the prime minister a chance for a reset. A unity government in Jerusalem, should Netanyahu form one, would strengthen both Israeli security and its alliance with Washington.