News from June 7 to June 13

PM Benjamin Netanyahu officially replaced by Naftali Bennett, Jewish Democrats criticize Rep. Ilhan Omar, and honorable mentions

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Naftali Bennett and the “change” coalition end Netanyahu’s 12-year run as Prime Minister:

Does Israel have a government yet? Yes!

What happened? As you may recall, the Israeli opposition was working to cobble together an unlikely coalition of parties to form a “change government” and replace Benjamin Netanyahu, the longest-serving Prime Minister in Israeli history. Well, for the first time in 12 years, Israel officially has a new Prime Minister after the new coalition headed by Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid passed a confidence vote in the Knesset by a slim, one-vote margin (60-59). As of yesterday, Israel’s new Prime Minister is Naftali Bennett, but he will rotate the premiership with Yair Lapid in two years. Israel’s two-year cycle of nonstop elections (4!) is finally over (at least for now).

Who is in the new government? For those not familiar with Israel’s parliamentary system of government, the “government” is made up of ministers that are assigned specific portfolios (defense, foreign affairs, energy, etc.). These ministers are not elected by the people; rather, the political parties that make up an incoming coalition negotiate ministerial assignments during coalition negotiations. For a rough comparison, the difference between a minister and a member of the Knesset (MK) is akin to the difference between a cabinet secretary and a senator (again, a rough comparison). Thus, a good way to think of what happened yesterday is that all of the cabinet secretaries (ministers, including the Prime Minister) were confirmed (passed a confidence vote) by the Senate (the Knesset). That’s how the government is formed! 

With that in mind, here are the portfolio assignments (I thought it might be interesting for everyone to see how the positions were distributed):

Yamina (right-wing, nationalist): Prime Minister (Naftali Bennett), Interior (Ayelet Shaked), and Religious Affairs (Matan Kahana)

Yesh Atid (centrist, secular): Alternate Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs (Yair Lapid), Economy (Orna Barbivai), Labor, Social Services and Social Affairs (Meir Cohen), Energy (Karen Elharrar), Intelligence Services (Elazar Stern), Tourism (Yoel Raazvozov), and Social Equity (Meirav Cohen)

Yisrael Beiteinu (right-wing, secular): Finance (Avigdor Lieberman + Hamed Amar) and Negev and Galilee Development (Oded Forer)

Labor (center-left): Transportation (Meirav Michaeli), Public Security (Omer Bar-Lev), and Diaspora Affairs (Nachman Shai) 

New Hope (right-wing): Justice (Gideon Sa’ar), Education (Yifat Shasha-Biton), Construction (Ze’ev Elkin), and Communications (Yoaz Hendel)

Blue and White (center-right): Defense (Benny Gantz), Aliyah and Integration (Pnina Tamano-Shata), Culture and Sports (Chili Tropper), Science and Technology (Orit Farkash Hacohen)

Meretz (leftist): Health (Nitzan Horowitz), Environmental Protection (Tamar Zandberg), and Regional Cooperation (Essawi Frej) 

Ra’am (Islamist): It’s unclear, but they may receive a deputy ministry in the Prime Minister’s office

The leaders of the new government. From left: Mansour Abbas (Ra’am), Merav Michaeli (Labor), Benny Gantz (Blue and White), Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid), Naftali Bennett (Yamina), Gideon Sa’ar (New Hope), Avigdor Liberman (Yisrael Beiteinu), Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz). Source: Yair Lapid.

Is the new government historic? Yes! Of the 27 ministerial positions, nine are now held by women, the most of any government in Israeli history. A record number of women also now sit on the smaller security cabinet. This government will also be the first in Israeli history to feature an independent Arab party (Ra’am). Also, a result of Knesset reshuffling following ministerial appointments, the new Knesset will even feature a deaf member. 

What will be the ideology of the new government? I wrote a lot about this in previous weeks and I don’t want to be repetitive, so feel free to check out those newsletters

Who are Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid? As with the last question, I have written about this quite a bit over the past couple of weeks, so I’ll defer to those newsletters

Is Netanyahu retiring from politics? Not in the slightest. In fact, during his speech in the Knesset yesterday, the soon-to-be opposition leader made it very clear that he intends to try to take down the new government and return to his previous post as Prime Minister. In his speech, he said, “I will fight daily against this terrible, dangerous left-wing government in order to topple it. With God’s help, it will happen a lot earlier than you think it will.” 

In his speech, he also aired many grievances with a whole host of politicians, including President Biden, saying, “The new US administration requested that I save our disagreements on the Iran nuclear deal for behind closed doors, and not share them publicly. I told them I won’t act that way.” He then compared the United States’ potential re-entry into the Iran Deal to Franklin Roosevelt’s decision not to bomb Auschwitz. It’s safe to say that Netanyahu very much wants to remain in politics to protect his legacy and return to the global stage he navigated for over a decade. 

Did the transition of power happen peacefully? Yes, but it was certainly chaotic. When soon-to-be Prime Minister Bennett was making his speech before the confidence vote, various members of Likud and the Religious Zionist Party screamed insults at him, accusing him of being a liar and a sell-out. The heckling got so bad that the Knesset speaker removed at least seven members of the Knesset from the plenum. 

Still, there was no January 6-type event. The vote went on as planned. There is even a planned meeting between Netanyahu and Bennett where the former will ceremonially transfer power to the latter. 

What did Prime Minister Bennett say in his speech? Here are a few selections:

“Twice in history, we have lost our national home precisely because the leaders of the generation were not able to sit with one and another and compromise. Each was right, yet with all their being right, they burnt the house down on top of us. I am proud of the ability to sit together with people with very different views from my own. This time, at the decisive moment, we have taken responsibility. We understood that we have to safeguard our home. To continue on in this way – more elections, more hatred, more vitriolic posts on Facebook – is just not an option. Therefore, we stopped the train, a moment before it barreled into the abyss. And I want to thank my friend, Foreign Minister-designate, MK Yair Lapid, who showed national responsibility, political generosity, and without whom we would not be here today.”

“We will open a new page in the relations between the State of Israel and the country’s Arab citizens. The Arab community will be represented in the coalition by Mansour Abbas and his party. This is a process that I must give credit to Prime Minister Netanyahu who held a groundbreaking series of meetings with Mansour Abbas, who reached out a hand. This was the right thing to do. We understand the plight and needs of the Arab society. The fight against crime and violence, the housing crisis, the gaps in education and infrastructure – will be addressed.”

“Last month, we received a reminder that the conflict with the Palestinians is still here. We must remember, and remind the world, that our enemies deny our very existence in the Land of Israel, and that this is not a dispute over territory. We need military strength, civil resilience, and a belief in the justness of our path at times when the conflict raises its head. I hope the ceasefire in the south is maintained. But if Hamas again chooses the path of violence against Israeli civilians, it will encounter a wall of iron.”

“Dear friends, on behalf of us all, I want to thank the President of the United States of America, Joe Biden, for standing alongside Israel during the last operation in Gaza, ‘Guardian of the Walls,’ and for his longstanding commitment to the security of Israel. President Biden said during the operation, ‘Until the region says, unequivocally, they acknowledge the right of Israel to exist as an independent Jewish state, there will be no peace.’ It is important that this message be heard, and internalized, in the Middle East. We greatly appreciate the support of the United States, our greatest friend. My government will make an effort to deepen and nurture relations with our friends in both parties – bipartisan. If there are disputes, we will manage them with fundamental trust, and mutual respect.”

You can read the full speech here:

Prime Minister Bennett talking with President Biden. Source: Israeli Prime Minister’s Office

Anything else? President Biden called Prime Minister Bennett shortly after the latter was sworn in. As some have mentioned, Biden waited about a month to call Netanyahu after his election earlier this year, though the two events are not really comparable (Biden had just been elected, and this time, Bennett had just been appointed). You can read the readout of their call here. There is so much more I want to say about this, but I do not have space. Keep an eye out for future newsletters!

Further reading:

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Rep. Ilhan Omar’s Israel comparison causes rift in the Democratic party:

What happened? Last week, a group of 12 Jewish Democratic lawmakers called on Representative Ilhan Omar to clarify her remarks after she appeared to equate the actions of Israel and the United States to the Taliban and Hamas in a question she asked Secretary of State Antony Blinken during a hearing. Citing a perceived false equivalence in her International Criminal Court-related question, the Jewish lawmakers said that democracies should not be compared to terror organizations. Omar has sparred with Jewish lawmakers in the past; as you may recall, Omar was the center of two controversies in March 2019, when was accused of invoking antisemitic stereotypes about money and dual loyalty in her criticism of Israel.

What exactly did Representative Omar say?

In the video, she asks Secretary of State Antony Blinken the following question: “I know you oppose the [International Criminal Court’s] investigation in both Palestine and Afghanistan. I haven’t seen any evidence in either cases that domestic courts both can and will prosecute alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity and I would emphasize that Israel and Palestine, this includes crimes committed by both the Israeli Security Forces and Hamas. In Afghanistan, it includes crimes committed by the Afghan national government and the Taliban. So, in both of these cases, if domestic courts can’t or won’t pursue justice, and we oppose the ICC, where do we think the victims of these supposed crimes can go for justice and what justice mechanisms do you support for them?

What did the Jewish Democrats say? Here is their statement: “Equating the United States and Israel to Hamas and the Taliban is as offensive as it is misguided. Ignoring the differences between democracies governed by the rule of law and contemptible organizations that engage in terrorism at best discredits one’s intended argument and at worst reflects deep-seated prejudice. The United States and Israel are imperfect and, like all democracies, at times deserving of critique, but false equivalencies give cover to terrorist groups. We urge Congresswoman Omar to clarify her words placing the United States and Israel in the same category as Hamas and the Taliban.

Did she clarify her comparison? In a statement, Omar said, “On Monday, I asked Secretary of State Antony Blinken about ongoing International Criminal Court investigations. To be clear: the conversation was about accountability for specific incidents regarding those ICC cases, not a moral comparison between Hamas and the Taliban and the U.S. and Israel. I was in no way equating terrorist organizations with democratic countries with well-established judicial systems.” 

She also said the following on Twitter: It’s shameful for colleagues who call me when they need my support to now put out a statement asking for “clarification” and not just call. The islamophobic tropes in this statement are offensive. The constant harassment & silencing from the signers of this letter is unbearable. Citing an open case against Israel, US, Hamas & Taliban in the ICC isn’t comparison or from “deeply seated prejudice”. You might try to undermine these investigations or deny justice to their victims but history has thought us that the truth can’t be hidden or silenced forever.”

Now what? Rep. Omar’s statement seems to have placated House Democratic leadership, who said that they “welcome the clarification by Congresswoman Omar that there is no moral equivalency between the US and Israel and Hamas and the Taliban.” However, House Republicans have called on House Democratic leadership to strip Representative Omar of her Foreign Affairs committee assignment. 

Anything else? Interestingly, Jewish Democratic representatives and Republicans are not the only people who are angry about Rep. Omar’s comments. Hamas issued a statement calling her remarks “peculiar” and accusing her of making “an unfair comparison, which contradicts with basic norms of justice and international law.”

Further reading:

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Honorable Mentions:

“A rabbi from Hungary will be the German army’s first rabbi chaplain since the Holocaust” by Cnaan Liphshiz (JTA)

Council race in Queens tests support for Israel in New York politics” by Jacob Kornbluh (Forward)

“White House promises to hire a Jewish liaison after Jewish groups left out of Israel briefing” by Ron Kampeas (JTA)

“Report: Netanyahu took part in effort with US, Saudi Arabia to pressure Jordan”  (Times of Israel)

“For GOP hopefuls, Israel is the new Iowa” by Gabby Deutch and Marc Rod (Jewish Insider)

Young Zionist Jews say they’re fighting antisemitism on social media. What are they accomplishing?” by Ben Sales (JTA)

Brooklyn Jewish community throws weight in Democratic primaries for New York mayor race” by Faygie Holt (JNS)

Shira Haas gives life to a devastating illness in the decorated Israeli film ‘Asia’” by Simi Horwitz (JTA)

Interview with Barack Obama” by Matthew Kassel (Jewish Insider) (Former President Obama answered five of Jewish Insider’s 13 questions)

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