ANALYSISIsrael’s ‘change’ government promised political stability, but that didn’t hold: The guide to a fifth election
Israel is headed into its fifth election in three years after Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced Monday night — a year and a week after he took office — that his coalition had finally collapsed and he was dissolving the Knesset.
Bennett’s premiership has been in trouble since he lost his Parliamentary majority in April, though the so-called “change government” that ousted Benjamin Netanyahu after 12 years lasted longer than many analysts predicted.
“I want to calm things down,” Bennett bragged in a conversation with Jewish American leaders last September. “That’s all Israel needs right now in order to grow and thrive — it is some peace and quiet.”
But his government failed to transcend the divided society it inherited. Recent polls showed that a majority of Israelis disapproved of the government’s performance, particularly its alliance with an Arab party, an increase in the cost of living, and a deteriorating security situation.
Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, said the government’s collapse “is a clear indication that Israel’s worst political crisis did not end when this government was sworn into office, but rather merely receded only to return when this coalition failed to find a way to continue moving forward.”
How Bennett lost control of his government
Bennett, a former settler leader who supports the permanent Israeli annexation of the West Bank, managed to cobble together an astoundingly diverse coalition that for the first time in Israeli history includes the participation of an Arab party. At the outset, its partners agreed not to tackle critical issues, like the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
In November, the government passed a two-year budget, seemingly shoring up its stability. It tackled multiple coronavirus outbreaks without a lockdown and increased funding for Israeli Arab towns.
On the diplomatic front, it restored warm ties with Washington; Yair Lapid, the foreign minister, hosted with the U.S. a historic Mideast peace summit with his counterparts from Arab states and Bennett established himself on the global stage as an arbitrator between Russia and Ukraine. American Jews were also pleased that the government, the first not to include Haredi parties, moved to liberalize religious rules on kashrut, marriage and conversion.
But Bennett had problems in his own backyard, He failed to satisfy members of his Yamina Party as they grumbled about the pressure they faced from their base to expand settlements in the West Bank, and accusations they had abandoned their ideological roots for personal gain.
The first Knesset member who bolted the coalition was Idit Silman, a Yamina member who served as majority whip, ostensibly over a decision by the health minister to allow visitors to bring non-kosher food into hospitals during Passover.
Though Silman’s departure left Bennett and Lapid one vote short of a Knesset majority, she did not vote against the government, allowing it to hold on a bit longer.
Then came the storm. The Islamist Ra’am Partry first suspended its participation in the coalition over clashes on the Temple Mount during Ramadan, and ended it after calm was restored. Another lawmkaer, Michael Biton from the Blue and White party, protested reforms in transportation and key legislation was stalled.
But the final straw came earlier this month, with the failure to extend emergency regulations that has enabled Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank to live under Israeli law for the past few decades. Two Arab members, including one of the left Meretz Party, voted with the opposition against the measure, arguing that it enshrines a two-tiered system, since Palestinians in the same areas are subject to different treatment under military occupation law.
Nir Orbach, a member of Bennett’s party, announced last Monday that his patience was wearing thin, that the so-called “change” experiment had failed, and that he was quitting the coalition, leaving it with only 59 members.
Orbach refused to commit to bringing down the government by voting in favor of a bill that would dissolve the Knesset, and gave Bennett two weeks to solve the crisis.
Those two weeks would expire June 27. But Bennett, faced with a June 30 deadline on the extension of the rules regarding West Bank settlers, decided to call it quits Monday in hopes of avoiding more chaos. “I refused to harm Israel’s security for even one day,” he said in televised remarks.
He made history as his country’s shortest-serving prime minister. His future is unclear and the media speculated Monday evening that he may choose not to run in the upcoming elections.
Lapid’s dream come true
Bennett had hoped to find a solution that would allow him to remain in the prime minister’s seat at least until President Joe Biden visits Israel next month, but it was not to be. Instead, under a provision of the initial coalition agreement, Lapid becomes interim prime minister until September, when Israelis will return to the polls — again.
Lapid, a centrist who has never been able to muster the votes to form a coalition of his own, thus emerges the big winner of this crisis.
He will welcome Biden at Ben Gurion International Airport on July 13 and host him at the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem. He may choose to travel to New York to address the U.N. General Assembly in September.
As an incumbent, he will also have the upper hand at the ballot box over others appealing for the center-left votes.
But Lapid will be head of a caretaker government without the ability to make major decisions or pass legislation. And recent polls show his party winning 20 of the Knesset’s 120 seats and his suitability for prime minister ranking about 25%.
“A year ago we started the process of rebuilding,” Lapid said on Monday, “and now we’re carrying it on and carrying it on together.”
The comeback kid?
The other potential big winner, of course, is Netanyahu, who hopes to make a last pitch to return to power.
Netanyahu, who is under indictment for corruption, negotiated a possible plea deal in January that would force him to retire from politics. But he has not signed it yet, and polls show he remains popular with his base and still leads by far as the public’s preferred candidate for prime minister, with 46%.
A year ago, on the day Netanyahu’s reign ended, George Birnbaum, a Bennett campaign strategist who was once Netanyahu’s chief of staff, predicted Netanyahu would manage to rebound. “He is sharp, he is energetic, he is passionate,” he said. “Of course he can make a comeback.”
Netanyahu is said to be happy to run against Lapid, who he has dismissed as a leftist, rather than Bennett, a former aide of his who shares his general conservative ideology. He has already been consulting with American political advisers about a campaign theme, and is likely to tone down his election rhetoric to appeal to the center.
But the risk of another loss is clear: If Netanyahu fails to deliver, he will lose the support of many party members and face calls to retire and handle his trial as a citizen with no leverage to negotiate a dream plea deal.
Or, there’s always the possibility of yet another, sixth, round of elections that would only further divide Israeli society and overshadow Israel’s regional growth.