The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Will Israel Ever Move Past the Netanyahu Era?

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister and the leader of the Likud party, speaks at the Knesset in Jerusalem, Israel, on Sunday, June 13, 2021. Netanyahu’s record-setting run as Israeli leader approached a precipice Sunday as lawmakers prepared to approve or reject the opposition’s proposed government, a coalition that runs the gamut of Israeli politics but united in the desire to oust him and end more than two years of political turmoil.
Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister and the leader of the Likud party, speaks at the Knesset in Jerusalem, Israel, on Sunday, June 13, 2021. Netanyahu’s record-setting run as Israeli leader approached a precipice Sunday as lawmakers prepared to approve or reject the opposition’s proposed government, a coalition that runs the gamut of Israeli politics but united in the desire to oust him and end more than two years of political turmoil. (Bloomberg)
Placeholder while article actions load

The government of Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett experienced its first (and very possible final) coalition crisis. A relatively obscure coalition member, Idit Silman, announced that she was leaving the coalition, setting up a tied Knesset.

In some ways it’s a surprise that Bennett’s government lasted this long. His coalition margin (61-59) was improbably narrow, and his reliance on a multi-party coalition of rivals made it too fragile to survive. The triviality of the issue that brought it down was also predictable. Silman resigned over a disagreement about kosher food enforcement by government hospitals during the passover holiday. This will seem strange to foreigners, but Israelis know that wobbly coalitions have often fallen on kosher and/or sabbath observance controversies that stand in for weightier matters. In this case, the underlying issue is the return of Benjamin Netanyahu to the prime minister’s office.

Bennett has done a good job running his coalition of rivals and gave Israelis a sense at what a more centrist government could look like. But he hasn’t been a particularly popular prime minister. Inexperience was one problem. He was not always good at articulating his policies to the public. And, crucially, he suffered from political blindness: He took his eye off Netanyahu.

On Wednesday, Bibi called on additional members of the ruling coalition to defect and form a new government with him at the head. There is a fair chance this will happen. It’s not only right wingers in Bennett’s anti-Bibi coalition might be tempted. Ambitious and frustrated centrists (Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s name comes up most often) who could give a new Likud government a wider public base may also wish to join.

If no one else defects, a 60-60 split will paralyze the Knesset (unlike in the U.S. Congress, there is no tie breaking vote). That would almost certainly lead to a new election in the summer, the fifth in the past four years. Netanyahu will be the candidate of Likud; polls show him by far the most popular party leader. He faces three indictments on criminal charges of fraud and corruption which rumble on. But those indictments are not looking as solid as the prosecution thought, and even if he is convicted, he could appeal, dragging out the process while staying in office.

If there is an election, Bennett would probably defer to Foreign Minister Yair Lapid. Lapid leads the biggest faction in the current coalition government and he is seen as a successful foreign minister. Lapid would probably receive the support of Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Minister of Justice Gideon Sa’ar, both of whom are right-wingers but opponents of Netanyahu. But even if every one of the small parties that make up the current coalition hang together, their list is not likely to win outright victory in a new election. 

A new, narrowly elected Netanyahu government would revert to the well-worn themes of previous administrations. Bibi supports the Trump peace plan for the West Bank, which would leave Israel in strategic control of borders and limit Palestinian sovereignty to a disarmed mini-state. That will not be much of a change. At the moment there is no peace process to speak of, and the Bennett coalition is committed to not making waves. Netanyahu, however, will presumably attempt to revive U.S. support for unilateral Israeli measures.

Netanyahu would also raise the temperature of Israel’s disagreement with the U.S. over Biden’s Iran policy. He won’t get along well with the current U.S. foreign policy team, or the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. But Republicans will be happy to see him back. There will be pressure on him to embrace Trump, whom he has called Israel’s best friend, though Netanyahu may well prefer former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo or even Trump’s former Vice President Mike Pence, all of whom remain high on his list of preferred presidents. 

Netanyahu has been relatively quiet on Ukraine, which would put him at odds with the current administration and key parts of the U.S. Republican Party. In the past he has seen Putin as a partner in fighting Iranian influence in Syria and in the effort to keep Iran from supplying Hezbollah and Hamas with cash and weapons. That is similar to Bennett’s policy, though it is hard to imagine Bibi trying to mediate the conflict or allowing his foreign minister to call Putin a war criminal, as Lapid is now doing. For now, the balance in the Knesset is still in flux. Israel’s government is now paralyzed on all but the most pressing security issues.

Everything else, from legislation to immigration, to tackling an acute housing shortage to recasting Israel’s foreign alliances in a changing world order, will be on hold.

The Bennett government made some small steps toward introducing a more secular, centrist and calmer political climate. It also showed that there is life after Bibi. But 10 months in office (or even a few months more, if there is an election) have been too short for fundamental change to how the government functions, plans for the future or speaks to the public and the rest of the world. That is a shame. Israel, after more than a decade under Bibi, needed a change. This one, it appears, will be brief.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Zev Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books. He was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine.

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion

©2022 Bloomberg L.P.

Loading...