It took four attempts to put together an Israeli government, but in the end an Israeli governing coalition was formed that did not involve Benjamin Netanyahu. He had been prime minister for an uninterrupted 12-year period after serving a previous stint in the 1990s. Domestically and internationally, the Netanyahu name was essentially synonymous with the role of an Israeli premier. Despite numerous challenges and scandals, he survived at the top of Israeli politics longer than anyone before him. This made his ultimate departure hard to believe, even when a new government was sworn in.
Netanyahu’s domination of the political scene reinforced—and simultaneously benefited from—an overall rightward shift in Israeli politics. Even in the election that led to his ouster in March 2021, a greater number of Knesset seats were held by right-wing parties than ever before. But enough parties across the spectrum agreed they needed to oust him more than anything else, a fact that unified a coalition of parties that normally would not work together.
The largest vote getter after Likud, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid Party, was handed the mandate to assemble a government. Joining it was the far-right Yamina Party led by Naftali Bennett, who would become prime minister. The far-right nationalist Avigdor Lieberman also joined with his Yisrael Beiteinu Party, and so did the Blue and White slate led by the former military chief of staff, Benjamin Gantz. Former Likudnik Gideon Saar brought in his New Hope Party. Others like Labor and Meretz also enlisted. For the first time, a Palestinian Arab party joined the government when Mansour Abbas’s United Arab List (Ra’am Party) partnered with the coalition as well. Spanning the ideological gamut from far-right nationalists to parties more traditionally associated with the “peace camp,” this Israeli government coalesced around one goal above all else: to remove Netanyahu.
Spanning the ideological gamut from far-right nationalists to parties more traditionally associated with the “peace camp,” this Israeli government coalesced around one goal above all else: to remove Netanyahu.
With its raison d’être gone the day the government was sworn in, however, various challenges to the coalition’s stability began to arise. How it navigates these challenges will determine its ability to survive.
The budget. The first major test for the Bennett-led coalition was passing a budget by November 14, 2021. Failure to do so would have meant the government’s collapse and the need for a new election. Adding to the challenge, a new budget for the state had not been passed for three years prior, due to the political instability and repeated elections. Since every budget is a reflection of a government’s priorities, an ideologically diverse coalition would be expected to have trouble passing one. To be sure, in the years of repeated elections and failed governments that characterized the last years of Netanyahu’s premiership, he relied on the fact that any alternate coalition would have to bring together normally discordant parties, making budget passing virtually impossible. But the coalition that replaced Netanyahu was indeed able to shepherd one through the Knesset, not only for 2021 but also for 2022, passing its first major test for survival.
With an approved budget, the coalition could not be dissolved from the outside; now, only internal threats remain. When the government was confirmed, it was by a vote of 60-59 with one abstention. This razor thin margin underscores the true precariousness of the coalition’s viability. It would take the defection of just one party to produce another round of political chaos, and several issues could force one or more parties to split.
Religious matters. The religious/secular divide in Israeli politics has often been a source of political controversy. How much money goes to religious schools? Why are ultra-orthodox Jews not compelled to enroll in military service, like everyone else? How much authority does the religious establishment have over culture? In recent years, one issue has repeatedly caused a stir and touched on a divide not just inside Israel but between Israel and Jews outside, particularly in the United States: the question of equitable prayer access at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Orthodox and reform Jews take different views regarding who should be permitted to pray there and this has led to conflict, protests, and negotiations over the years. It touches on the relationship between American and Israeli Jews precisely because most of the former are not Orthodox; to them, lack of access to the prayer site impacts their overall connection to Israel.
Orthodox and reform Jews take different views regarding who should be permitted to pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem and this has led to conflict, protests, and negotiations over the years.
An agreement around equitable access negotiated in 2016 was frozen by Netanyahu, who often relied on religious nationalist partners in his coalition, including the major orthodox parties. But with the Bennett-Lapid government, a coalition was formed that, for the first time in years, did not include any of these parties. It seemed that politically, the conditions were set to allow the agreement to be unfrozen and implemented by the government. Recently, however, Bennett conceded that his government would not be able to follow through. This will likely lead to greater tension within the government among the parties arrayed on different sides on this issue. Bennett’s and Saar’s parties seem to be most opposed, perhaps because they do not want to alienate orthodox parties that may sit in a future coalition with them. But for the parties that are more secular or have greater affinity with the American Jewish community and support egalitarian prayer, the failure to implement this agreement will not sit well.
Settlements. Naftali Bennett rose in political power relying on the votes of religious nationalists in Israeli settlements who are determined to expand onto every possible hilltop in the occupied West Bank. Right-wing nationalist Avigdor Lieberman lives in an Israeli settlement. Gideon Saar is committed to settlement expansion. Yair Lapid kicked off his first political campaign in the settlement of Ariel. There is no shortage of politicians in this coalition who do not want to alienate the settlers and wish to placate the Israeli right. But the Meretz and Labor parties have spoken up over certain settlement moves, including the potential legalization of settlement outposts. Considering the fragility of the government, this issue might force greater conflict between the coalition partners.
Palestinian-Arab issues. For the first time ever, a Palestinian Arab party is part of the Israeli governing coalition. Mansour Abbas joined the coalition, breaking with other parties that remained in opposition. His decision came as a shock to many and certainly constituted a significant political risk. Part of the motivation for him and his Ra’am Party to join—and this also was a justification that he could show his constituents—was funding incentives for Palestinian communities in Israel. But as Palestinian citizens of Israel continue to come under attack, Abbas might find it harder to stay in the coalition. Most recently, significant protests in the Naqab, which were repressed by the Israeli police, put Palestinian citizens of Israel back in the spotlight. The contention was sparked by Israeli efforts to further force part of the Palestinian Bedouin community off their land under the guise of “forestation.” Abbas threatened to withhold his party’s votes until the process was halted. A pause seems to be in place as a longer-term negotiation takes place, but this just reflects another point of division that could reemerge at any time.
As Palestinian citizens of Israel continue to come under attack, Ra’am Party’s Mansour Abbas might find it harder to stay in the coalition.
The Netanyahu factor. The last years of Netanyahu’s premiership were rife with scandal and legal investigations into various cases of bribery and corruption. Despite this, he continued to cling onto political life by winning narrow elections, putting together slim coalitions, and benefiting from the inability of his opponents to rally together to oust him. That all changed last year when the numbers finally did not work out in Netanyahu’s favor. Despite winning the most votes, he was unable to piece together a coalition, yielding the mandate to Yair Lapid who had to make Naftali Bennett prime minister to achieve the goal of replacing Netanyahu.
Nevertheless, Netanyahu is the leader of the opposition and continues to lurk in the background. He no longer has the sort of political power that he enjoyed previously, but he is a mere misstep away from recapturing it through an election, should the current coalition falter. Netanyahu can play the role of trying to divide the coalition from the outside; indeed, he has done so frequently by sowing discord between the right-wing members of the coalition and the others. In some ways, Netanyahu’s antics are good for the coalition. He provides a persistent reminder of why they came together and what would follow should their alliance fall apart. The coalition was supposed to bring about new political life in Israel without Netanyahu. What it has achieved, however, is political life without Netanyahu at the center of it—for now. Meanwhile, he sits right of center, a position he knows well, and is neither in power nor totally out of it.
Netanyahu can play the role of trying to divide the coalition from the outside; indeed, he has done so frequently by sowing discord between the right-wing members of the coalition and the others.
This could change if Netanyahu’s legal situation gets resolved. Reports in recent weeks indicated that Netanyahu could potentially have agreed to a plea deal with Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, a former ally, prior to the end of Mandelblit’s term (on January 31). The speculation was that after Mandelblit’s term ended, a new attorney general appointed by a Bennett government would be less lenient. The terms of the reported plea deal included a ban from politics for some seven years.
Mandelblit’s term has ended and no deal has been reached. This does not mean a plea deal is out of the picture, but it perhaps becomes more complicated. There is also a possibility that Netanyahu and the state would opt to resolve the matter through trial. Should a plea deal be reached, however, one that involves Netanyahu’s ban from politics, it would mean a significant shake-up of Israeli politics because the Likud Party would have to acquire new leadership. With Netanyahu out of the way, the current coalition would break up and its right-wing members would likely join forces with a new Likud.
The rotation. Another potential challenge on the horizon is a fixed date on the calendar: August 27, 2023. That is when the rotation agreement between Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid would kick in and the date when Lapid would become prime minister. There is still about a year and a half before that deadline and many other factors could sink the government; but as that date draws near the pressure will grow, especially on the most right-wing elements of the party, to make a move before handing control over to Yair Lapid. The right-wing parties that want to keep open the possibility of a political future in Likud-led coalitions do not want to be responsible for Lapid becoming premier. The coalition might not make it to that date, but it is surely one that is fixed in everyone’s minds—and above all else, the minds of Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid.
A Period of Uncertainty
Will this government make it through a full term? There are many issues that may pull it apart, and any one or more of them could rise with little advance notice to the point of making the coalition come crashing down. None loom larger than Netanyahu, however. So long as he waits in the wings, there is an incentive for coalition members to overlook their differences. On the other hand, should he actually be done with politics for the foreseeable future, then all bets are off.