A new “change coalition” government for Israel?
Jun 5, 2021 | AIJAC staff
Update from AIJAC
It is now looking very likely that a new “coalition of change” government will be able to take office in Israel within a week or two, ousting long-serving PM Binyamin Netanyahu and hopefully ending more than two years of political deadlock, including four inconclusive elections.
Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party told Israeli President Rivlin on Wednesday that he had succeeded in assembling a coalition with a 61-seat majority to form a government. The ideologically diverse eight-party “coalition of change” will see Naftali Bennett of the right-wing Yamina party initially serve as PM for two years, before being replaced by Lapid. It will also make Israeli political history by including the Arab Israeli Ra’am party as a coalition member, the first such predominantly Arab party to formally serve in an Israeli governing coalition.
However, the new “coalition of change” government has a very narrow and potentially shaky majority, and must still pass a confidence vote in the Knesset to take office, which may take a week to 12 days. During this time incumbent PM Netanyahu and his Likud party will almost certainly try to lure defectors out of its ranks.
On Thursday, AIJAC’s Ahron Shapiro analysed the latest news about this “most ideologically diverse” Israeli government ever, but this Update delves further into how this new governing coalition came about, and what it might look like when and if it takes office.
We lead with a top-notch backgrounder on the new government and how it came to be from the Britain-Israel Communications and Research Centre, BICOM. It looks at the aftermath of the March 23 election, and the complex party negotiations which saw Netanyahu fail to find a majority, Lapid look like he might, then appear to be stymied following the outbreak of the conflict with Hamas, then ultimately pull off a deal at the last minute. It also looks at the principles the new government will follow, what it can and cannot make progress on given its ideological diversity, and its prospects for remaining stable. For all the background you need to understand this dramatic development in Israeli political history, CLICK HERE.
Next up is veteran Israeli commentator Shmuel Rosner, who describes the dramatic symbolism of this new cross-spectrum government – even including an Arab Muslim party – as well as the great difficulty the new coalition will have in working together despite its many differences. He does note that despite media hype to the contrary, there are many things the members of this broad coalition can agree on. He says this coalition that came together for the shared purpose of ousting Netanyahu will have to find a way to shift its focus to those areas of agreement now if it is to survive. For all that he has to say, CLICK HERE.
Finally, American columnist Jonathan Tobin looks at what the world can expect from Naftali Bennett, the man poised to become Israeli PM despite his party now controlling only six seats in the 120 seat Knesset (one of the seven Yamina MKs refused to support the new coalition). He notes that while Bennett – an elite soldier who became a hi-tech millionaire – has long hoped to become PM, he would not have expected to do so by pushing out Netanyahu rather than succeeding him. He notes that Bennett will face serious challenges with this complex new governing coalition, but is generally regarded as genuinely one of Israel’s best and brightest, whether one agrees or disagrees with his right-wing views. For the rest of Tobin’s insightful comments on Bennett, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in…
- The same day Lapid announced he had succeeded in negotiating a new governing coalition, the Knesset elected former Labor party leader Isaac Herzog to replace Israeli President Reuven Rivlin when he leaves office in July. So here is a profile of Herzog – whose father Chaim also served as Israeli president, and whose grandfather, also named Isaac, was a chief rabbi of Israel.
- More comments on the difficult challenges for the “coalition of change” government from David Makovsky of the Washington Institute, former academic turned journalist Yair Rosenberg, and Ben Sales of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- Ahron Shapiro’s analysis of the latest news about this “most ideologically diverse” Israeli government ever, noted above.
- A short AIJAC slideshow on the new Israeli government and its constituent parties.
- An AIJAC short video on the life and views of new selected Israeli President-elect Issac Herzog
- AIJAC media releases welcoming Herzog’s election, and the announcement of the new Israeli government.
- A dissection of how changes to an ABC “Explainer” about the recent Israel-Hamas war highlighted a swathe of problems with media reporting on Gaza.
- Academic and AIJAC research associate Ran Porat revealed the blatant antisemitism spread by one Australian Islamist extremist group during the recent conflict.
- Video of AIJAC’s recent webinar with Palestinian human rights activist Bassem Eid on the subject, “The Palestinian Case Against Hamas.” Plus, here is a short video excerpt of Eid explaining why Hamas is to blame for initiating the recent Israel-Hamas conflict.
The Bennett-Lapid ‘Change Government’
BICOM report, June 3, 2021
A BICOM diagram of how the new government plans to have a 61-seat majority across eight political parties in Israel’s Knesset, or parliament.
On Wednesday evening, 2 June, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid informed President Rivlin that he had succeeded in forming a coalition government, adding that it would “work for all the citizens of Israel, those that voted for it and those that didn’t. It will do everything to unite Israeli society”. Swearing the new government into office, which only requires only a relative majority, will take place within the next 11 days. Yamina’s Naftali Bennett will serve as Prime Minister for the first two years, followed by Lapid.
How did we get here?
The elections for the 24th Knesset which took place on 23 March 2021 gave neither the pro-Netanyahu bloc nor the anti-Netanyahu bloc a clear majority of 61 seats. Following the results, two parties who defined themselves as unaligned were considered to be key to both sides – Naftali Bennett of Yamina (7 seats) and Mansour Abbas of Raam (4 seats).
Bennett emphasised his preference for a right-wing and ultraOrthodox coalition. When Likud sources sent out feelers to Raam to support the government from outside 3 the coalition, that move was opposed by Bezalel Smotrich and his Religious Zionist party. With Saar unwilling to sit with Netanyahu, and Smotrich unwilling to countenance outside support from Raam, the pro-Netanyahu right-wing/ultra-Orthodox coalition could only muster 59 seats.
The anti-Netanyahu bloc led by Lapid was also short of a majority (with the right-wing New Hope refusing to sit with the Joint List). In this context, without bringing Bennett’s Yamina into the coalition, getting to 61 would have been impossible.
Building the ‘Change Coalition’
Bennett and his right-wing party thus turned into a key player for both the pro and anti-Netanyahu coalitions. Throughout the last eight weeks, Bennett has simultaneously negotiated with Lapid and Netanyahu. Lapid understood that in order to bring him over and secure Saar, he needed to degrade his own personal ambition and recognise the right-wing does have a parliamentary majority.
In mid-May the Change Coalition seemed to be off the table. One Yamina MK, Amichai Chikli, announced he would oppose its establishment, which brought Yamina’s strength down to 6 seats. And escalation in Gaza and violence in mixed Jewish-Arab towns in Israel seemingly deterred Bennett from forming a coalition reliant on an Arab party. As of now, a second Yamina MK is still wavering, which could also affect the coalition’s ability to quickly replace the Knesset speaker, unless they receive external support from the other Israeli-Arab faction, the Joint List.
Yet once the violence subsided, Bennett concluded that no right-wing government was mathematically possible. A last-minute offer by Netanyahu for a three-way rotation was rejected by Saar (and not considered in good faith by Yamina). In a speech on Sunday 30 May, Bennett presented the options. “The elections have proven there is no right-wing government under Netanyahu. There’s unity or fifth elections.”
Describing the situation in Israel as “a political crisis that is unprecedented worldwide,” and arguing that Israel had weakened itself and its ability to function, Bennett laid out a choice: “We can go to fifth elections, sixth, 10th. We can take down the country’s walls … until the house falls on our heads. Or we can halt this insanity and take responsibility.” He then announced his intention “to work with all my strength to build a national unity government together with my friend Yair Lapid … to get Israel back on track”.
The structure of the New Government
The ‘Change Coalition’ will be a parity government, with Bennett serving for two years as Prime Minister to be followed by Lapid (who will first serve as Foreign Minister and ‘Alternate Prime Minister’).
Similar to the previous Netanyahu-Gantz rotation agreement, this new government will be based on the principle of inter-bloc parity. It will thus be comprised of two defined blocs with equal voting power: one includingthose ministers with a formal affiliation to Bennett (Yamina and New Hope MKs); the other including the ministers affiliated with Lapid (Yesh Atid, Blue and White, Yisrael Beitenu, Labour and Meretz MKs). Bennett and Lapid each hold veto power over important decisions made by his counterpart. The United Arab List will be part of the coalition, but is not expected to have any ministerial representation.
Principles of the new government
Bennett said that the new government would “focus on what can be done, instead of arguing over what is impossible” and it is thought that it will prioritise policies to restore the economy in the post-Corona era, deal with unemployment, strengthen the education system, and advance infrastructure and transportation projects.
Indeed, the cycle of elections and general dysfunction of the Netanyahu-Gantz unity government has left the country without a budget for over two years and unfilled key civil servant appointments. Moreover, the Coronavirus caused further disruption to the economy and the workforce. At the end of 2020, the country’s national debt stood at 984 billion shekels (approx. £215 billion). While Finance Ministers have generally tried to maintain the deficit at 3 per cent of GDP, it is currently at 11.7 per cent its highest in 35 years, with the expectation it will take at least 5 years to return it to ‘regular’ levels.
While the coalition is yet to formally publish government guidelines, initial (separate) agreements signed between Yesh Atid and Yisrael Beitenu, Meretz and Labour laid out some of the expected priorities in the fields of economy, transportation, health, infrastructure, and personal security. Some of these projects include establishing two new hospitals, in the Negev and Galilee, an airport in Nevatim, and a bullet train; a dramatic increase in the healthcare budget including adding new positions to the healthcare and mental health systems; a Climate Change Law with ambitious targets to reduce carbon emissions and a shift to renewable energy; improving public and shared transport in Israel; adding more jobs in the police force and creating new units to tackle crime in the agricultural sector and Arab community; creating modern, clean transportation solutions and improving the infrastructure for shared and public transport. The coalition agreements also include a commitment to create special units in the police, prosecution and courts to tackle sexual crimes and the implementation of the conclusions of the inter-ministerial committee for the prevention of violence against women and violence within the family.
Religion and State
Despite the political differences between the parties, there is thought to be broad agreement on issues regarding religion and state. Initial coalition agreements between Yesh Atid and other parties stated that understandings had been reached on this issue without going into detail. Reports suggest that an agreement was reached on the government adopting the position of the liberal Orthodox Tzohar rabbinic group on religious matters. These could include ending the state rabbinate’s monopoly on kosher certification and possibly on allowing municipal rabbis to perform conversions. It is possible that government will promote legislation on key issues such as an IDF draft law for ultra-Orthodox, along the recommendations of the Defence Ministry. The government may also insist that religious institution also teach core subjects as a
condition for receiving state funding.
The components of the official guidelines of most governments regarding security are generally vague, and the Bennett-Lapid government will likely follow suit.
The coalitional parties significantly diverge on the future of the Palestinian arena, with New Hope and Yamina championing annexation of parts of the West Bank and Labour and Meretz supporting Israeli withdrawal from the territory. The parties will hope the issue can be frozen in the short to medium term.
Israel’s long-standing Campaign Between the Wars policy of pushing back against Iranian influence in the region will continue. While some parties within the coalition may oppose the American return to the JCPOA, the government will seek to maintain good relations with the Biden Administration. It may even be open to international investment in Gaza.
What next for Netanyahu?
A cartoon in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot mocks Netanyahu for supposedly running out of “tricks and shticks”, while his wife Sara looks on. But it is not yet clear he cannot undercut the new government, either before it takes office or as Opposition Leader afterwards.
If Netanyahu becomes head of the opposition (as is expected) he will seek to embitter the government’s life, which will in turn require unity amongst their ranks in order to survive. Yet Netanyahu himself may have his own challenges: his court case is ongoing and – as he is no longer Prime Minister – he may be forced to attend in person. Opposition within Likud, from those who believe that had he stood down the party would now be in power, may undermine his position. He is expected to face a leadership challenge from Nir Barkat, Israel Katz and Yuli Edelstein.
How long can the government survive?
The government is set to serve for four years but it is very rare in Israeli politics that coalitions (which are generally more homogenous than this one) survive that long. Also, any government dependent on 61 MKs is susceptible to increased pressure from coalition partners. Renewed instability in Jerusalem or the West Bank, a return of internecine violence within mixed cities, or further escalation in Gaza may all provide significant challenges to the new government.
Yet the parties will also have a strong interest in keeping the coalition going. New elections following the government’s fall would almost certainly weaken Bennett and Saar, Lapid has little interest in collapsing the government before he becomes Prime Minister, and other parties such as Meretz and Raam – whose influence would wane if the government collapses – will also work hard to keep it going.
The New Israeli Government: A Test of Coexistence
For the first time in Israel’s history, an independent Arab party is joining the coalition as a full member.
Jewish Journal, June 3, 2021
Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid (L), Yamina leader Naftali Bennett (C) and Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas sign a coalition agreement on June 2, 2021 (Photo posted by Ra’am party).
On Wednesday evening, a historic photograph was taken and published. Three leaders, sitting together, smiling, having just signed an agreement. These were right-wing leader Naftali Bennett, slated to be Israel’s Prime Minister. Centrist leader Yair Lapid, slated to become Israel’s alternate PM and Foreign Minister. And Mansour Abbas, the leader of the Islamist party Raam, a member of the new coalition without which it could not materialize.
Before we explain why this photograph is so important, and what it means, let’s be careful.
Yesterday, Lapid informed the President that he formed a coalition. And yet, the coming days, between the announcement and the actual vote – it could take up to 12 days until a vote – are fraught with tension and risks for the newborn. One member of Yamina, Bennett’s party, is still unconvinced; a few others are fuming at this or that compromise; the Likud party, slated to become the opposition, is working behind the scenes to spoil the new arrangement; outside forces – Hamas rockets is one example – can make the completion of the process more difficult; the actual agreement, when made public, can lead to renewed arguments. The bottom line: the new coalition is not yet a fact. But it is a likelihood.
Now back to the photograph. In it, the three men are smiling. They are an Arab and two Jews. They are two religious men (Bennett and Abbas) and one secular. They are not made of the same cloth, do not belong to the same natural political camp, and yet, they agreed to join forces, and did it with a big smile.
This is a revelational moment. For the first time in Israel’s history, an independent Arab party is joining the coalition as a full member. For the first time in a long time, politicians from different camps are joining forces of their own volition, without making the world feel that they just swallowed a bitter pill. For the first time in a very long time, Prime Minister Netanyahu is out of the picture. Many members of his party, Likud, never had to spend a day in the opposition. They thought that the coalition, the government, was a Likud birthright. In the other camp, many members were never part of a ruling government. They do not know the difference between the casual populism of an opposition and the grave responsibility of the people in charge.
They will have to learn fast, both because the fate of the country will now be in their hands, and because working together is the only way to make this work.
Of course, this is a coalition of many contradictions. Gay leaders sit with anti-gay leaders. Right-wing ideologues sit with peaceniks. Capitalist leaders sit with socialist activists. They come together to achieve one goal: getting rid of the current PM, Netanyahu. But to survive for longer than just tasting life without Bibi, they’ll have to do something that’s more significant: to highlight the many other goals most of them share.
Yes, those exist. The media lives off controversy. Politicians live off controversy. And hence, we tend to forget that the debates between most parties are on the twenty percent on which parties disagree, not the eighty percent on which they agree. This is surely true for the leaders of Yamina, Yesh Atid, Blue and White and Israel Beiteinu. This is slightly less true for some members of Meretz, Labor and Raam, and yet, even for them, finding common causes is not as complicated as we tend to think. What’s complicated is getting over the habit, and temptation, to pick a fight over the twenty percent. That’s the complication. That’s the challenge. That will determine whether a new government will become a reality or just a short moment of celebration.
Shmuel Rosner is an Israeli columnist, editor, and researcher. He is the editor of the research and data-journalism website themadad.com and is the political editor of the Jewish Journal.
What can a skeptical world expect from Naftali Bennett?
This isn’t the way he planned on becoming prime minister of Israel. When Naftali Bennett left the world of high-tech to enter Israeli politics, the idea that he might achieve the top spot by pushing aside Benjamin Netanyahu would have been inconceivable to him. And even later on, as he led a party to the right of Likud, he regarded it as an ally of the premier, not an opponent—let alone the engine of his political demise. Any notion of him succeeding Netanyahu was a scenario that smart political observers believed was something that could only occur after Netanyahu had retired and also involved Bennett rejoining the Likud.
But whether or not this is how he might have dreamed of achieving such a feat, Bennett is set to become prime minister sometime in the next couple of weeks by forging an unlikely alliance with seven other political parties, including those on the center, left and even an Arab political faction with whom he has little in common. The main purpose of this bizarre coalition is to supplant Netanyahu, the man whom Bennett looked up to and loyally served.
In the process, he and his Yamina Party have become the object of the political right’s rage for what they consider his betrayal and is also viewed with skepticism by his new allies. The same is true of most international observers and even friends of Israel in the United States, most knowing very little about Bennett.
Netanyahu is not giving up, and his followers are seeking to persuade and/or intimidate Bennett’s colleagues into abandoning him. If they succeed and find even one defector, the political chaos will continue.
That would serve Netanyahu’s purposes. Though a fifth election is unlikely to yield him the majority he failed to achieve in the last four rounds of voting, it would mean that he can go on as Israel’s permanent temporary prime minister, even if that would be more of a commentary on a broken electoral system than a mandate.
If Bennett is sworn in as Netanyahu’s successor, the odds will still be against his government surviving for long. But that’s a question for another day. For now, the issue is what sort of a prime minister will Bennett be?
Netanyahu has dominated Israeli politics and the American discussion about Israel for so long that it’s hard for many people to wrap their brains around the concept of life after him. Indeed, that is the essence of the argument against change since so many people have bought into the idea that the prime minister is irreplaceable.
But change must come sooner or later, and if it must be now—and a majority of Israel’s voters cast their ballots for parties opposed to his continued tenure—the Jewish state could do a lot worse than Naftali Bennett.
Bennett with Netanyahu in 2015 when Bennett was Netanyahu’s Education Minister: Bennett hoped to succeed Netanyahu when he retired, not supersede him by pushing him aside (Photo:Wikimedia Commons | License details)
He would be the first Israeli prime minister who is religiously observant and the culmination of a process by which the kipah-wearing religious Zionist movement has moved from the margins of Israeli society in Israel’s first decades, when it was dominated by the avowedly secular and Socialist Labor Party, to the mainstream. And though he wouldn’t be the first prime minister with American ties—Golda Meir grew up in Milwaukee, and Netanyahu spent much of his youth in suburban Philadelphia—Bennett, though a sabra, is the son of American immigrants to Israel.
In one sense, Bennett’s path to politics is a typical one since, like Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, he was a member of the Israel Defense Forces’ most elite commando unit, the Sayeret Maktal. But rather than staying in the army or going straight into politics, Bennett spent a decade in the world of high-tech. He co-founded an anti-fraud software company and served as its CEO before it was sold for a reported price of $145 million. Later, he was also involved in the success of another startup that sold for more than $100 million. That makes him not only a very rich man but someone who understands economics—a topic that is a mystery for most Israeli politicians not named Netanyahu.
Bennett entered Israeli politics as an admirer of Netanyahu and served as his chief of staff for two years when he led the opposition to Ehud Olmert. But, as has been the case with many of the most talented people in the Likud in the last 15 years, he was forced out of the prime minister’s orbit as a result of personal acrimony from Netanyahu and, allegedly, also from his wife Sara.
From there, he led the Yesha Council, which represents the interests of the settlement movement, and eventually formed his own right-wing party with Ayalet Shaked, another person driven out of Netanyahu’s office. His Jewish Home Party (since renamed Yamina) entered the Knesset in 2013, and Bennett has held a number of ministerial portfolios since then, in which he has generally been considered to have done a good job.
The knock on Bennett in that time and during the last two years of political stalemate is not that he lacks talent or knowledge. Indeed, he is one of his country’s best and brightest. But he is considered a political lightweight who is easily outmaneuvered, especially at the hands of his former mentor. Netanyahu has relied on the votes of Bennett’s party to form his governments, but he has been particularly focused on diminishing his former aide’s prospects. At least up until now, he always got the upper hand. Unlike other, more marginal figures on the right, the prime minister perceived Bennett to be a plausible successor to him and marked him for oblivion. Perhaps that is why Netanyahu seems to be confident that, even now, he can somehow outfox him.
But if Netanyahu fails to prevent his eviction from the official residence on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street, this may be the moment when, finally, Bennett will have the chance to show that his security credentials, financial expertise and more attractive personality are exactly what Israel needs at the moment.
The notion that he will be weak on security issues is rooted in the presence of his unlikely left-wing in the new coalition. Still, Netanyahu has also been flexible and sometimes compromised on his core beliefs when he thought it was politically expedient to do so. It was, after all, Netanyahu who withdrew Israeli forces from Hebron in the 1990s, as well as the man who endorsed a two-state solution and accepted a settlement freeze in a futile attempt to ingratiate himself with former President Barack Obama. With Netanyahu lurking in opposition, Bennett is more likely to stick to his principles both on the conflict with the Palestinians and the threat from Iran than those now calling him a “traitor” are willing to admit.
And merely by replacing Netanyahu, he is likely to get at least a smidgeon of goodwill from the Biden administration and American Jews, even if that won’t last long once the debate about a new round starts appeasing Iran.
In such a polarized political era, both in Israel and the United States, it’s hard to imagine an attempt to reach across ideological divides being anything other than a disaster. But Bennett represents the chance for a new generation of leadership in Israel to prove that the sky won’t fall without Benjamin Netanyahu being there to hold it up. Though some may not be willing to admit it, no one—not even a Netanyahu—is indispensable.
Bennett’s prospective government’s internal contradictions may be too great to permit him to succeed. But if he takes office, at the very least, he deserves the good wishes as well as the help of those who love Israel. We should all be willing to retain the ability to be happily surprised if, as unlikely as it may seem now, he does far better in maintaining his predecessor’s achievements than his detractors think.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.