Three Thoughts On Israel’s New Government

There are three dilemmas hanging over this process, and how different actors answer those dilemmas will go a long way toward determining whether a government can be formed and who might form it.
June 2, 2021
Israelis gather in a rally to support a unity government to oust Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from office on May 31, 2021 in Tel Aviv, Israel. (Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images)

(Israel Policy Forum) — In a moment that felt as if a thin line of white smoke should be streaming in the air above the president’s residence, Yair Lapid announced on Wednesday night that he had secured a coalition agreement between his own Yesh Atid and seven other parties to replace Prime Minister Netanyahu after twelve years of uninterrupted power. Yesh Atid, Kachol Lavan, Yamina, Labor, Yisrael Beiteinu, Tikva Hadasha, Meretz, and Ra’am intend to form a new government, which will involve a prime ministerial rotation between Yamina’s Naftali Bennett going first and Lapid going second.

The new government will not be sworn in for at least one more week, providing what amounts to a lifetime in Israeli politics for Netanyahu to pressure the right-wing members of this new coalition to defect and to wreak havoc however he can, so this is not yet a done deal. But if this new government indeed takes power, it is a momentous story after four elections in just under two years. Beyond the obvious observation of the earth-shattering sidelining of Netanyahu, who after a dozen consecutive years in power has come to seem if he will be prime minister for life, and the halt to Likud’s seemingly permanent role as Israel’s governing party, here are three things to consider about what this all means and where it may lead.

Unprecedented unity and unprecedented dysfunction are not mutually exclusive

The first thing to note is the extraordinary and unprecedented nature of this government. It is not only a unity government; it is the broadest government in Israel’s history. Unity governments in Israel usually mean an agreement between the two largest vote getters, which are sometimes ideologically disparate but in recent history are less so. The unity government between Yitzhak Shamir’s Likud and Shimon Peres’s Labor in the 1908s is an example of the former, whereas the 2012 Likud-Kadima government was an agreement between Israel’s dominant right-wing party and the former Likud members who had split off to form Kadima because of a disagreement over the single issue of Gaza disengagement. Similarly, the unity government between Likud and Blue and White that collapsed and led to the recent fourth election was not one created by parties on different ends of the political spectrum, but was a deal struck between the right-wing tentpole party and a centrist party that leaned right but had no firm ideological commitments or even positions.

The Bennett-Lapid government is none of these things. It is not the result of an agreement between the two largest parties, as Likud – the largest party with 30 seats, 13 more than Yesh Atid in second place – is on the outside looking in. It is certainly not an agreement between ideologically compatible parties, but neither is it an agreement between parties that anchor the right-wing camp and left-wing camp. It is a government that encompasses Israel’s most ideologically left-wing party in Meretz, Israel’s most ideologically non-Kahanist right-wing party in Yamina, Israel’s only Islamist party in Ra’am, and everything in between. It is a government that includes religious parties, secular parties, Jewish parties, and an Arab party. The prime minister hails from the fifth largest party, and is the first kippah-wearing observant prime minister in the Jewish state’s history while sitting in a coalition with Israel’s two most famous secular politicians. Calling this government unprecedented does not capture how remarkably inconceivable this all is.

The raison d’etre of this government is ending Israel’s political dysfunction by replacing its main source, Netanyahu. But while Netanyahu is undoubtedly the proximate cause of Israel’s recent dysfunction, the new coalition may end up highlighting a different form of Israeli political dysfunction even more starkly. Were Netanyahu not the Likud chairman, nearly any other potential Likud leader would be able to form a broad right-wing government immediately. If Netanyahu was being replaced internally, it would end Israel’s electoral deadlock and usher in a coalition that would be internally cohesive and fundamentally stable.

The raison d’etre of this government is ending Israel’s political dysfunction by replacing its main source, Netanyahu.

But that is not how Netanyahu is being replaced. He is being replaced by a coalition that is unified only in its conviction that Netanyahu must go. If it also leads to an internal Likud revolt against Netanyahu while in the opposition, it will have solved the electoral dysfunction problem. But the massive dysfunction, fighting, and disagreement that is going to be the inevitable result of a coalition that has accomplished its political goal but can agree on few common governance goals is not going to inspire confidence. There are going to be disagreements over everything, from the budget to construction in the West Bank to judicial appointments to policing. The mutual veto mechanism between Lapid and Bennett means that large controversial initiatives will be impossible, but it also means that tackling some of Israel’s thorniest problems will also be impossible. Israelis will be happy to put an end to the election cycle, but will not be happy if it means being unable to address pressing issues. We saw this exact dynamic after Netanyahu and Benny Gantz formed a government after the third election, which ended in disaster, and the differences between Netanyahu and Gantz are peanuts compared to the gaps between Yamina and Meretz.

Extremism is about more than policy positions

As it became clear a few weeks ago that any coalition replacing Netanyahu would mean Bennett as first in a prime ministerial rotation, there was a raft of commentary warning that people should be careful what they wish for. Bennett is indisputably to Netanyahu’s right on Israeli-Palestinian issues and on territorial maximalism, and is the Israeli politician most responsible for promoting West Bank annexation and bringing it from the fringe to the mainstream. If Netanyahu was always looking for an excuse not to go forward with annexation, Bennett will have no such compunctions.

This view should not be dismissed out of hand, notwithstanding the fact that this coalition is set up to avoid any non-consensus issues and that moving forward with annexation in this configuration will be functionally impossible. But it is critical to remember that there is policy extremism, and there is personal extremism. Netanyahu has spent the better part of a half decade deliberately weakening Israel’s state institutions in order to wiggle out of his personal legal troubles. He has subjected Israel to election after election after election after election for no reason beyond seeking any configuration of 61 MKs that will grant him immunity from prosecution. He purposely boosted Israel’s most dangerous Jewish extremists, the Kahanists who form Otzma Yehudit, and did everything he could to get them into the Knesset and even reserved a spot for their party on his own Likud list. Netanyahu’s preference was to form a government with genuine racist neofascists, whereas Bennett will be helming a government that includes Israel’s peace camp and an Israeli Arab party. Any discussion of extremism that does not recognize that Netanyahu in June 2021 is far more of a dangerous extremist than Bennett has ever been is not looking at the full picture.

Avigdor Liberman is the central player here, even if nobody realizes it

It’s sometimes hard to remember amidst the twists and turns of the past two and a half years that Avigdor Liberman kicked off this entire cycle of chaos by resigning as defense minister, leading to elections being called by Netanyahu early after pressure from some of the remaining parties in the coalition, and then refusing to join Netanyahu’s prospective new coalition after the first election in April 2019. Without that determination to refuse to join a coalition unless issues of religion and state were addressed, we would be over two years into Netanyahu’s fourth consecutive term as prime minister, helming the most right-wing coalition in Israel’s history.

Liberman’s centrality did not end with denying Netanyahu a government after the first election. His recommendations of Gantz to be prime minister represented the first actual defection from Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc, and his insistence that replacing Netanyahu take precedence above all else shaped the narrative and environment in a way that ultimately led to Gideon Sa’ar feeling confident enough to break away from Likud. After the most recent election, Liberman quickly inked a coalition agreement with Lapid once the mandate passed to him in order to get things out of the way. There is no question that Lapid is almost singularly responsible for the new government agreement – from his working to get everyone on board, to his willingness to step aside for Bennett, to his laserlike focus on compromising as needed so long as it meant dislodging Netanyahu – but Liberman has been at the center of events since the beginning.

That will not change going forward despite the fact that the prime minister and alternate prime minister are Bennett and Lapid. Liberman is slated to be the new finance minister and his party will also control the Knesset Finance Committee. The most important thing this new government must do is pass a budget – Israel’s first permanent budget in over three years – and Liberman will shape the process and budgetary priorities more than anyone else. Liberman will also have the power to bring this coalition down whenever he decides the time is right, and while the spotlight will be trained on his more high profile coalition partners with the more high profile jobs, Liberman is going to remain at the center of the action, for which he has an uncanny knack. In a cabinet full of ministers who have never been in government and ministers who have some experience in lower level ministries but not in the more important ones, Liberman has been foreign minister, defense minister, will now add finance minister to his resume, and might have tighter control over his party than any other party chief. He is unlikely to ever be the prime minister of Israel, but he is going to shape Israeli politics and policy as much as any non-prime minister ever has.

Michael Koplow is Israel Policy Forum’s policy director, based in Washington, DC. To contact Michael, please email him at mkoplow@ipforum.org.

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