Once his formal consultations with each party in the Knesset came to a close on Friday, Israeli President Isaac Herzog was left with no choice. Although he tried to persuade everyone involved in the post-election protocol to display a greater degree of “national unity” than the results of the Nov. 1 vote revealed, he arrived at two unavoidable conclusions.
The first was that it would definitely be Likud chairman Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu he’d be tasking on Sunday with forming the next government. The second was that the ruling coalition would, as Netanyahu had vowed, be a “full, full, right-wing” one.
There was no getting around the fact that Netanyahu received many more recommendations than Interim Prime Minister Yair Lapid. The numbers spoke for themselves: 64 in favor of the former; 28 for the latter.
This might appear odd to anyone who believed the polls that had indicated a virtual tie between the Netanyahu and “anybody but Bibi” camps. There are 120 seats in the Knesset, after all. So, the math doesn’t seem to add up.
The reason for the confusion is that the constantly touted societal split down the middle was a fiction all along. Though it’s true that two rounds of elections produced no government; a third resulted in a short-lived Netanyahu-led national-unity rotation government with Benny Gantz; and a fourth ended with an unprecedented maneuver that launched the premierships first of Naftali Bennett and then Lapid, the chaos was created by politicians bent on removing Bibi as an obstacle to their advancement.
Unable to defeat the longest-serving prime minister in the country’s history at the ballot box, they sought other means to get him out of the picture. Ironically and to their dismay, however, even indictments for bribery, fraud and breach of trust didn’t put a dent in Netanyahu’s popularity.
While members of the public who never supported him held hysterical weekly “Crime Minister” demonstrations, his backers—labeled by left-wing elites as “baboons” and worse—were only more convinced of the bogus nature of the charges and the motive behind them.
This particular rift was and still is real. Yet it’s nowhere near the whole story.
Contrary to the media hype of the past three and a half years, Netanyahu is not the metaphorical equator that separates two comparable hemispheres. With or without him at the helm, the bulk of Israelis are on the right side of the spectrum, and consider Likud the center.
The ploy on the part of the “anybody but Bibi” politicians—including those whose personal rivalry with or aversion to Netanyahu loomed so large that they moved leftward—was to claim that he was the only hurdle to wide consensus and a stable coalition. It was nonsense, of course, as they themselves wound up illustrating.
It’s not merely that their marriage of conflicting worldviews wasn’t sustainable in the long term. For a while, they managed to keep up the pretense of compromise, mainly for P.R. purposes.
The problem lay in the false premise that “unity” can be willed into existence, especially when its entire raison d’être is based on exclusion. In this case, the target of the boycott wasn’t just Netanyahu; it was all his supporters in Likud, not to mention the masses loyal to the religious-Zionist and haredi parties.
It’s no wonder, then, that the “anybody but Bibi” bloc disintegrated as soon as the latest election campaign kicked off. Grasping that the best he could hope for—even with the virulent anti-Zionist parties’ support—would be to prevent Netanyahu from being able to form a coalition, Lapid’s goal was to remain interim prime minister for as long as possible until a sixth round of elections.
He thus discouraged voters from opting for smaller left-wing parties. The upshot was that Meretz didn’t pass the threshold and Labor garnered only four mandates. He also colluded with the far-left Jewish-Arab Hadash-Ta’al Party not to join forces with its radical Islamist counterpart, Balad, which then didn’t make it into the Knesset.
Then there was Gantz, who ran against, rather than with, him. To do this, he established a party whose name in English, hilariously, is “National Unity.” Neither this nor his enlisting of former Israel Defense Forces Chief-of-Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot as a draw helped him come close to surpassing Lapid, let alone Netanyahu.
The icing on the “unity” cake was on display during the coalition consultations with Herzog. The only parties to recommend Lapid were his own, Yesh Atid, and Labor, headed by Merav Michaeli, who publicly blamed Lapid for the electoral defeat.
Angry at her for having dared to cross him in this manner, he stormed out of the Knesset last Sunday when she took to the podium to deliver a speech at the ceremony marking the 27th anniversary of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The “unity” was heartwarming.
To be fair to Lapid, who is about to assume the role of opposition leader, “unity” is a meaningless concept in general, unless applied to a specific tenet or circumstance at a given time. The same goes for Netanyahu’s newfound coalition, which undoubtedly is and will continue to be fraught with frequent squabbles.
Still, the contrast in this respect between the outgoing and incoming governments is stark. Whereas the sole glue for Lapid’s coalition was anti-Bibi animosity, Netanyahu’s espouses a set of values and objectives shared by a higher percentage of the population.
Whether this constitutes “unity” is questionable. But it’s what democracies call “majority rule.”
Ruthie Blum is an Israel-based journalist and author of “To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.’ ”