Netanyahu hails end of ‘worst government in Israeli history’ as new elections loom

From the outset, it was clear that the coalition was destined to fail. Ultimately, the desire to keep Benjamin Netanyahu out of office wasn’t enough to keep a group that agreed on little else together.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid hold a joint press conference at the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem on June 20, 2022. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid hold a joint press conference at the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem on June 20, 2022. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Alex Traiman
Alex Traiman is the CEO and Jerusalem Bureau Chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate).

Israel appears set to head back to the polls after a “change coalition” has failed to hold its razor-thin majority, barely a year after its formation.

Elections are likely to be held on Oct. 25, just after the conclusion of the Jewish High Holidays. The elections would be the fifth in just three-and-a-half years.

Meanwhile, according to the coalition’s complicated rotation agreement, Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid will tentatively become a caretaker “transitional” prime minister with limited powers until a new government can be formed after elections. In this role, Lapid would meet with U.S. President Joe Biden should he visit the region as scheduled in July.

Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who controls the parliament’s largest ideologically aligned bloc and has increased his popular support, sits in pole position to form a new government should a new election be held.

A predominantly right-wing government, led by Netanyahu, would represent the will of the clear majority of Israeli voters. Right-wing parties received 72 seats in the last election. Left-wing parties secured 38 seats. Arab parties received 10 seats.

How was this government formed?

Netanyahu’s Likud Party received 30 seats in the last election—13 seats more than the next largest party, Yesh Atid, led by Lapid. Despite the apparent landslide, parties that agreed to serve in a Netanyahu-led government, which at the time included Yamina, secured 59 votes—just two short of a majority. Zionist parties opposed to Netanyahu totaled 51 seats.

Once Netanyahu proved unable to form a government, Lapid cajoled Bennett to desert the right-wing bloc and offered him the seat of prime minister as part of a rotation arrangement. Unable to resist Lapid’s offer, Bennett agreed to become prime minister, despite winning only seven mandates in the previous election.

Lapid and Bennett then convinced the Islamist Ra’am Party—a chapter of the southern branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and effectively a sister organization to Hamas—to join the coalition. Ra’am participation represented the first time an Arab party had joined an Israeli coalition.

Doomed to fail

From the outset, it was clear the coalition was destined to fail. Immediately after the formation of the coalition, Yamina Party member Amichai Chikli announced that he would not vote with the government.

Chikli cited the promises he and Bennett had made to their voters in advance of the elections. Bennett repeatedly told voters on national news programs that it would be undemocratic for a Knesset member to become prime minister with less than 10 mandates. Bennett had seven. In a stunt, Bennett also signed a piece of paper that he brought into an Israeli evening news program stating that he would not join any Lapid-led government “with a rotation or without a rotation” because “I am right-wing and [Lapid] is left-wing.” Many right-wing voters supported Bennett on the basis of those broken promises.

In April, another member of Yamina, Idit Silman—the Knesset’s coalition whip, responsible for ensuring bills would pass in the parliament—caved to right-wing pressure and announced that she was resigning her post, at the time urging the formation of an alternative right-wing government.

Just this past week, Yamina member Nir Orbach also announced he would no longer vote with the government. Fellow Yamina member Abir Kara has also been rumored to support a Netanyahu-led government.

However, it was not only the right-wing who was opposed to sitting together with every member of Israel’s left-wing and Islamist parties. Blue and White’s Michael Biton announced that he would not vote with the government over various transportation reforms that bypassed the Knesset committee he led. Far-left Meretz-party member and Israeli Arab Rinawie Zoabi announced her resignation from the coalition in mid-May, only to be convinced to rejoin a week later. In early June, Ra’am Party member Mazen Ghanaim announced that he would no longer vote with the coalition.

Left without a majority and needing to put out political fires on nearly a daily basis, Bennett and Lapid recognized the inevitable: the ideologically diverse coalition could no longer successfully limp along.

‘Anybody but Bibi’

The “change coalition” was motivated by a single unifying factor: a desire to replace Netanyahu after 12 years in power. This came despite the fact that most Israelis continue to prefer Netanyahu in the top job. The change movement was motivated in large part by criminal trials against Netanyahu that are proving in court to be full of both holes and inappropriate conduct by state prosecutors.

The nation never chose Lapid, who could not have formed a government without right-wing defectors. And the nation certainly did not choose Bennett, who leaves his post with the backing of only four party members.

A mere 96 percent of the public chose somebody other than Bennett to be prime minister—a point that ultimately did not deter Bennett from taking the post.

Bennett and Lapid, who agreed to share the post of prime minister in a rotation arrangement, and fellow coalition members argued that the partnership of strange bedfellows was necessary to get Israel out of its electoral gridlock and provide political stability. But the coalition failed to deliver from the get-go. Ultimately, the desire to keep Netanyahu out of office was not enough to keep a group that agreed on little else together.

Few accomplishments

While Bennett and Lapid continuously stressed how successful the government was, it has few accomplishments. For months, the primary accomplishment—as we were told over and over—was the passing of a state budget, a low bar and bare requirement for any coalition. Failing to pass a budget is an automatic trigger for elections.

In recent weeks, Bennett has repeatedly spoken about how safe the country has been during his year in office, with only seven rockets fired from Gaza just a year after 4,500 were launched at Israel by Hamas. Yet Bennett has refused to mention the dozens of terror attacks in Israeli cities in recent weeks—the deadliest terror wave since 2014.

Left-wing agenda

What the coalition succeeded in doing was to bring every single member of Israel’s left wing from the backbenches of the opposition into seats of power. Bennett had little discipline over his cabinet. While he remained silent, Bennett’s partners worked to bring Israel back toward a path of negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. This despite the P.A.’s continued funding of terrorists, via their abhorrent “pay for slay” program and terror incitement across all sectors of Palestinian society.

Several members of Bennett’s government met P.A. leader Mahmoud Abbas on multiple visits in Ramallah, and Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz even hosted Abbas in his home in Rosh Ha’Ayin—the first time Abbas had visited Israel in more than 10 years.

The government circumvented an Israeli law designed to prevent tax and customs transfers to the P.A. due to its support for terror, by instead “loaning” 600 million shekels (nearly $175 million) in funds to the P.A., with the withheld transfers being used as collateral in case it later fails to repay the loans.

Lapid, for his part, initially agreed to allow the United States to reopen a U.S. consulate to the P.A. in Jerusalem that was shuttered when the previous administration in 2018 fulfilled the Jerusalem Embassy Act, which codified a unified Jerusalem as the official capital of the Jewish state in U.S. law. It took a massive pressure campaign on right-wing members of the government, including on Bennett and Gideon Sa’ar, to prevent the consulate’s reopening.

Foreign Minister Lapid also caused significant damage to Israel’s critical relationships with Russia, China and Poland, though he claims to have dramatically improved Israel’s diplomatic standing. Just last week, he partnered with left-wing Culture Minister Yehiel Moshe “Hili” Tropper to bring Israel into the E.U.’s Cultural Program, that refuses participation to Israelis living in Judea, Samaria or the Golan Heights; effectively a form of anti-Israel BDS.

During a pandemic, Israel’s health minister found time not only to meet Abbas but to enact progressive reforms making it easier for women to get abortions, for same-sex couples to adopt children via surrogacy and to ease the process for gender-transition surgeries to be performed in Israeli hospitals.

Energy Minister and left-wing Labor Party member Karine Elharrar stopped Israeli exploration licenses for additional finds of off-shore natural gas due to Israel’s new commitment to pursue renewable energy. It was only several weeks ago, after Europe began scrambling to find new sources of natural gas in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, that Elharrar announced exploration would resume.

Leader of the Opposition and head of the Likud party Benjamin Netanyahu gives a statement to the media at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem on June 20, 2022. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

‘Worst government in Israeli history’

Celebrating the announcement that the Knesset would be disbanded, Netanyahu said in a statement that “it is clear to everyone that the worst government in Israeli history has come to an end.” He noted that the announcement was preceded by a year of “determined struggle by the opposition in the Knesset and great suffering by the Israeli public.”

In its place, Netanyahu has pledged to form a “wide, national government headed by Likud.”

Avoiding elections?

Despite Bennett and Lapid’s announcement that they intend to disband the parliament and take the nation to the polls for the fifth time in three and a half years, Netanyahu may be able to form an alternative, right-wing coalition within the existing parliament. He currently controls a strong bloc of 55 members. If he can convince six members of the current coalition to join, he can form a government and avert new elections.

The possibility of an alternative coalition is strengthened by recent poll numbers showing that the right-wing, six-member New Hope Party, led by former Likud party stalwart and Netanyahu-challenger Sa’ar, would fail to pass the minimum Knesset threshold if new elections were to be held today. Bennett’s own right-wing Yamina Party is performing poorly in the polls, and there is a strong possibility that the party may implode altogether before an election can be held.

Yamina members reportedly were not informed ahead of time of Bennett’s intention to disband the government, and several party members would gladly fulfill the promises they made to their voters and serve in a right-wing government.

By joining a Netanyahu-led government, Bennett, Sa’ar or even Gantz could help the nation avoid yet another election and secure high-ranking ministerial portfolios in the process.

A strong center-right government would fulfill the will of an electorate that’s tired of the polls and wants those elected to do their jobs for once, without the politics. If not, Israel will head back to the polling stations to try to end the electoral deadlock themselves.

And while Israelis and onlookers around the world may scoff at Israel’s political dysfunction, at least the mandate is returning where it belongs: to the people—a sign of a robust democracy.

Alex Traiman is CEO and Jerusalem bureau chief of Jewish News Syndicate.

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