For the first time in 12 years, Israel is now led by a prime minister who is not Benjamin Netanyahu. This might not seem long by the standards of illiberal strongmen such as Vladimir Putin (22 years) or neighbours such as Bashar al-Assad in Syria (21 years) and King Abdullah of Jordan (21 years). But it is a very long time for even a flawed and limited democracy like Israel.
Netanyahu has wrapped the political sphere and the institutions of state around himself to such a degree it took the most improbable coalition in Israeli history to unseat him. As of its first morning in government, the new coalition’s wafer-thin majority of 61 out of 120 seats consists of 25 seats for the ideologically amorphous centre; 20 seats for the hard right; 13 seats for the soft left; and four seats from the Islamist party. Confusingly, the premiership rests not with the largest party in the bigger, centrist block (Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, with 17 seats) but with a small party in the far-right block: Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party, with a mere six seats. Lapid may only assume the leadership in two years’ time, under a rotation agreement.
This may not make numerical sense inside the coalition, but very much does so in the context of the wider parliament: of all coalition parties, Bennett is the one with the greatest choice of alternative partners among the opposition, and so, despite his paltry showing in the elections, the one with the greatest leverage.
At the same time, it is the centrist and soft-left parties that hold a majority within the coalition, so Bennett’s room for ambitious, historical moves – e.g. annexation of the West Bank – is extremely small. For all its talk of being the Change Coalition, this is more likely to be a government of continuity and gridlock.
Luckily for Bennett and Lapid, very little change is actually required for the coalition to stay in place. Call it stability or call it stagnation, but Netanyahu is leaving them relatively few fires to put out. Although the new cabinet is brimming with politicians who harvested airtime over the years with calls to remove Hamas, there is very little appetite in the government – and, needless to say, in Gaza – for a new round of hostilities so soon after the recent war. The two-states process is out of sync with reality; the Palestinian Authority and President Mahmoud Abbas have zero useable leverage, and no party in the new Israeli coalition sees reviving the talks as a priority.
The same is true for President Joe Biden’s administration in the US, whose greatest regional priority is likely reinstating the Iran nuclear deal and securing Israeli cooperation (or at least minimising Israeli sabotage) on the talks in aid of constraining Iran’s nuclear programme to civilian use. There, too, the potential for crisis is relatively small: while no one in Israel thinks a nuclear Tehran is a good idea, virtually no one of consequence in Israel shares either Netanyahu’s decades-long obsession with Iran as a new Nazi Germany or his complete rejection of diplomatic containment of the issue. The same is true of voters, very few of whom – if any – cast their votes exclusively on the Iranian threat; the issue has barely appeared as a standalone electoral consideration in recent years. Netanyahu made the challenge of standing up to the US on Iran the centrepiece of his fiery opposition speech on Sunday, and will likely needle Bennett relentlessly on the topic. But for now, Bennet has little to lose and plenty to gain from playing ball with the Biden administration on the nuclear talks – especially as a likely hardliner win in the Iranian elections on 18 June could throw a spanner in the works without any further effort on the Israeli side.
Closer to home, Israel’s greatest crisis in recent years – the coronavirus pandemic – is largely at an end, again thanks to Netanyahu’s bullish vaccination programme. The Bennett government will have to pick up the pieces economically (Netanyahu, a hardliner laissez-faire capitalist, had been extremely reluctant to support struggling businesses during lockdown.) But relief budget negotiations will likely be transactional and pragmatic. The question of funds for settlements (championed by the right and far-right parties) versus funds for mainland Israel (represented by everyone else) might prove a sticking point, but won’t wreck the coalition unless enough parties want it to.
Finally, a late and unwelcome legacy of the Netanyahu era is the recent escalation of communal tensions between Palestinian and Jewish citizens of Israel. This perhaps will be Bennett’s greatest domestic challenge. But his coalition is supported by a Palestinian Islamist party, Raam that had already negotiated some wins on key issues concerning their communities (including suspending the highly discriminatory enforcement of construction laws, familiar to Western observers in frequent demolitions of Palestinian homes and communities). Bennett will thus have both an avenue and a pretext to reassure the community for whose national aspirations he has vowed “zero tolerance”. How far he will go is anyone’s guess, but he notably made the pledge to open a new-page in Jewish-Arab relations within Israel – in stark contrast to his complete silence on talks with Palestinian leaderships in Gaza and the West Bank.
And so, with relatively few crises at hand, will Bennett settle into his improbable premiership and try and make the most of a quiet two years, before duly handing power over to Lapid? Not likely. In fact, if Bennett is remotely committed to the goals he went into politics to achieve (beginning with non-partitioned Greater Israel), or even to simply staying in power, his first and foremost priority should be to wreck the government he has painstakingly built up and to replace it with something more ideologically coherent.
Unlike his coalition partners, Bennett has everything to play with: most of his natural political partners make up the majority of the opposition. His greatest challenge will be to replace Lapid and the soft-left parties with right-wing ones, while still retaining the premiership despite having a mere six seats to his own name. The easiest path to that would be to engineer a coalition crisis around a major rightward policy shift – say, annexation, or something related to East Jerusalem – and then invite Netanyahu’s Likud and ultra-orthodox parties back into power, excluding Netanyahu himself on the ethical pretext of the former prime minister being embroiled in a criminal trial. Bennett would only need about half of the seats between those parties to accomplish this goal, and there is nothing stopping him from merging his party with some of the Likud parliamentarians, making himself into the leader of the Knesset’s largest grouping. There is a telling clause in the coalition agreement, promising legislation to reduce the proportion of seats required to split a caucus; for whatever purpose, encouraging parties to fracture seems very much on the agenda for the new government.
The counterpoint, however, is that the grandmaster of such tactics is still very much in the arena: no one has shredded and recycled opponents’ parties as imaginatively and effectively as Netanyahu. His petty displays during the transition (for example, boycotting the handover ceremony) are setting the scene for a combative opposition leadership that will play dirty and, as he openly pledged, will do its best to collapse the government as soon as possible. The improbable coalition that dethroned Netanyahu remains just that: improbable. The only question is who will bring it down, and who’ll end up on top.