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AnalysisHow a six-seat party managed to win the premiership

Bennett is the new first-among-equals type of premier Netanyahu created

In his bid to tear apart Gantz’s Blue and White alliance, the Likud leader brought strange new institutions into being. His opponents could not have united without them

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Newly elected Prime Minister Naftali Bennett waves, with Yair Lapid (left) and Gideon Sa'ar (right) alongside him, after their new coalition wins Knesset approval, June 13, 2021 (Haim Zach / GPO)
Newly elected Prime Minister Naftali Bennett waves, with Yair Lapid (left) and Gideon Sa'ar (right) alongside him, after their new coalition wins Knesset approval, June 13, 2021 (Haim Zach / GPO)

It has already been noted that Benjamin Netanyahu was a key architect of his own undoing.

The argument is simple: Netanyahu has a habit of turning allies into enemies.

That propensity came home to roost in the new government, when an alliance of those ex-allies — Naftali Bennett, Avigdor Liberman, Gideon Sa’ar, Ayelet Shaked, Ze’ev Elkin and others — joined forces with the center and left to bring him down.

But there’s another, more direct sense in which Netanyahu was the author of his own ouster. In his bid to outfox Benny Gantz last year, he created the very institutions without which the new coalition could never have been formed.

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu heads leads a meeting of right-wing parties in the Knesset, June 14, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The direct election fiasco

In 1992, Israel’s Knesset passed a widely supported little tweak to the country’s electoral system. It was meant to address the institutional weaknesses brought to light by the “dirty trick” crisis two years earlier. Under the new election rules, Israeli voters would cast not just one ballot for their party of choice, but two: for both party and prime minister.

The direct election of the prime minister was meant to stabilize unruly coalitions by strengthening the prime minister and weakening the bargaining power of small parties and individual MKs.

But things didn’t work out that way. Electoral systems are complex. Tug at one small corner and you never know what might come out the other side as the consequences of the change cascade through the system. The political scientists who conceived the direct election law missed a key fact about Israeli voters: that at the ballot box, many felt torn between wanting to vote for a small sectoral party they felt best represented them, and their belief they had a duty to vote for a larger right or left mainstay to ensure victory for their preferred prime minister.

The direct election option suddenly meant they could have both.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin smiles as he listens to criticism by Benjamin Netanyahu, head of the Likud opposition party, during a special Knesset session convened August 3, 1994, to ratify the Israeli-Jordanian non-belligerence agreement, signed in Washington, DC July 25, 1994. Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres listens in the background. The Knesset ratified the agreement later in the day. (AP Photo/ Nati Harnik )

In the 1992 election, just before the change, Labor and Likud won 76 seats between them. In the 1996 race, the first under the new system, they got 66. By the 1999 election, they won just 45. In 1996, 53% of voters chose a party fielding a prime ministerial candidate. By 1999 just 36% did so.

Five new parties entered the Knesset in 1999, riding the wave of newly liberated voters’ search for the perfect fit. They included Avigdor Liberman’s Russian-speaking Yisrael Beytenu, the far-right National Union, and centrist, secularist Shinui led by Tommy Lapid, father of Israel’s new foreign minister and alternate premier, Yair Lapid.

A tweak meant to strengthen the prime minister had boomeranged catastrophically, unmooring voters from their old allegiances, weakening the prime minister’s hand dramatically at the coalition negotiating table and within two election cycles delivering an untenably chaotic 15-party Knesset and introducing new players and impulses into the body politic that remain to this day.

Boomerang

Benjamin Netanyahu should understand that warning of history better than anyone. Netanyahu won his first premiership in that 1996 race and lost it in spectacular fashion in 1999. His government was undermined at every turn by the new voting patterns that emerged unexpectedly from the new election rules. And it likely cost him the 1999 race, in which right-wing parties won a narrow majority that Netanyahu couldn’t take advantage of because he’d lost the direct election for prime minister to Ehud Barak.

Benjamin Netanyahu (L) prepares a speech to the European Council for Security and Economic Cooperation while en route to Lisbon. Then-top aide Avigdor Liberman is pictured on the right. January 1996. (Yaakov Sa’ar/GPO photo archive)

Yet two decades later, in his overconfidence and eagerness to shatter the Gantz-led center-left alliance, a far more experienced Netanyahu stumbled into his own version of the direct election fiasco.

In their unity-government negotiations throughout the spring of 2020, Netanyahu convinced Gantz that the new coalition could legislate a series of constitutional changes that would assure the Blue and White leader of the sincerity of his intentions and guarantee him his rotation into the prime minister’s seat.

The new laws made the rotation itself legally binding on the two sides, created the bifurcated “parity government” in which each had a veto over the other’s decisions, and created the new office of “alternate prime minister,” which had sole control over their half of the split cabinet.

What few loopholes were left in the agreement seemed inconsequential to Gantz. Perhaps the only certain way to deny Gantz the rotation would be to refuse to pass a state budget law for 2020 — but such an unprecedented move was beyond the pale, Gantz believed.

He was, of course, wrong. The 2020 budget was never passed, forcing the dissolution of the 23th Knesset and snap elections in March 2021.

MK Benny Gantz, head of Blue and White (left) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, head of Likud, sign their unity government agreement on April 20, 2020. (GPO)

Netanyahu had won. The Blue and White alliance of March 2020 was broken up. The center-left was in disarray. The breakup of the unified Arab list and a new Likud campaign for Arab votes was expected to drive down Arab turnout. A dramatic Likud victory, even if it took four consecutive snap elections to achieve, seemed to many Likud planners to be inevitable.

But then came election day, and with it the same underlying result as the previous three races. Arab turnout did indeed fall by double digits, but so did Likud’s turnout. What voters Betzalel Smotrich’s new far-right Religious Zionism party carried from Yamina into the pro-Netanyahu camp were lost by the shift of some Likud votes to Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope.

In the end, little had shifted in the vote totals, but something fundamental had nevertheless changed: the rules of the game.

The anti-Netanyahu side now had the constitutional means to build previously impossible coalitions across vast ideological chasms.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, left, and Ra’am leader MK Mansour Abbas, seated, at the swearing-in of the new Israeli government, in the Knesset on June 13, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90

Is ‘parity’ the new normal?

The Israeli center-left doesn’t have a parliamentary majority. It also doesn’t fully trust the right-wing ideologues of Yamina and New Hope. The feeling, of course, is mutual.

But thanks to Netanyahu, trust is no longer necessary to form a coalition.

In a sense, Lapid and Bennett have forged not one government but two. In a “parity government,” half the cabinet is wholly controlled by Lapid, half by Bennett. Neither can pass any significant decision, from going to war to restructuring some agency of government, without the other.

Prime Minister Bennett is a first among equals in a way former prime minister Netanyahu never was. Where Netanyahu centralized decisions around himself, gutting ministries he couldn’t control and massively empowering agencies he could, especially the Mossad, Bennett won’t have that option. He must negotiate Israel’s geopolitical environment in close cooperation with Defense Minister Gantz and Foreign Minister Lapid, knowing that the latter has a veto over any major decision he makes on both domestic and foreign policy. And when Lapid’s turn as prime minister comes around, Bennett knows he’ll have the very same veto powers.

(From left) Benny Gantz, Yair Lapid, Naftali Bennett, Gideon Sa’ar and Merav Michaeli sit together after their new coalition wins Knesset approval, June 13, 2021 (Haim Zach / GPO)

That’s vital. It means Lapid can prevent Bennett’s longstanding desire to annex parts of the West Bank, while Bennett has the same ability to stymie Lapid’s desire to enter talks on a two-state solution to the Palestinian conflict.

Netanyahu has fumed over the past week that Bennett “stole the election,” by which he means that there’s something deeply unethical and undemocratic in a six-seat Knesset faction managing to win the prime minister’s chair.

Netanyahu doesn’t seem to have given serious thought to how Bennett was able to do that. It has something to do with the weakened new kind of “parity” prime minister that Netanyahu himself created, one weakened enough to be acceptable to the diverse coalition of opponents who have now joined forces against him.

When he built the parity mechanism, Netanyahu believed he was weaving an elaborate illusion to ensnare a gullible Gantz. He ended up establishing the very checks and balances that made a six-seat ruling party possible.

We don’t yet really understand the nature and inherent rules of the new parity framework. The last government is no guide because it was actively undermined from the moment it was formed.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (right) and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid in the Knesset, June 13, 2021. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP)

The public is as uncertain about the new government’s chances as the pundits. A Sunday poll for Channel 12 found that 43% of the public believes the government won’t last long, 30% that it will last “a long time, but not its entire term,” and just 11% that it’ll last the full term.

But it’s not all pessimism. Asked if they believed that Bennett, unlike Netanyahu, would honor the rotation agreement, 49% said yes and just 7% said no. The rest either didn’t know (15%) or said the government would collapse for other reasons before Bennett has a chance to hand over (29%).

In the end, the new rules put this strange new government in uncharted waters. If it governs well and survives longer than expected, parity governments may become the new normal. If, like its predecessor, it quickly crashes and burns in dysfunction and recrimination, the Knesset may well overturn last year’s changes as it did with the misbegotten direct election law in March 2001. Netanyahu, who’d left the Knesset after his loss in 1999, wasn’t around to see that correction. If, as he vowed on Monday, he plans to stay in the game in hopes of a comeback, he may want to consider leading the correction this time around.

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