Budget in hand, Bennett’s once-brittle coalition proves it can take on Netanyahu

Overcoming painful compromises, the unlikely alliance behind the government manages to rebuke the country’s former leaders, and may be driving an opposition rethink

Haviv Rettig Gur

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

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (center) at the Knesset during voting on the state budget, on November 4, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (center) at the Knesset during voting on the state budget, on November 4, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The celebrations were muted. It was 5 a.m. on Thursday, and the two-dozen or so MKs still left in the Knesset plenum were exhausted. Even so, plenum chair MK Eitan Ginsburg asked for members to remain dignified “whatever the results of the vote.”

But they celebrated nonetheless, clapping and cheering and taking selfies with their phones as soon as the vote tally was announced, even though it was announced incorrectly.

“For: 61,” intoned Ginsburg, as exhausted as everyone else. “Against: 60.”

It was an impossible result, Knesset staffers quickly pointed out. The Knesset has just 120 members. Ginsburg apologized and read the numbers correctly: 61-59.

Israel’s 2021 state budget, the first to pass through the legislative process since March 2018, had finally become law.

For the ruling coalition, an unwieldy collection of eight parties straddling nearly every political, ethnic and religious divide Israeli society has to offer, it was a resounding and validating triumph.

A rebuke

The unifying thread of those disparate parties is the belief that the long rule of Benjamin Netanyahu, stretching across 12 years and four governments, had become a bane for the country.

For many of the coalition’s linchpin right-wingers — such as New Hope chief Gideon Sa’ar, a former Likud no. 2, or Yisrael Beytenu leader (and former Netanyahu political aide) Avigdor Liberman — no policy difference drove their stubborn opposition to the long-sitting Likud leader more than the growing belief that it was Netanyahu’s personal brand of politics that had gridlocked government.

Once a vaunted economic reformer, Netanyahu had grown, so they argue, increasingly staid and defensive, stalling major reforms and allowing national problems — from soaring crime in the Arab community to a rising cost of living driven by overzealous state bureaucracies and corporate monopolies — to fester and grow.

According to this interpretation, Netanyahu could not advance economic reforms because of his dependence on the Haredi factions, nor any peace initiatives with the Palestinians because of his dependence on the deep-right.

He was forever afraid of rising Likud challengers, and helped advance MKs based on loyalty to him rather than ability, leaving key ministries from finance to defense in the hands of politicians unable or unwilling to drive meaningful and desperately needed reforms.

This coalition, in other words, set out to prove that Netanyahu was not irreplaceable, and, indeed, that it was Netanyahu who had gridlocked Israel’s government.

Opposition Leader Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset during voting on the state budget, on November 4, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The pinnacle of that gridlock was Netanyahu’s blunt refusal to pass a state budget law last year, in a transparent attempt to deny Benny Gantz his agreed-upon turn in the prime minister’s chair by toppling the 2020 unity government.

Seen through this lens, the state budget law takes on a totemic role. This is no mere act of governance or fiscal policy. It isn’t even about the dramatic reforms meant to streamline import regulations, increase transparency and competition among banks or reduce corruption in the state kashrut supervision system.

It is a rebuke, and a validation.

A new ideology

In the terms by which the new government measures itself, it is a vindication of the many difficult compromises that were required to reach this point: Of deep-right Yamina voting for massive budgets to be handed to Islamist Ra’am, of Ra’am facing strident accusations of betrayal from other Arab political parties, of progressive Meretz finding itself handing the keys to the kingdom to Bennett, an avowed opponent of Palestinian statehood, and so on.

The compromises stung and are expected to hurt many of them at the polls among former party faithful. But these disparate factions now say that their sacrifices got the country back on track.

“On December 8, I founded New Hope and began a journey to rescue Israel from its subjugation to the personal interests of one man,” Sa’ar wrote in a Twitter post on Thursday morning, scarcely two hours after the 5 a.m. passage of the 2021 budget law. “I promised to change the administration and bring back stability. The morning of the budget’s approval is a morning of new hope, an important step in carrying Israel out of the greatest political crisis of its history and toward political and economic stability, for the country and its citizens.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (left) and Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar at the Knesset, on July 13, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Similar sentiments were heard throughout the coalition’s disparate factions on Thursday.

The new government now fancies itself more than a momentary union to oust a long-sitting premier; it is, in its own imagination, an alliance fighting for the principle that good governance must trump petty politics and responsible stewardship triumph over personal ambition. With the budget’s passage, it has found its grounding ideology.

Likud tones down the rhetoric

The point here, of course, is not that this narrative is objectively correct and unassailable. Bennett won scarcely 6.2 percent of the vote in last March’s elections and now occupies the prime minister’s chair. To Netanyahu’s many supporters, that fact alone, as well as the simple truth that this government could not have been built without fundamental ideological and policy compromises by all concerned, makes the whole enterprise a paean to personal ambition.

But Likud leaders would be foolish to ignore the new government’s burgeoning new sense of self just because they are unimpressed by its pretenses.

Indeed, many in Likud are beginning to sense the power of this government’s new identity, and beginning to question the wisdom of last year’s unprecedented decision to forego a state budget law in the service of Netanyahu’s political maneuvers — the first time in Israel’s history that no state budget was passed for the entirety of a fiscal year.

Opposition Leader Benjamin Netanyahu (right) walks past Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during voting on the state budget, on November 4, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Throughout Wednesday’s and Thursday’s budget votes, most Likud MKs retreated from the provocations and taunts that have characterized much of Likud’s political rhetoric since the March election.

That may be the strangest aspect of the new budget bills’ passage: how quietly and easily they seemed to pass, and 10 days ahead of the November 14 deadline.

Off-camera and off-record, Likud leaders acknowledge their party’s role in the formation and strange durability of the new government. Quietly, not in their rhetoric but in their unexpected new silence, Likud leaders seem to be rethinking their strategy.

The old Likud behaved in ways that helped forge a cross-partisan coalition powerful enough to crowbar Netanyahu out of power; it would be wise, they say quietly, for Likud to behave differently if it wishes to weaken that coalition’s raison d’etre and return to power.

We can work together

While most of Likud has gone quiet in recent days, some of Netanyahu’s other allies are showing an open willingness to cooperate with the coalition.

Few constituencies are as deeply hurt by the loss of power as the Haredi community. No one is as keenly aware of that as the Haredim themselves.

For months, Haredi politicians have railed against the new government while taking steps to quietly indicate they are willing to cooperate with it to serve their constituents.

Indeed, Netanyahu’s strident rhetoric against the “fraudulent” new government is as much an attempt to pressure the Haredi parties to hold out in the opposition as it is meant to mobilize his own base.

But as the budget law moved forward over the past two weeks, Haredi politicians have been seen increasingly willing to publicly criticize Netanyahu and openly cooperate with the coalition in the Knesset.

That includes United Torah Judaism chair MK Moshe Gafni, even as he continues to launch cries of “betrayal” and accusations of “wickedness” at the government.

(On Thursday, President Isaac Herzog took aim at Gafni’s bombast, saying the word “betrayal” should be stricken from Israel’s political lexicon.)

United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni (left) in the Knesset plenum, on July 26, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In one of the debates last month in the Economy Committee over a particular subsection of the so-called “arrangements bill,” part of the complicated collection of bills and amendments that together comprise the state budget law, Gafni entered the committee room with a request.

Synergy Cables Ltd., a manufacturer of power cables in the hardscrabble southern town of Sderot, was endangered by the new import reforms, which would ease the bureaucratic hurdles for importing cheaper cables from overseas.

Synergy is Israel’s only power cable manufacturer, and supplies just 20% of the domestic market’s needs. If it lost its last competitive advantage — to wit, the fact that Israel’s byzantine import regulations artificially increase the consumer costs of imported cables — it would have to close, firing its Sderot employees.

Gafni’s request was simply: Grant Synergy a sweeping exemption from the import reform with a special exception for power cables.

Committee chair MK Michael Biton’s response was unusual and downright effusive. He welcomed “Rabbi Gafni” to the meeting, lavished on him compliments, including his assertion that he’d “learned so much from you” as a parliamentarian, and made a show of pushing the power-cable exemption through to a speedy vote.

Several hundred products, especially safety-sensitive ones like gas burners, children’s toys and baby formula, were already included in the law. But these exemptions were mostly written into the law by government safety regulators. Synergy’s was the only product in the vast reform which was granted a permanent exemption by the Economy Committee itself.

Synergy Cables Ltd. may be a fine company, but the exemption wasn’t about the manufacturer. It was an act of political theater directed at UTJ chairman Gafni. Gafni broke ranks with the Likud-led opposition, made a specific and detailed request, and was received with as many honors as a Knesset committee chairman could bestow, given his every wish in a way that could not have been interpreted as anything but a signal of willing cooperation by the coalition.

To ensure the sometimes distracted political cognoscenti didn’t miss the point, Gafni also pointedly lamented what all now acknowledge to have been the former government’s greatest sin and failure: “Passing a budget is important,” he told the committee. “We know now we made a mistake. We should have passed a budget.”

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