An earthquake hit northern Israel on Wednesday evening, just as outgoing Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was wrapping up the final business of his collapsed government — pledging to help his interim successor Yair Lapid, announcing he wouldn’t be running in the coming elections, and handing what little remains of his Yamina party to the control of longtime ally Ayelet Shaked.
The death of the Bennett-Lapid coalition — cemented on Thursday morning with a Knesset vote that set November 1 as the date of our fifth election since April 2019 — was anything but an earthquake. It was, rather, the inevitable culmination of a relentless process by which an ambitious alliance of largely well-intentioned but strange political bedfellows was gradually crushed.
A few of its members, from several of its component parties, failed to appreciate and solidly support what their party leaders had so improbably put together — a radically disparate alliance conceived in unified hostility to Benjamin Netanyahu that was compelled to set aside divisive ideological positions and govern by consensus. And another few of its members, from Bennett’s own Yamina slate, found they could not live with those required ideological compromises — not under the constant demonizing pressure exerted by Netanyahu and his loyalists.
As with the four previous electoral bouts, Netanyahu, now 72, still fiery and indomitable, is in one corner, scathing and contemptuous of those who dare to challenge him. Unlike those four past contests, however, there’s an incumbent in the other corner — and interim prime minister Yair Lapid (a former amateur boxer) has precisely four months to persuade the electorate to let him retain the title.
But if outcampaigning the hyper-experienced, nimble and ferocious Netanyahu were not onerous enough, Lapid must overcome another challenge: Israeli demographics.
Israel’s ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox-nationalist communities — Netanyahu’s core allies — have long been growing faster than Israel’s secular community. That inexorable shift in electoral weight has been heightened these past two decades by the gradual move rightwards of the middle ground — in an Israel traumatized by the violence of the Second Intifada and viciously persuaded by Hamas and Hezbollah that relinquishing territory was no recipe for peace.
Potentially offsetting the demographic shifts is the gradual growth of Israel’s Arab constituency. By denigrating Mansour Abbas’s Ra’am party as supporters of terrorism, as he did again in the Knesset on Thursday and can be relied upon to do in the coming months, Netanyahu is seeking both to mobilize his voters and alienate Arab voters from the election process. Low Arab turnout on polling day would significantly bolster Netanyahu’s comeback chances.
Right to the very bitter end, all the party leaders who had joined forces to defeat Netanyahu last year refused to partner with him and give him a majority in the now-disbanded Knesset. Avigdor Liberman, Benny Gantz and especially Gideon Sa’ar would have preferred to stave off this next encounter with the electorate. Bennett is stepping away altogether. All of them could have guaranteed their political places for a few more years in Netanyahu’s embrace. All of them resisted — former partners apparently irrevocably alienated.
Netanyahu’s caustic and confident speech in the Knesset on Thursday, an opening election roar, left no doubt that he will be waging a divisive campaign — championing a tough, proud, patriotic camp against the supposed weaklings on the left and their ostensible Arab terrorist allies. Now that it’s election time, there’s no more wooing of allies-turned-opponents.
Briefly, by enlisting Bennett, Lapid managed to assemble just enough support to oust Netanyahu in March 2021 — to overcome the Knesset’s large right-wing majority with a narrow anti-Netanyahu majority. But the partnerships could not hold. Patently preferring to position himself on the political high ground, comfortably understated, amiable, calm, and manifestly skilled at building alliances, Lapid has to somehow outflank Netanyahu again.
Lapid chose not to speak at Thursday’s Knesset dispersal session, just as he barely spoke when the coalition was sworn in last June. He barely spoke when Bennett announced the coalition’s collapse 10 days ago. And his Thursday afternoon prime ministerial handover session with Bennett was brief, too, and anything but bombastic. Addressing the challenge of the premiership, Lapid said modestly: “We’ll do the best we can for a Jewish, democratic state, good and strong and thriving, because that is the job, and it’s bigger than all of us.”
Perhaps he believes that his rival’s scorched earth campaigning style, set against his own hoped-for four months of steady competence, will do the job for him — that enough of the electorate will be alienated by Netanyahu, just as Bennett and Sa’ar and Gantz and Liberman were. Perhaps he believes that Netanyahu might defeat himself.
Supporting The Times of Israel isn’t a transaction for an online service, like subscribing to Netflix. The ToI Community is for people like you who care about a common good: ensuring that balanced, responsible coverage of Israel continues to be available to millions across the world, for free.
Sure, we'll remove all ads from your page and you'll gain access to some amazing Community-only content. But your support gives you something more profound than that: the pride of joining something that really matters.
We’re really pleased that you’ve read X Times of Israel articles in the past month.
That’s why we started the Times of Israel ten years ago - to provide discerning readers like you with must-read coverage of Israel and the Jewish world.
So now we have a request. Unlike other news outlets, we haven’t put up a paywall. But as the journalism we do is costly, we invite readers for whom The Times of Israel has become important to help support our work by joining The Times of Israel Community.
For as little as $6 a month you can help support our quality journalism while enjoying The Times of Israel AD-FREE, as well as accessing exclusive content available only to Times of Israel Community members.
David Horovitz, Founding Editor of The Times of Israel