Israel awoke Monday to a new, post-Netanyahu dawn — to a fragile and phenomenally diverse coalition whose members chorused their determination to work for the good of the country. The sun rose as usual, just as Naftali Bennett had promised last week that it would, except he was now prime minister. “King Bibi,” it turned out, was not a monarch after all.
As they assembled for the traditional photograph with the president, there was no mistaking the breadth of Israel represented by the ministers in the government headed by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid. On one side of President Reuven Rivlin sat Bennett, Israel’s first Orthodox prime minister and the former head of the Settlers Council. On the other sat Lapid, the secular centrist who drew together the radically improbable eight-party mix that on Sunday unseated Benjamin Netanyahu after 12 years.
Among those arrayed behind them stood an Ethiopia-born minister (Pnina Tamano Shata), a former IDF chief of staff (Benny Gantz), Israel’s first openly gay party leader (Nitzan Horowitz), a minister from the Arab community (Issawi Frej), other ex-army officers, and immigrants from the former Soviet Union. In her wheelchair to Lapid’s left was Karine Elharrar (she has muscular dystrophy), the incoming energy minister.
For Rivlin, who publicly declared his discomfort when charging Benjamin Netanyahu with forming a government after the March 23 elections, but expressed no such reservations when transferring the mandate to Lapid in May after Netanyahu failed, Monday’s ceremony was a fortuitously timed delight. Rivlin’s seven-year term ends next month, and he relished this most significant of his final events, taking the time to shake hands with all, and embrace many, of the 27 ministers in the government that has ended Netanyahu’s rule.
Not only does Israel’s new government hail from diverse backgrounds, however, but its component parties are advocates of radically contrasting ideologies.
Bennett would want to annex up to 60% of the West Bank; Meretz’s Horowitz would like to withdraw to the pre-1967 lines. Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman would seek to maximize conscription in the ultra-Orthodox community and drastically reduce that sector’s government funding; Bennett and maybe even Lapid hold out the hope of at least some of the ultra-Orthodox MKs joining the coalition.
The challenge from Monday’s day one, therefore, will be to bridge or set aside the gaping differences between these parties — three right-wing, two centrist, two left-wing and one Arab — and defy the many doom-mongers by getting on with the business of effective government. At the President’s Residence, the rhetoric, at least, was encouraging. Said Elharrar: “We’ve come to work. We have a deep obligation to this coalition.” Said Frej, the new minister for regional cooperation: “I thought this [ceremony] would be no big deal, but actually it’s very emotional. Now, though, I’m solely focused on what we can achieve [in government].”
Looming over the new government’s optimism and declared determination to put aside differences in the service of the public, however, is the dark shadow of ex-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has vowed to do everything in his considerable power to quickly bring it down.
Netanyahu irresponsibly inflamed opposition to this coalition when it was taking shape, charging that it was fraudulent, illegitimate, in league with the “deep state,” un-Jewish, and a direct threat to Israel’s security. His loyal MKs dishonored Bennett’s speech introducing the government and its agenda, with orchestrated heckling throughout. His own address was derisive of Bennett and his prospects of governing Israel effectively, and utterly devoid of any grace in defeat.
And his truly shocking decision Monday to forgo the traditional public handover ceremony, with a toast for the incoming prime minister, was malevolent, disrespectful to the office of prime minister, and unpatriotic.
Shimon Peres surmounted the pain of his narrow defeat, overcame the still-fresh grief over the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, and put aside whatever thoughts he may have had regarding Netanyahu’s role in the pre-assassination climate of incitement against Rabin, to courteously hand over the premiership to Netanyahu in 1996. However deeply he is raging at being forced into opposition, Netanyahu owed it to his country and its people to usher in the new government and its head with publicly expressed warmth and support.
Instead, he reportedly gave Bennett less than an hour of his time, and then departed to convene his new opposition forces in a Knesset meeting room. Introduced there by ex-coalition chief Miki Zohar as “prime minister,” Netanyahu renewed his pledge to quickly oust “this dangerous left-wing government… this fraudulent government,” claiming he could feel its “weak points” at “the tips of my fingers.” Unsurprisingly, he did not refer to Prime Minister Bennett; indeed, he did not mention Bennett at all.
Netanyahu’s conduct in recent weeks, and especially recent days, culminating in Monday’s petulant incivility toward his successor, only adds weight to the claims of those, including from his own ideological camp, who campaigned against him because, they argued, he had come to place his own interests above those of the state, and had, for all his experience, intelligence and success, become more of a liability than an asset.
Restoring respect for our battered democracy
The swearing-in of the new coalition, as I wrote on Sunday, was a vital reaffirmation of Israel’s democratic process, a much-needed confirmation, after 12 years, that we remain capable of properly changing our leadership, in accordance with the will of the electorate and the alliances of the elected; that we remain capable of an orderly transfer of power, however reluctant the defeated incumbent may be to give it up.
If accomplishing that transfer of power was the first great achievement of the new coalition, its challenges now include restoring respect for core elements of our democracy battered and degraded in the Netanyahu years.
The former prime minister worked strategically to discredit Israeli law enforcement — the police, the state prosecution, the judiciary — as part of his efforts to thwart his corruption trial. He stirred up hostility to the media, as purported enemies of the state, and likewise sought to demonize political opponents, who were all branded “dangerous leftists” irrespective of their ideology. He delegitimized the attorney general, and routinely disregarded his advice. Last year, in an incident that was quickly forgotten but should not have been, his loyalist Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein, a man who has ambitions to succeed him, flagrantly defied a Supreme Court ruling at his insistence.
The new coalition has a budget to pass; its new ministers have jobs to learn; innumerable domestic and regional concerns are pressing. But Bennett, Lapid and their coalition have the opportunity and the urgent obligation, by demonstrating their respect for Israel’s democratic institutions and norms, to help revive wider public respect for them.
The balance of forces
Deliberately and rather unfortunately channeling Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Terminator,” Netanyahu vowed in his vituperative Sunday speech that “We’ll be back… soon.” He may harbor hopes of getting Bennett and Lapid unseated before he even has to give up the official Prime Minister’s Residence on Balfour Street in the next few weeks. And the coalition’s single-seat majority might suggest that the task is relatively straightforward.
Bennett’s patent discomfort as the votes were cast suggested he feared a repeat of Peres’s 1990 humiliation. Lapid, by contrast, was sauntering, relaxedly, near the entrance to the plenum, confident that the coalition had its required simple majority, with three MKs from the Joint List staying out of the chamber until it was confirmed — a safety net that wasn’t needed.
So while the vote was carried by just one vote, 60-59, that does not equate to an automatic 59 votes already lined up against the coalition in subsequent no-confidence motions. The dependably pro-Netanyahu bloc comprises Likud, Shas, United Torah Judaism and Religious Zionism — 52 votes. Yamina’s renegade MK Amichai Chikli would presumably add a 53rd. That’s a formidable opposition complement, but the six-seat Joint List is manifestly not in anybody’s pocket, and the Ra’am MK who abstained on Sunday, Said al-Harumi, was protesting a specific demolition of Negev homes in his Bedouin constituency rather than bolting the coalition before it had taken charge.
In short, running Israel with a complicated multi-party coalition and a wafer-thin majority, facing a supremely experienced political operator bent on your demise, is a long way from ideal, but is potentially viable.
The one thing that would definitely threaten its life expectancy would be Netanyahu stepping aside as leader of the opposition — removing the glue that holds these eight parties together. But then, of course, they would never have won power had Netanyahu stepped aside, since Bennett and Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope would have joined forces with Likud in a right-wing, ultra-Orthodox coalition.
And thus, in the great paradox that reaffirmed our democracy, we awoke on Monday to recognize that Benjamin Netanyahu had delivered for Israel its most widely representative government ever, precisely when this divided country needed it most.
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