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Analysis

Lapid and Bennett have a coalition on paper, but Netanyahu will fight to the end

Drawing together eight wildly disparate parties was immensely difficult. The PM can be relied upon to make the lead-up to the Knesset’s vote of confidence more tortuous still

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Yamina chief Naftali Bennett and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid are seen on Wednesday evening, as they inform President Reuven Rivlin they have succeeded in forming a government, June 2, 2021 (Courtesy)
Yamina chief Naftali Bennett and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid are seen on Wednesday evening, as they inform President Reuven Rivlin they have succeeded in forming a government, June 2, 2021 (Courtesy)

Yair Lapid informed President Reuven Rivlin some 35 minutes before the Wednesday midnight deadline that he “has been able to form a government,” according to the official statement issued by his Yesh Atid party.

Which he has, in theory. Bringing an end to the record-breaking 12-year rule of Benjamin Netanyahu, in theory.

The leaders of eight Knesset parties signed a document that was sent to Rivlin confirming that they will comprise the new government. Between them, Yesh Atid (17 seats), Blue and White (8), Yisrael Beytenu (7), Labor (7), Yamina (6 of its 7 MKs), New Hope (6), Meretz (6) and Ra’am (4) hold 61 seats in the 120-member Knesset, giving their coalition the narrowest possible majority, but a majority nonetheless. (So elated was Lapid when he telephoned the president, with Bennett at his side, that he apparently clean forgot to include Yisrael Beytenu as he listed the coalition’s component parties.)

Yet the intended government must still win the confidence of the Knesset, in a vote that will not take place for several days. Judging by the extraordinary strains and complexities that attended the last few days of nail-biting negotiations on this so-called “change government,” the process of securing Knesset approval will be extraordinarily fraught. And Netanyahu can be relied upon to make it as difficult as possible, as he battles desperately to retain power.

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid (L), Yamina leader Naftali Bennett (C) and Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas sign a coalition agreement on June 2, 2021 (Courtesy of Ra’am)

The intended coalition sets one precedent by including Ra’am, the first Arab party in Israeli history to play a vital role in the potential establishment of a governing coalition. It sets another precedent by drawing together the most diverse mix of political parties ever to plan to sit in government: Two from the left (Labor and Meretz), two from the center (Yesh Atid and Blue and White), three from the right (Yamina, New Hope and Yisrael Beytenu), and the conservative Islamic Ra’am.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks in Caesarea on May 28, 2021, imploring right-wing political rivals not to join a ‘left-wing government’ with Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid. (Screen capture/Twitter)

For all the well-intentioned declarations that this will be a “unity” government, dedicated to healing the nation, with all participants having to forego at least some of their dreams while somehow simultaneously not having to cross their ideological red lines, their unifying factor is the belief that Netanyahu is bad for the State of Israel. But that has not stopped Netanyahu prying for weak links within the parties, and he is certain to step up the pressure, particularly on Bennett’s Orthodox-nationalist Yamina.

Bennett, who is set to go first as prime minister, with Lapid succeeding him in September 2023, has already lost one member of his seven-seat faction, with freshman MK Amichai Chikli declaring that he will vote against the coalition. Another Yamina MK, Nir Orbach, is set to meet with Bennett on Thursday as he mulls following Chikli’s lead. A third, Idit Silman, is also under pressure to defy the party leader.

As for Bennett’s long-time colleague Ayelet Shaked, she appeared to be almost visibly wrestling with her political conscience in the final days before Wednesday’s deadline, and her demand for representation on the committee that selects Israel’s judges seemed poised to scuttle the whole enterprise at times during the last two days of talks. Entering what Netanyahu and his thus far entirely loyal Likud alleges is a left-wing government will not be easy for Shaked, whose children are reportedly being insulted at school, whose close friend is said to be hunger-striking outside her home, and who, like Bennett, is being subjected to vicious abuse by far-right demonstrators and social media provocateurs.

Head of the Yamina party Naftali Bennett and Yamina MK Ayelet Shaked seen in the plenum hall of the Israeli parliament during the voting in the presidential elections, in Jerusalem, June 2, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Because the Bennett-Lapid government is looking at only a 61-59 majority at best, any single defection to the Netanyahu camp could doom it.

Still, while four of the six MKs in the Joint List of mainly Arab parties have pledged to oppose the new government, because of the prominence of Bennett and other right-wingers, the other two have yet to specify how they will vote, and might conceivably come to the new government’s rescue. Or they might not.

The document signed by eight participating parties announcing the establishment of a government. (Courtesy)

The point is that while Lapid has a governing majority on paper — indeed, on the very paper that he sent to Rivlin shortly before midnight — he and Bennett will not have a government in practice unless or until the Knesset says so.

This means that Netanyahu, who it emerged on Wednesday has been in frequent contact with Mansour Abbas to try to persuade the Ra’am leader not to join forces with Lapid, is close to the edge but not finished yet. He had 28 days before Lapid to try to muster a majority and failed to do so — in part because the far-right Religious Zionism alliance whose route he paved into the Knesset refused to partner with Ra’am. But that won’t stop him trying until the last possible moment to thwart the most improbable alliance ever assembled to govern Israel — an alliance that cuts across ideological lines with the central purpose of ousting him.

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