Op-edThe highly symbolic battle of Balfour Street

Netanyahu’s not going anywhere, and Bennett’s helping him stick around

At the start of what will be a relentless fight to protect his coalition against a predecessor who is treating him despicably, the new PM is already radiating weakness

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).

Defeated prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu walks away after briefly shaking hands with new Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, after the Knesset voted confidence in Bennett's coalition by 60-59 votes, June 13, 2021 (Emmanuel Dunand / AFP)
Defeated prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu walks away after briefly shaking hands with new Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, after the Knesset voted confidence in Bennett's coalition by 60-59 votes, June 13, 2021 (Emmanuel Dunand / AFP)

The sight of Labor MK Emilie Moatti being brought into the Knesset on Sunday night to cast her vote for the new coalition, unable to stand because of a spinal infection, was the clearest possible illustration of the fragility of the Naftali Bennett-Yair Lapid government — and the potential for trouble ahead as it seeks to advance legislation and fend off opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to bring it down.

Israel has its most ideologically diverse government, holding the narrowest possible majority. It thought it would take office with 61 votes to 59. In the event, it mustered 60-59, with Ra’am MK Said al-Harumi abstaining in protest over imminent home demolitions in Bedouin areas of the Negev where he was born, raised and has served as a local council head.

The political wars that attended Tuesday’s first test of the new coalition — when Labor’s Internal Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev approved the Jerusalem Flag re-March to the undoubted relief of Yamina’s Bennett, while Ra’am’s leader Mansour Abbas objected to what he declared was a deliberate provocation by the far right and Yesh Atid’s Ram Ben-Barak acknowledged that Abbas was correct — immediately showcased the differences between many of these unprecedentedly strange governing bedfellows. Endless such ideological tests doubtless lie ahead, but what Moatti’s hurried journey from and back to the hospital to vote on Sunday night underlined is the practical complexity of maintaining the government.

One of its hardest and most urgent challenges will be passing the state budget — a legislative achievement that Israel last managed, would you believe, on March 15, 2018.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, left, Naftali Bennett, center, and Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset on March 13, 2018, celebrating a compromise agreement that paved the way for the passage the next day of the 2019 state budget. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The law gives a new government 100 days to pass a budget; if it fails, the Knesset automatically dissolves and new elections are held. That means the new coalition will have to negotiate the budget’s terms among its eight constituent parties and get it through the committee stages and all three plenum votes by late September. The coalition agreements specify that efforts will be made to amend the relevant Basic Law to increase the 100 days to 145. But the Supreme Court, in a ruling ironically castigated by the Netanyahu-led government, last month indicated its unhappiness at the amending of Basic Laws for short-term political convenience.

Relations between the eight party leaders would appear to be good for now; otherwise, we wouldn’t have a government. But all MKs, in all the coalition parties, will have to be supportive at every stage of the budget process for the legislation to triumph over Netanyahu-marshaled opposition. Nobody will be able to take a trip abroad, attend a funeral, find themselves inconveniently hospitalized, or feel compelled to abstain for even the most heartfelt of reasons.

Yamina MK Idit Silman arrives to attend the swearing-in ceremony of the 24th Knesset in Jerusalem, April 6, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

And this rigid discipline will have to be maintained by a team featuring an inexperienced Finance Committee head (Alex Kushnir of Yisrael Beytenu) and neophyte coalition chief (Idit Silman of Yamina), corralling numerous first-term MKs, including a dozen or so who are only taking office this week under the provisions of the Norwegian Law (whereby ministers can temporarily give up their seats so that other members of their party can enter Knesset).

The prospect of enlarging the coalition, meanwhile, to make its daily viability a little less stressful, looks closer to zero than slim in the foreseeable future. The two ultra-Orthodox parties’ opposition to the new government would appear to be absolute, and dissent within Likud is largely anonymous, thus far.

Yuli Edelstein was a conspicuous absentee from Netanyahu’s Knesset meeting with his opposition MKs on Monday — but he’s not indicated a willingness to challenge the leader, at least not publicly. And while Nir Barkat dared to accurately observe last week that “the national camp” would have successfully formed a coalition had Netanyahu stepped aside, he seems to have been wooed back into the fold after a meeting Wednesday night with Netanyahu at the Balfour Street official prime minister’s residence where the ex-premier is still ensconced.

A cursory, dangerous, unpatriotic transition

Bennett has been branded a liar, fraudster and a danger to the state by Netanyahu, shouted down throughout his opening address by Netanyahu-orchestrated hecklers, and called a traitor at protests encouraged by Netanyahu. He was denied by Netanyahu the customary, gracious public transfer-of-power ceremony. In perhaps Netanyahu’s most dangerous and unpatriotic act of all, Bennett was given only the most cursory of transition briefings by his predecessor, in a session so short that Netanyahu could not possibly have updated him, among other crucial matters, on his innumerable private international dealings for which no notetaker was present and whose content is manifestly critical for the incoming prime minister.

Treated by his predecessor as an irritant and imposter, Bennett persists in regarding the spitting as rain, a stance symbolized by his bureau’s indulgent silence when questioned about Bennett’s willingness to let Netanyahu and family stay on in the official residence.

US President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden arrive at the White House in Washington, DC, on January 20, 2021. (Jim WATSON / AFP)

In the US, the new president heads straight into the White House from the inauguration. In the UK, the new prime minister enters 10 Downing Street directly on his or her return from formally being tasked with forming a government by the monarch at Buckingham Palace.

In Israel after Sunday night’s era-defining end to 12 years of Netanyahu’s rule, the new prime minister tootled off home to Ra’anana, and the ousted prime minister returned to the official residence on Balfour Street, as though nothing had changed. Showing no inclination whatsoever to leave, the freshly self-styled “Your Highness” continues to receive foreign dignitaries at the Balfour “palace” and hold political meetings there directly designed to hobble and quickly defeat his successor.

The Prime Minister’s Residence on Balfour Street (Yaakov Saar / GPO)

Bennett may think he’s taking the high ground and looking dignified and patient, but his disinclination to require Netanyahu to vacate the premises suggests he is suffering from intimidation, precisely when he needs to radiate confidence. Netanyahu, whose highly serviceable accommodation alternatives include his spacious home in Caesarea, is telling his forces he’s not going anywhere. At the Prime Minister’s Residence, for now, Bennett has let him show that’s indeed the case.

It’s an inauspicious portent for a wafer-thin coalition, in the early days of a protracted battle to survive against Israel’s most skilled, resilient and ruthless politician.

Along with that horizontal vote by Labor’s Moatti, another resonant moment from Sunday’s Knesset drama came after Netanyahu and Bennett briefly shook hands. Bennett then reached over to pat his predecessor on the shoulder, as if in amicable commiseration for Netanyahu’s defeat. But Netanyahu was already turning away, walking off. He’s not remotely interested in sympathy; he’s planning his comeback.

** An earlier version of this Editor’s Note was sent out Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.

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