In a scene that no scriptwriter would have attempted, as outgoing Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced the collapse of his coalition on Monday night, the lights went out in the Knesset hall where he and his leadership colleague Yair Lapid were addressing the nation.
Bennett was promising an “orderly handover” of power to Lapid, who will take over as interim prime minister ahead of elections tentatively expected in October, and was reminding the public that “there’s a country to run,” when the room was briefly plunged into darkness.
“How symbolic,” murmured Lapid, wryly, at his side.
For a year and one week, the most improbable coalition in Israel’s history attempted, in Bennett’s depiction on Monday night, to brighten governance and “restore national dignity,” with its eight constituent parties, from all the way across the spectrum, promising to put aside key ideological differences and drag the country out of political darkness.
In what amounted to his farewell speech, Bennett set out a list of that government’s achievements — including reviving the economy from the ravages of COVID, tackling a wave of terrorism, and preventing a return to the 2015 Iran deal without harming ties with the United States. But most importantly, in his summation, his coalition championed “decency, trust… and a culture of togetherness.” In that vein, Bennett spoke with real warmth and regard for his “mensch” of a coalition partner Lapid, who reciprocated: “I want to thank you for our friendship; I love you very much.”
Ultimately, though, while the eight party leaders in the coalition stuck firmly together, and remained committed to their common cause of preventing a return to power by the man they ousted, Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, several of their legislative troops proved less loyal to the cause.
The left-wing Meretz, the centrist Blue and White, the right-wing Yisrael Beytenu, and the Islamist party Ra’am all included MKs who failed to unstintingly support the coalition’s legislative agenda. But it was Bennett’s own Yamina party that ultimately felled his government and aborted his prime ministership.
One Yamina member, Amichai Chikli, voted with the Netanyahu-led opposition from day one last June. Another, Idit Silman, quit in April, dropping the coalition to 60-60 parity with the opposition, dooming key legislation. And a third, Nir Orbach, a longtime personal ally of Bennett’s, announced last week that he was bolting the coalition as well — dealing the blow that precipitated Bennett’s reluctant acknowledgment of defeat.
However effective Bennett is judged to have briefly been as Israel’s prime minister, he was manifestly lousy at party politics — his own party’s politics — having selected a Knesset slate that broke apart under Netanyahu’s relentless pressure.
In his very brief remarks following Bennett’s, Lapid argued that the collapse of the coalition demonstrated that the Israeli political system “is in need of serious change and major repairs.”
But the system has functioned perfectly effectively for Netanyahu. Bennett castigated the Likud leader on Monday night for sacrificing Israeli security interests in the cause of his political ambition — notably by mustering the votes to prevent the coalition from renewing critical legislation that applies Israeli law to Jewish settlers.
But just as the coalition had coalesced around the single cause of ousting Netanyahu — its members variously branding him dangerously divisive, a threat to democracy, and willing to sacrifice Israel’s wellbeing for his own — so, too, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister focused all his efforts this past year on the single goal of regaining power. While Bennett, Lapid, Gideon Sa’ar, Avigdor Liberman, et al argued that Israel’s prime national interest was to remove him, Netanyahu countered that Israel’s most important interest was to remove them. And on Monday, he prevailed.
Numerous Israeli political commentators on Monday predicted that as Israel now heads toward its fifth general election in three-and-a-half years, the result will be as unworkable as it was those four previous times — with no party leader or bloc capable of assembling a coalition strong enough and stable enough to hold power for long.
But that assessment does not square with the current political momentum, which hugely favors Netanyahu. Sa’ar’s New Hope is polling below the Knesset threshold in some surveys. So, too, is Mansour Abbas’s Ra’am. Bennett’s Yamina is a broken political vessel, and has been overtaken on the religious-nationalist right by the rising Religious Zionism party, complete with its Kahanist provocateur, Itamar Ben Gvir.
It is by no means clear that Bennett will risk humiliation by even running again in the next elections; he already lost his seat once, in the April 2019 vote.
Netanyahu, by contrast, is flying high. As politically astute and energetic as ever at age 72, he preempted the Bennett-Lapid press conference on Monday evening by issuing his own statement hailing the collapse of “the worst government in Israeli history” and promising to replace it with a “broad national government” — a possible first hint that he will try to appeal to the Israeli political center, having tightened his control of the Israeli right.
Helping his cause, too, is the fact that the state prosecution is publicly floundering in the most serious of the corruption cases for which he is on trial, recently failing to persuade the judges at Jerusalem District Court to let it amend the indictment in so-called Case 4000.
Though polls should always be treated with caution, Netanyahu is also soaring there. His Likud, Religious Zionism and the two ultra-Orthodox parties managed 52 seats in the March 2021 elections; recent polls gave those same four parties 60 seats — just one short of a Knesset majority.
And that was before he turned out the lights on the Bennett government.
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