The first rule of Israeli politics watching is to never count out Benjamin Netanyahu. The fragile coalition government that was formed to oust him last night still needs to survive a confidence vote in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. The speaker of the Knesset is a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party and can delay the vote until June 14, a lifetime in this era of Israeli politics and ample time for Netanyahu to pick off wavering right-wing votes from the “change bloc.”
And there are plenty of ways to imagine this unwieldy coalition falling apart on its own.
The new government, if it can survive the week, will certainly be the most ideologically disparate one in Israel’s history, and may be the most unlikely governing coalition anywhere in the world. For an American point of comparison, try to imagine a Joe Biden–Ted Cruz co-presidency with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Liz Cheney serving in the Cabinet.
The eight parties that would make up the government include the far-left and the far-right, two-staters and annexationists. The coalition would be led by Israel’s first yarmulke-wearing Orthodox Jewish prime minister, and would be the first to include a Reform rabbi, an openly gay party leader (Nitzan Horowitz of Meretz), and an Islamist. The inclusion of the Ra’am party breaks an unwritten rule of Israeli politics: that Arab parties do not serve in government. The wrangling that allowed this government to happen required Yair Lapid, whose centrist Yesh Atid party came in second in the last election after Likud and who therefore has the best case of the bunch to be the leader, to allow Naftali Bennett, whose right-wing Yamina party was in a four-way tie for fifth place, to be prime minister. (Under the terms of the deal, Lapid will take over as prime minister in 2023, which assumes the government lasts that long.)
The fact that such an unholy mutant of a government could even be a possibility is a testament to just how polarizing Netanyahu has become: These parties have nothing in common except a desire to remove the 12-year prime minister and current criminal defendant from power. Just two weeks ago, Netanyahu appeared to have pulled off yet another remarkable escape, when Bennett pulled out of coalition talks during the conflict with Gaza, saying he did not feel a government including Ra’am could adequately see to Israel’s defense in a conflict with Hamas. Opposition lawmakers didn’t exactly accuse the prime minister of intentionally escalating the crisis in order to stay in power, but they didn’t exactly reject the premise either. In the end, the prospect of immediately becoming prime minister proved too much for Bennett to resist.
Netanyahu, who may very well be fighting to stay out of jail as much as to stay in office, can be expected to go full scorched-earth in what may be his final week, portraying the new government as dominated by leftists and Arab interests. There are fears that he could even take a page from his friend Donald Trump’s book and adopt Jan. 6–style tactics to stay in power. (Several potential government ministers have received death threats to themselves and their families.)
What difference would a new government make? For one thing, it would end the two-year, four-election political stalemate in which Netanyahu did not have enough support to form a government and his opponents couldn’t cobble together a coalition to oust him. With a real, non-caretaker government, Israel could pass its first budget since 2018. One of the few Israeli interest groups that don’t have a representative in the Change Bloc is the ultra-Orthodox, who hitched their wagon to Netanyahu some time ago. In fact, it was former Defense and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s feud with the ultra-Orthodox parties over military service for Yeshiva students that first sparked Israel’s two-year political meltdown in the first place. (Lieberman, a secular right-winger whose base is Israel’s Russian immigrant community, is likely to play an influential role in the new government.) While personally religious, Bennett isn’t much of a culture warrior, and Israel may move somewhat left on issue like gay rights, marijuana, and access to prayer at the Western Wall, though the presence of the socially conservative Islamist Ra’am party adds another complicating factor.
As far as Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories goes, there’s not likely to be much change. If anything, Bennett—one of the most prominent political leaders of the settlement movement—is further to the right than Netanyahu on these issues: He’s implacably opposed to a two-state solution, and while the current prime minister has flirted with annexing parts of the West Bank, it’s a major part of Bennett’s platform. The Biden administration will also not find Bennett any more cooperative when it comes to hopes of reviving the Iran nuclear deal.
Still, it would be a mistake to dismiss this as an irrelevant development in the conflict. In recent years, the dominant political dynamic in the country has been Netanyahu lurching ever rightward in a bid to shore up his base and hold on to power. This reached its nadir with his embrace of members of the violent, neo-fascist Kahanist movement.
Bennett, meanwhile, will be somewhat constrained by the need to keep his left-wing and centrist, two-stater coalition partners in line. It’s frankly a bit absurd that the leader of a party that controls only six of the 120 seats in parliament is about to be prime minister, and he likely knows it. If he can’t keep this motley bunch together, he may not get another chance at the job. The presence of Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas in the government also adds a new dynamic: He has already extracted concessions for his new partners on the contentious issue of Arab house-building in the Negev.
A government that exists solely for the purpose of removing one man from government seems unlikely to be one that makes any historic changes, but it was still necessary. As long as Israel lurched from inconclusive election to inconclusive election and the dominant political issue of the country was the Bibi psychodrama, any sort of long-term planning, much less political risk-taking, was impossible. The new government may not last long, but it would at least allow the country to think more than a week ahead. By the standards of this corner of the world, that counts as cause for hope.