Israel Middle East Politics & Diplomacy


June 9, 2022

Israel, guess who’s back? Netanyahu is back again.

By Amichai Stein

“Netanyahu is back.” If you ask almost every member of the Israeli coalition government whether this comment will become a reality and former Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will become prime minister again, they will tell you that it is a matter of when, not if.

That realization comes less than one year after Israeli news channels showed a split-screen on June 13: one from the Knesset, where the vote of confidence in the Naftali Bennett-Yair Lapid government was held, and the other from Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, where Israelis gathered to celebrate the departure of Netanyahu after more than a decade in power.

That memorable night, sixty-one Members of Knesset (MKs) voted confidence in the government—only one vote above the threshold for a majority in the 120-seat parliament. However, this was an impossible coalition from the beginning, with eight parties spreading from left to right, including, for the first time, four Arab members from Mansour Abbas’ United Arab List party. Prime Minister Bennett and Alternate Prime Minister Lapid announced that their coalition government would work on 80 percent of the issues that all Israelis agreed on. The coalition agreed that there wouldn’t be a peace process with the Palestinians and that there wouldn’t be annexation of the West Bank.

But Israel imposes its own reality. From the Al-Aqsa Mosque to the Gaza Strip, from building settlements to Arab-Jewish tensions, controversy arises daily. And then, there were the two things the coalition didn’t take into account. First, the “routine” laws, which the Knesset easily approves every year, suddenly become dramatic events. Any issue related to defense, settlements, or even the army became a nail-biter, like the extension of emergency regulations permitting Israeli residents of West Bank settlements to live under civil, rather than military, regulations, which failed to pass on June 6. Second, was the fact that the opposition didn’t blink.

Each proposed law—good or bad; right or left—was opposed en bloc by the opposition. The sixty-one-seat coalition—which shrank to sixty seats with the resignation of Coalition Chairwoman Idit Silman in April—couldn’t count on opposition votes from right-wing parties to pass laws—like the emergency regulations—that left-wing parties in the government opposed on ideological grounds. “I didn’t think the opposition boycott on coalition bills would last this long,” a senior official from the coalition told me.

The easiest thing for Bennett will be to blame others, but he bears the first responsibility for this coalition collapsing. Lapid gave him a coalition on a silver platter and all Bennett needed to do was to keep the seven members of his Yamina party in line. But he failed to do so. The main reason: although he is right-wing and was the first religious prime minister to enter office, Bennett tried to avoid dealing with issues that crossed the left-right divide, and didn’t speak at all when it came to issues of religion. He claimed that he didn’t want to poke the eyes of the left-wing members of the coalition. But that isn’t what his voters and his MKs expected from him. It is one thing to violate an election promise to not sit in a coalition with an Arab party, but it is quite another to not talk about the core issues and advance laws relevant to one’s base.

Many Yamina voters conclude that, while they wanted a right-wing prime minister who isn’t Netanyahu, the alternative wasn’t viable. So, it seems, many are prepared to return to Netanyahu and choose a party—even one with far-right-wing elements—that will ensure that Netanyahu will be a real right-wing prime minister, which includes advancing court reform and pushing for building in the West Bank settlements.

Another huge disappointment for many in the Israeli public, even center-left voters, is the conclusion that a coalition with an Arab party just doesn’t work. Abbas tried to do the impossible: to show the Israeli public that Arabs and Jews can be a part of the same government and overcome the deep divides between them to serve the public. It was indeed a brave experiment, but one that has failed because Abbas, like Bennett, didn’t manage to bring the other three MKs in his party—Mazen Ghnaim, Walid Taha, and Iman Khatib-Yasin—all the way with him. For them, it was like going from zero to one-hundred kilometers an hour in ten seconds, and they couldn’t go all in, including on this week’s vote on the emergency regulations. The moment that even passing routine laws became a nightmare was the moment that many MKs in the coalition threw up their hands.

“I’ve had enough of waiting to learn each morning whether this or that UAL MK will support our bills—and, if not, what he wants to give his support,” one MK in the coalition told me, echoing the sentiments of many.

The failure to hold this delicate coalition together—which is now, in fact, a minority government, with sixty MKs on a good day and fifty-eight on a bad day—will have long-lasting consequences. No one is talking about forming such a coalition again, even if there is a new election.

So, when is this government coming to its end? It’s known that it will happen, but it’s unclear when. No political commentator, including Bennett and Lapid themselves, predicted Silman quitting the coalition, and no one knows who will be next and when they will quit. But the moment another MK has had enough, the opposition will have sixty-one votes to bring down the government. At that moment—based off Israel’s political history—all hell could break loose.

Yes, Israel might go, once again, to an early election, the fifth since 2019. But it is just as likely that an alternate government can be formed in the current Knesset. Bennett’s Yamina and Justice Minister Gideon Saar’s New Hope, the two most right-wing parties in the coalition, are faring poorly in opinion polls. Rather than risk being wiped out by voters, they might opt to join a full right-wing government—even if Netanyahu leads it. It is largely up to Saar. Saar promised before the fourth election that he wouldn’t sit in a government with Netanyahu as prime minister. He even refused an offer to serve with him as rotating prime minister. Saar says that the current coalition has reached the stage where it doesn’t function. However, he is carefully refusing to repeat his vow that he won’t sit with Netanyahu. He may be hinting at the future to come.

Amichai Stein is diplomatic correspondent for Israel’s Kann 11 News. Follow him on Twitter: @AmichaiStein1.

Further reading

Image: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) sits next to Education Minister Naftali Bennett during the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, 30 August 2016. REUTERS/Abir Sultan/Pool