Israel Middle East Politics & Diplomacy


June 17, 2022

The Bennett-Lapid coalition is still holding on, but Israel can’t seem to let go of Bibi

By Noga Tarnopolsky

Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu loves the spotlight and remains, one year out of office, Israel’s greatest prestidigitator of attention.

On the judicial front, he faces judges in Tel Aviv, where he is suing another former prime minister, Ehud Olmert, for libel, over the latter calling him “a mental case.” He also faces judges in Jerusalem, where he remains on trial for fraud, bribery, and breach of trust, which were allegedly committed during the final tumultuous years of his twelve-year term in office.

As if this wasn’t enough, on June 14, the “Likud Under Benjamin Netanyahu,” as his party renamed itself, filed a police complaint against Meretz legislator Yair Golan, accusing him of “incitement to violence and murder against former Prime Minister Netanyahu” for referring to Netanyahu as “malignant.”

Netanyahu himself woke to a week of breathless headlines announcing everything from “Netanyahu is back” to “Netanyahu and the right are about to regain power” and “Bennett failed as an alternative to Netanyahu” to—among the most modest—“Is a return to power in Netanyahu’s grasp?”

This isn’t really news. Proclaiming Netanyahu’s imminent return to power has become something of a parlor game from the moment he left office, when he protested the illegitimacy of his ouster and declared “we’ll be back!”—in English—in the Knesset plenum (one year ago this week). At the time, Netanyahu derisively estimated that the Naftali Bennett-Yair Lapid coalition that replaced him would last two months. But, behind the commotion that billows around Netanyahu, Israel’s fragile, bold coalition survived to govern for another week.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett welcomed Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to Jerusalem on June 13, and gladly received news of President Joe Biden’s impending visit. Despite the opposition of activists, on June 15, Israeli Energy Minister Karine Elharrar flew to Cairo to sign a historic deal ensuring the flow of Israeli natural gas to Europe—another act of quiet support for American-led sanctions against Russia.

It was inevitable that post-Netanyahu Israel would, for a few years at least, be buffeted by political instability. But the constant thrum about Netanyahu’s return to power elides two crucial facts: the first, that he has no evident path back and, the second, that his own rule was characterized by unprecedented volatility and melodrama.

Netanyahu’s final two years in office, during much of which he served as acting prime minister, saw him teeter from one interim government to another, as he bounced from one election to another and another—and eventually to a fourth on March 23, 2021—in what would ultimately be a failed attempt to remain in office.

To that same end during this period, he spurned supreme court rulings and attacked the judiciary as part of a conspiracy to perpetrate a coup against him. While lacerating police investigations into his alleged crimes occurred, he refused to appoint a police commissioner for two years. He briefly suspended parliament in 2020—flouting a Supreme Court ruling. In 2021, he attempted (again, illegally and unsuccessfully) to appoint a crony justice minister who he hoped would suspend his trial.

Over a period of several years, Netanyahu turned the prime ministership into an arm of his personal campaign to hold onto power. He left office claiming the election had been stolen from him, asserting that Bennett was a crook with no legitimacy to hold office. It isn’t mere happenstance that May 2021 was arguably Israel’s January 6, 2021.

In his lurid Knesset valedictory, in which he took swipes at United States presidents from Theodore Roosevelt to Biden, Netanyahu proudly described himself as the only man capable of “saying no” to the United States, Israel’s top strategic ally, and implied that Biden was enabling an extermination of Jews.

Netanyahu’s most enduring legacy is the scorched political earth he left behind.

Israeli society is exhausted. Its polity is fragmented, and the right, which Netanyahu still claims to lead, is splintered by infighting over ideological purity. The Likud party is a stump of what it used to be—its legislators discombobulated by life in the opposition, fractured by constant scheming, and bereft of concrete ideas, offering the public nothing but the hope of a glorious return.

Can ‘Make Israel Great Again’ seduce the Israeli voter? Polls show Likud continuing to hover at about thirty-five Knesset seats or about a quarter of the house. Its only dependable allies are the Kahanist religious Zionists and the ultra-Orthodox, who themselves are divided over the wisdom of having become vassals to Netanyahu’s grand vision.

Netanyahu promised his followers a torrent of coalition defectors. One year later, despite government losses, he has none. Disaffected coalition dropouts have opted for political limbo rather than joining forces with the Likud, and each rumor of a possible defection brings with it Likud Knesset members warning their leader against selling their hard-earned seats to Bennett turncoats.

Those prophets of Netanyahu’s return would do well to remember how disliked and untrusted he is even among his own political troops. Half of the current coalition are exiles from Netanyahu’s Likud.

It will take years for Israel to right its political ship. For now, it’s only way forward is turbulent, either in the form of shaky governing coalitions or, worse, through additional cycles of inconclusive elections, which is the most likely outcome should the Bennett-Lapid coalition fall. It is a wonder that it has lasted one year.

It goes without saying that Netanyahu is not back, but it is also true that Israel still lives in a Netanyahu world. Here, political reality is filtered through his lens.

In the opposition, Netanyahu’s favorite word has become “collapse.” The corruption trial, he announces daily, has collapsed. The government, he declares radiantly, has collapsed. Israel’s Iran policy—visibly in better shape than it was under his mandate—has collapsed.

Despite the fact that none of this is true, and in defiance of the government’s significant achievements above and beyond survival, collapse is the word that predominated news coverage this week.

Instead of laying out the convoluted details of witness testimony, Israel’s legal reporters backslide into their old symbiosis with Netanyahu and ask judicial experts whether the case has collapsed or report that “the case hasn’t yet collapsed.” Netanyahu parameters still define the discourse.

Israel, as it recovers from his rule, has an opportunity to repossess the public sphere. The burst in notifications of the coalition’s impending collapse—some going so far as to speak of the ruling government in the past tense—share fertile ground with the feverish 2019 obsession with annexation—another Netanyahu fantasy that took over news coverage without ever taking shape in the real world—or with Trump Heights, the new Golan Heights settlement named for the former president, which is destined to remain a mirage.

The Bennett-Lapid government may fall but, in the rough post-Netanyahu ecosphere, it has decent enough chances of enduring. In doing so, it should wean Israel (and observers of Israel) from an unhealthy addiction to Bibimania.

Noga Tarnopolsky is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem. She has two decades of experience covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the United States in the Middle East, and human rights in South America. Follow her on Twitter: @ntarnopolsky.

Further reading

Image: A right-wing Israeli activist holds up a poster with an image of Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu while others wave Israeli national flags during a rally in Jerusalem, April 6, 2022. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun