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Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Sunday, June 13th, 2021

Netanyahu dislodged: Israel finally gets a new government and a new prime minister

Today was one of the biggest days in the his­to­ry of the mod­ern State of Israel.

An incred­i­bly diverse polit­i­cal coali­tion that spans the ide­o­log­i­cal spec­trum from left to right has suc­ceed­ed in dis­lodg­ing the wily, pow­er-obsessed Ben­jamin Netanyahu, which means that for the first time in twelve years — yes, twelve years! — Israel will have a new prime min­is­ter and a non-Likud led government.

Via The Times of Israel:

The gov­ern­ment was backed by eight of the thir­teen par­ties that won seats in the March 23 elec­tion, for a total of six­ty votes in the one hun­dred and twen­ty-mem­ber Knes­set: Yesh Atid (17 seats), Blue and White (8), Yis­rael Beytenu (7), Labor (7), Yam­i­na (6 of its 7 MKs), New Hope (6), Meretz (6) and Ra’am (3 of its 4 MKs).

Late Sun­day, the new coali­tion held its first cab­i­net meet­ing, with par­ty lead­ers call­ing for “restraint” and “trust” to ensure the sur­vival of the fledg­ling government.

Pre­sid­ing over the meet­ing, held in the Knes­set, [Naf­tali] Ben­nett [the new Prime Min­is­ter, Netanyahu’s suc­ces­sor] opened his remarks with the “She­hechiyanu” prayer of thanksgiving.

“We are at the start of new days,” he said, call­ing the estab­lish­ment of a new gov­ern­ment “a wonder.”

Ben­nett vowed that the new gov­ern­ment would work to “mend the rift in the nation” after two years of polit­i­cal deadlock.

Stress­ing the wide range of views with­in the new coali­tion, Ben­nett urged his min­is­ters to show “restraint” over the numer­ous ide­o­log­i­cal dif­fer­ences between the dis­parate par­ties to ensure its stability.

The Knes­set (lit­er­al­ly: gath­er­ing, or assem­bly), for those Cas­ca­dia Advo­cate read­ers who don’t know, is Israel’s leg­isla­tive body, the equiv­a­lent of the Unit­ed States Con­gress or the Par­lia­ment of the Unit­ed King­dom. How­ev­er, unlike those bod­ies, it is uni­cam­er­al, mean­ing there is only one house.

Israel has a Pres­i­dent (cur­rent­ly Reuven Rivlin), but that office has lit­tle polit­i­cal pow­er, and is in fact meant to ensure the coun­try has a head of state who is large­ly above pol­i­tics. It is impor­tant to note that despite hav­ing an office of Pres­i­dent, Israel is not a repub­lic uti­liz­ing a pres­i­den­tial system.

The Pres­i­dent of Israel is more like the Queen of the Unit­ed King­dom (cur­rent­ly Eliz­a­beth II) than the Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States. Among the Pres­i­den­t’s most impor­tant duties is decid­ing who to invite to form a min­istry, or admin­is­tra­tion, or gov­ern­ment (pick your favorite term!) for Israel in the wake of an election.

The Knes­set elects the Prime Min­is­ter and the Cab­i­net as well as the Pres­i­dent. Elec­tions for these posi­tions require a major­i­ty vote to achieve a result. Coali­tion gov­ern­ments are, con­se­quent­ly, a long­stand­ing fea­ture of Israeli pol­i­tics because the biggest par­ties (like Netanyahu’s Likud) nev­er win enough seats in the Knes­set to gov­ern by them­selves, unlike in oth­er par­lia­men­tary democracies.

In recent years, Israeli elec­tions have repeat­ed­ly yield­ed a Knes­set that is very divid­ed, with no one (not even Netanyahu!) able to assem­ble a coali­tion of at least six­ty-one mem­bers, lead­ing to mul­ti­ple do-over elections.

Through it all, Netanyahu has remained in pow­er as the incum­bent Prime Min­is­ter, ben­e­fit­ing from the oppo­si­tion’s inabil­i­ty to find six­ty-one votes to back a new PM.

Until today, that is.

Today, Netanyahu’s twelve year run as Israel’s most pow­er­ful politi­cian came to an end. The afore­men­tioned change bloc pre­vailed, by the nar­row­est of mar­gins, in dis­lodg­ing him and bring­ing a new gov­ern­ment to Israel.

The man who made it hap­pen is Yair Lapid, the head of a cen­trist par­ty called Yesh Atid (“There Is a Future”). Formed by Lapid in 2012, Yesh Atid “seeks to rep­re­sent what it con­sid­ers the cen­ter of Israeli soci­ety: the sec­u­lar mid­dle class. It focus­es pri­mar­i­ly on civic, socio-eco­nom­ic, and gov­er­nance issues, includ­ing gov­ern­ment reform and end­ing mil­i­tary draft exemp­tions for the ultra-Orthodox.”

Giv­en the oppor­tu­ni­ty by Rivlin to form a gov­ern­ment after Netanyahu failed, Lapid patient­ly worked to cob­ble togeth­er the six­ty-one seats need­ed to bring change to Israel. It was­n’t easy: as men­tioned, the par­ties in the change bloc dis­agree on a lot, and the recent con­flict with Hamas dis­rupt­ed negotiations.

In the end, though, Lapid was able to uni­fy the many par­ties in the change bloc behind their col­lec­tive, over­ar­ch­ing goal of oust­ing Netanyahu.

Lapid real­ly seems to under­stand the impor­tance of play­ing the long game.

Though he had the respon­si­bil­i­ty of attempt­ing to build a Knes­set major­i­ty, he deferred his ambi­tions of serv­ing as Prime Min­is­ter for the time being, to ensure the change bloc could hold togeth­er. Lapid will serve as For­eign Min­is­ter for now, while Naf­tali Ben­nett serves as Prime Min­is­ter. If the coali­tion holds togeth­er, Ben­nett will rotate out and Lapid will become Prime Min­is­ter in 2023.

You can think of the new Knes­set major­i­ty as akin to the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty’s bare, razor thin major­i­ty in the Unit­ed States Sen­ate. Every sin­gle vote mat­ters. Every sin­gle vote is extreme­ly impor­tant. This coali­tion is frag­ile — of that, there is no ques­tion. But at least for the moment, it has held togeth­er, and it has suc­ceed­ed in remov­ing Ben­jamin Netanyahu from pow­er, which is a real­ly big deal.

No one has served as Prime Min­is­ter of Israel longer than Netanyahu.

His ini­tial stint as PM was from June of 1996 to July of 1999. A lit­tle less than ten years after relin­quish­ing the office, Netanyahu got it back, in March of 2009.

He’d prob­a­bly still be in pow­er even now if he had­n’t alien­at­ed so many oth­er right wing fac­tions in Israeli pol­i­tics, due to the left­’s chron­ic elec­toral weakness.

“Ben­jamin Netanyahu could have been lead­ing a sta­ble gov­ern­ment in Israel right now. Instead, for­mer allies like incom­ing Prime Min­is­ter Naf­tali Ben­nett brought him down after he betrayed and lied to them for too long,” Haaret­z’s Anshel Pfef­fer not­ed, in an apt­ly-titled col­umn (Bibi Raised, and Betrayed, a Gen­er­a­tion of Politi­cians. Today They Dethroned Him.)

Lack­ing any maneu­vers he could use to block the change bloc, Netanyahu was forced to watch a for­mer pro­tege take his place with the back­ing of a remark­able coali­tion that includes left wing and cen­trist par­ties as well as right wing par­ties that agree than con­tin­ued rule by Netanyahu would be bad for the country.

Ben­nett is ide­o­log­i­cal­ly very right wing, but he is only PM thanks to the back­ing of left wing and cen­trist par­ties, so he’ll have to gov­ern thought­ful­ly and coop­er­a­tive­ly if his gov­ern­ment is to last any length of time.

Pres­i­dent Joe Biden wast­ed no time in reach­ing out to Ben­nett to offer his con­grat­u­la­tions, despite being in the mid­dle of his first trip overseas.

From a read­out pro­vid­ed by the White House:

Pres­i­dent Biden spoke today with Prime Min­is­ter Ben­nett to offer his warm con­grat­u­la­tions to Prime Min­is­ter Ben­nett on becom­ing Prime Min­is­ter of the State of Israel. Pres­i­dent Biden high­light­ed his decades of stead­fast sup­port for the U.S.-Israel rela­tion­ship and his unwa­ver­ing com­mit­ment to Israel’s secu­ri­ty. He expressed his firm intent to deep­en coop­er­a­tion between the Unit­ed States and Israel on the many chal­lenges and oppor­tu­ni­ties fac­ing the region. The lead­ers agreed that they and their teams would con­sult close­ly on all mat­ters relat­ed to region­al secu­ri­ty, includ­ing Iran. The Pres­i­dent also con­veyed that his admin­is­tra­tion intends to work close­ly with the Israeli gov­ern­ment on efforts to advance peace, secu­ri­ty, and pros­per­i­ty for Israelis and Palestinians.

Biden’s Cab­i­net sec­re­taries, mean­while, reached out to their Israeli coun­ter­parts. Sec­re­tary of State Antony Blinken spoke to Lapid and U.S. Sec­re­tary of Defense Lloyd Austin spoke to Ben­ny Gantz, who remains Israel’s Defense Min­is­ter due to hav­ing agreed to serve in Netanyahu’s cab­i­net after the last election.

(Gantz is one of the lead­ers in the change bloc and had ambi­tions of becom­ing Prime Min­is­ter him­self, but last year, he unwise­ly struck a pow­er shar­ing deal with Netanyahu after COVID-19 hit, anger­ing a large num­ber of his sup­port­ers and dis­may­ing his allies in oth­er par­ties. Netanyahu reneged on their deal after only a few months, which forced Israel to hold yet anoth­er election.)

Oth­er world lead­ers also offered their con­grat­u­la­tions to the new coali­tion, from the U.K.‘s Boris John­son to Canada’s Justin Trudeau.

Netanyahu’s ouster is an impor­tant moment for Israel. It demon­strates that, even though it may be in dan­ger, just like U.S. democ­ra­cy is, Israeli democ­ra­cy remains alive. A trans­fer of pow­er is tak­ing place even though the incum­bent (who’s stand­ing tri­al for cor­rup­tion charges!) does not want to give up their power.

That’s encour­ag­ing, heart­en­ing news.

The impli­ca­tions for U.S.-Israel rela­tions are also pos­i­tive. As Prime Min­is­ter, Netanyahu firm­ly aligned him­self with Don­ald Trump and Trump’s Repub­li­can enablers. Now, in Naf­tali Ben­nett, Israel has a leader with less baggage.

Netanyahu says he’s not going any­where. He intends to remain in the Knes­set and as head of Likud. He will be schem­ing against the new gov­ern­ment at every turn, in the hopes of bring­ing it down and get­ting his pow­er back.

That’s to be expect­ed, giv­en his Trump-like rhetoric and behavior.

Pro-democ­ra­cy Israelis, mean­while, refused to let Netanyahu’s grouch­i­ness get in the way of their hap­pi­ness. Thou­sands of peo­ple turned out in Tel Aviv to cel­e­brate the arrival of the new gov­ern­ment, joy­ous­ly wav­ing Israeli flags.

Here’s a few pic­tures. And some video.

We share in their hap­pi­ness and hope that today’s events are the begin­ning of a new chap­ter for Israel, the Pales­tini­ans, and the Mid­dle East.

This new gov­ern­ment is no panacea, but new lead­er­ship for Israel at least opens the door to the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a bet­ter future. Prospects for peace in the region stood no real chance of improv­ing as long as Netanyahu remained in power.

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