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.
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.)
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.
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.