Israel’s Dissolving Government: An Explainer

By | Jun 20, 2022
Bennett's fragile government is collapsing.

Jewish politics and power

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1. What exactly happened Monday?

One year and one week after its swearing-in, the Bennett-Lapid government in Israel has come to a screeching halt.

In a brief announcement Monday evening, Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, the two leaders of Israel’s “change coalition,” informed the Israeli public that they have come to the end of their political road and that, given the continuing erosion of their coalition, they are dissolving the Knesset.

Here’s what this decision means:

  • Israel will go to elections—again—probably on October 25, though the final date will be determined by the Knesset in the next few days. Parties seeking to run in these elections will be required to file their lists of candidates 45 days before the elections.
  • Once legislation dissolving the Knesset passes next week, the rotation will kick in, ending the term of Bennett, who will be replaced by Lapid as prime minister.
  • Bennett will assume the role of alternate prime minister and will be in charge of coordinating Israel’s response on the Iranian front.
  • During this period, leading to Israel’s fifth round of elections in recent years, the Lapid-led government will serve as an interim government that cannot be toppled by a vote of no-confidence.

In short, the Bennett era is over. Israel is now back at square one, facing elections which, according to recent polls, will lead to pretty much the same stalemate.

2. Was this political crisis unavoidable?

It was.

When MK Idit Silman resigned from the Bennett-Lapid coalition in April, it became clear that the days of this government were numbered. She was followed by at least three other members of the coalition who refused to vote with Bennett on some key legislative issues, and there was a real threat that by the end of this week, the opposition, led by Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu, could pull off an upset forcing Bennett and Lapid into elections.

But what made the decision inevitable was Bennett’s inability to ensure a majority in a vote over extending a set of regulations that allow Israel to rule the occupied territories in the West Bank. This law is seen by many as a technicality and usually extended with no fuss. It allows, for example, Israel to convict and jail Palestinian residents of the territories. It also enables the government to extend public services, such as welfare checks, to Jewish settlers. Bennett was informed early Monday by his attorney general that If it were allowed to expire this month, Israel might be forced to open its prison doors and release thousands of convicted Palestinians.

3. Who’s running and who’s not

This is the big question. First, a look at the opposition:

Benjamin Netanyahu—Israel’s longest serving prime minister, leader of the Likud party and defendant in a three-count corruption case—will run again. Netanyahu, who may still try to form an alternative coalition in the coming days, has viewed his departure from office as no more than a temporary move, and now he feels the moment has come to demonstrate it. With a strong handle on his party and polls predicting support, Netanyahu believes he can reclaim his office, rebuild his former right-wing/Orthodox coalition, and pick up from where he left off a year ago.

Small caveat: the Bennett-Lapid coalition still might try a last-minute move to pass legislation that would ban candidates under indictment from running. Its chances would be extremely slim, but if it does somehow pass, Netanyahu won’t be allowed to run.

Now, what about Bennett?

The outgoing prime minister has very little political power right now. His party is all but shattered, and polls show him struggling to even pass the threshold of making it into the Knesset. Currently, people close to Bennett say he plans to run, but that could change if he sees there is no chance. Bennett also could join a new realignment of moderate right-wing candidates (unlikely) or join forces with Lapid (also quite unlikely).

As for Lapid—Israel’s incoming prime minister is already polling well, and his term as prime minister (even though it will last only several months) could catapult him into the position of a national leader.

Many questions still remain unanswered: What will be the fate of politicians who ran on a “never Bibi” ticket, such as Gideon Saar, Avigdor Lieberman and Benny Gantz? And what about the left—will Labor and Meretz, both polling low, merge? Finally, will the Arab parties rebuild their alliance or maintain the split that led the Islamic party Raam into Bennett’s coalition?

4. Who will meet with Biden in Israel?

When President Joe Biden walks off Air Force One after landing in Israel next month, he will be greeted by the prime minister, and this prime minister will be Yair Lapid. Naftali Bennett, who made this trip possible and who had dedicated much of his one year in office to restoring U.S.-Israel relations, will watch from the sidelines.

This goes beyond formalities.

Biden will arrive in Israel at a time of political turmoil. Every step he makes and every comment coming out of his mouth will be judged in the context of the upcoming elections. Biden will try to sidestep these issues and will probably hold a meeting with Netanyahu as opposition leader. But still, embracing Lapid too warmly will be interpreted as a political endorsement.

The political crisis in Israel also throws a monkey wrench into Biden’s efforts to use his visit to Israel to assure the Palestinians that the two-state solution is still alive. Biden will not be interested in pressuring Lapid on the issue, nor is there any use in doing so, since the interim government cannot make any lasting policy decisions on this matter.

5. Did the experiment succeed?

Many referred to the Bennett-Lapid government as Israel’s “big experiment.” And it was.

Israelis experimented this past year in building a ruling coalition that put ideological differences aside, combining right (Bennett), center (Lapid), left and Arab parties. Their sole common goal was unseating Netanyahu and moving Israel beyond the Netanyahu era.

It was also a bold experiment in inclusion: For the first time in Israeli history, an Arab party was a full member of the coalition. Mansour Abbas’s Raam party, an Islamist faction never before seen as a potential member of the coalition, became a partner in Israel’s national legislative body.

Did it work?

As expected, the coalition was fragile, and tensions between its members eventually led to its downfall. The right-wing members felt the government was neglecting their cause; the left wing had the exact same feeling, and the Arab members were torn between their constituency and the realities of political coexistence. The experiment proved to be unsustainable.

But it would be wise to wait a few months before passing judgment, and watching the upcoming elections and creation of the next government through the lens of this great experiment: Will Arab parties be part of the coalition process again? Will opposing ideological parties cooperate in a shared government? If so, it may be a sign that Bennett and Lapid’s great experiment may have set Israel on a new path.

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