In the Nick of Time: What to Make of Yair Lapid’s Knesset Coalition

By | Jun 04, 2021
Israel, Latest
Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett

With just 34 minutes to go before the deadline, Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid party, made the requisite call to Israeli President Reuven Rivlin (who is reported to have been attending Israel Cup soccer finals at the time) and told him that he had garnered enough support from party representatives to form a coalition government.

Had Lapid not met the deadline, Israel would likely have been dragged into its fifth election in two years, most likely to be scheduled for October 2021.

The proposed coalition, composed of eight of the thirteen parties that made it into the Knesset in the March 2021 elections, includes, in addition to Yesh Atid (which won 17 seats in those elections): Blue and White (8), Yisrael Beytenu (7), Labor (7), Yamina (7 MKs), New Hope (6), Meretz (6) and Ra’am (4). 

This is the most diverse mix of political parties and political personalities ever to sit in an Israeli government, spanning from left to extreme right, from fervently progressive to devoutly conservative, from neo-liberal to social-democratic. It could be likened to Joe Biden joining a coalition that includes Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Nancy Pelosi.

To all of Israeli society, it can serve as an example of how it is possible for polarized groups to find a way to coexist, as each gives in on some of its dreams while never having to cross its ideological red lines.  

Or, this diverse group could implode onto itself.

But first, before it can succeed or fail, the coalition deal has to be formally accepted by the Knesset in a vote of confidence that will likely take place within the next several days—or perhaps as long as two weeks. Together, these eight parties represent a very narrow majority—only 62 of the 120 members of Knesset. One member, of the Yamina party, has already defected, leaving only 61. One more defection and the agreement will be canceled before the figurative ink has dried.

And Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is determined to make sure that is exactly what will happen.  

Following the March elections, Netanyahu’s Likud Party came out as the top party, with 30 seats. In accordance with Israeli law, Rivlin had originally tasked Netanyahu with forming the coalition. But Netanyahu was unable to cobble together the necessary 61 seats, and so Rivlin, as the law requires, handed Lapid the opportunity.

Under the terms of the new coalition, Naftali Bennett, of the nationalist Yamina Party, will serve as prime minister until September 2023, when Lapid will take over from him until the end of the Knesset term in November 2025.  This is unusual, since Yamina had only seven (and now has six) representatives, in contrast to Lapid’s seventeen. But in the difficult, narrow-margin negotiations, every party had the opportunity to be the kingmaker, and Bennett held out. Thus, Bennett and Lapid will share the four-year prime ministerial term, and Bennett will take the role first.

This government, should it really happen, would be historic. First of all, it will include the conservative, staunchly anti-LGBTQ Islamic Raam Party, headed by Mansour Abbas, which would be the first independent Arab party to serve in a government in Israel’s history, and the first Arab party of any kind to serve in a right-leaning government. Bennett will be the first Religious Zionist prime minister, and for the first time since 2015, no ultra-Orthodox parties will be part of the government. The coalition will also include the first Reform rabbi and the first openly gay party leader. Eight women will be holding cabinet positions and several others will be heads of significant parliamentary committees. While the coalition will still be mostly Ashkenazi and male, this will be a record high for women.

“History,” numerous journalists tweeted over the photo of Abbas, Lapid and Bennett sitting and smiling together, apparently after they had signed the coalition agreement, that was widely shared on social media by stunned Israelis.

Most of the party leaders have previously served under Netanyahu. And, superseding their differences, it is their political and personal opposition to Netanyahu that unites them. 

Netanyahu initially tried to have the coalition agreement disqualified because Bennett, rather than Lapid, is first in the rotation for the premiership, although his own lawyers, and subsequently the courts, made it clear that this is not grounds for disqualification.  

Netanyahu’s primary strategy is to persuade at least one more member of the coalition, most probably from Yamina, to bolt, leaving the coalition without a majority when the vote of confidence comes up.

As the coalition negotiations were underway, Netanyahu denounced the right-wing party members, especially Bennett, as opportunistic cowards who stole the elections and abandoned their commitments to their voters. The coalition, he declared, is a threat to the security and future of Israel and the entire Jewish people. At the same time, Netanyahu’s supporters demonstrated angrily and menacingly outside the negotiation headquarters, and they have continued to demonstrate in front of the Yamina MKs homes, calling them traitors and forcing at least one MK to flee her home with her child. A group of rabbis has issued a proclamation calling on Jews to do “everything possible.”

Some publicists have warned that Netanyahu’s declarations are reminiscent of former American President Donald Trump’s behavior that helped spark the January 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol.  But for others, the extreme and threatening rhetoric, especially on social media, brings up the specter of an even more frightening event that was closer to home: the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, following the passing of the controversial Oslo peace accords.

To date, Netanyahu has not denounced or distanced himself from any of this extremism. Indeed, Israeli security forces are already providing security details for several of the potential coalition members, including Bennett. This will also be a first since none of them have even taken office yet.

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