Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving prime minister, has just failed to cobble together a parliamentary majority after the Jewish state’s fourth inconclusive election in two years. The country is stuck in political gridlock. Yet there is no one anywhere on Israel’s fragmented political spectrum who commands the fervent support that Netanyahu does.
Instead of rule by the man lauded as King Bibi by his adulators, Israel is now looking at an unwieldy minority government of kingmakers. Billed as a unity government, it looks more like a caretaker administration with no real agenda, which could even enable a Netanyahu comeback. It is too soon to write off the five-term premier.
Netanyahu went on trial for corruption last year but still came first in March’s elections. The chance to form an alternative coalition has now fallen to Yair Lapid, a former TV anchor and finance minister under Netanyahu, who came a distant second.
Lapid, the liberal voice of Israel’s secular middle class, is proposing a government stretching from the left to the far right, to be voted in by a simple majority of the 120-member Knesset, but only if an Islamist party backed by Israeli Arabs abstains. He says this “unity government isn’t a compromise or a last resort. It’s a goal, it’s what we need” after prolonged electoral chaos.
If he succeeds, this would probably be a weak government unable to pass anything but basic measures. It might, however, go for the nuclear option of legislation barring an indicted member of the Knesset from becoming prime minister. Even that might not be politically terminal for Netanyahu.
For this putative coalition would be a rickety bloc of former allies and ministers that Netanyahu betrayed, united only in their loathing of a cunning leader of what would be a relatively cohesive opposition. In addition, Lapid has proposed that Naftali Bennett, a far-right nationalist, take first turn as prime minister in a rotating premiership. Quite aside from his extremist views, Bennett’s party won only seven seats in March. Nothing remotely close to a majority supports him.
“Everyone knows [Bennett] wants to form a dangerous leftwing government”, Netanyahu said in a TV statement in which words part company with meaning. More to the point, Netanyahu is poking the hornet’s nest of Israel’s irredentist right, claiming Bennett is a sellout.
He is trying to peel off opponents’ lawmakers. This has sometimes worked in the past, and it only takes one or two defections for the arithmetic to change. Working against him is unrest in his own Likud party, where four senior members did not show up for a key meeting last Friday. Elements of Bennett’s party, however, want a different version of the rotating premiership idea: with Netanyahu but in which Bennett goes first. Yet that needs the sort of trust the current prime minister does not engender.
If Lapid and Bennett are serious about an alternative to Netanyahu they need to move quickly; Likud is already planning demonstrations outside their houses, mobilising the religious right, and starting vicious rumour wars.
The US, Israel’s patron and firmest ally, is looking on calmly under President Joe Biden, who has a wariness of Netanyahu born of decades of acquaintance. The mooted coalition seems likelier to co-operate on contentious issues with Washington such as Iran, and conflict with the Palestinians.
Yet if it collapses Netanyahu will be waiting in the wings to capitalise, and subject Israelis to yet another election, designed to demonstrate they cannot live without him. They deserve better.