Adnan Abu Amer
Middle East Monitor / June 8, 2021
It is important to stress at the very beginning that those once close to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are the same people who now want to see the back of him: former Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar; Avigdor Lieberman, the PM’s chief of staff during the 1990s; Naftali Bennett, his office director; and Ayalet Shaked, his Minister of Justice, as well as Ze’ev Elkin, the head of Netanyahu’s coalition government.
In just over two years, four General Elections have failed to produce a stable government in Israel. Embarrassing and dangerous political chaos has engulfed Tel Aviv. The common denominator between left and right in Israel is that they cannot defeat Netanyahu at the polls, but he cannot defeat them either. Now his opponents are uniting against him, with an unusual “coalition for change”.
The membership includes the right-wing and extreme right leadership outside the Likud; they know how he thinks and is skilled in tracking his tricks and political games. Sa’ar’s resignation from the Likud sent a clear warning to Netanyahu, but he underestimated it. Elkin also dared to break free from Netanyahu’s chains after years of absolute loyalty to him, and repeated humiliation. Now he moves with Bennett and Shaked. What led former Netanyahu loyalists to this stage, and why has he been so naive?
These are skilled politicians, schooled by a master tactician who has been at the top of Israel’s political tree for decades. They could not be certain that they would win, but went ahead anyway, secure in their own belief that the destination was within sight.
The new coalition government is, it is fair to say, still a minority government, and it may lead to necessary reforms, but it probably won’t get Israel out of the political impasse in which it has been stuck for over two years. It is likely to be a transitional affair unable to implement long-term change or appoint senior officials, so it will be ineffective, despite getting — it is expected — a vote of confidence from the Knesset. Political divisions in Israel still run deep.
With an ideological make up from left to right, including — uniquely in Israeli governments, Palestinian citizens — it will be less stable than other governments. Thus, it is likely that the “hard questions” will be put aside, at least for the first two years, due to the undoubted lack of trust between the parties involved. Forming partnerships within the coalition and keeping to modest party demands will be important in determining the longevity and stability of this government because the current political crisis in Israel is personal, rather than ideological. The fact that the “No to Netanyahu” camp is on the verge of winning the confidence of the Knesset is evidence of this.
Despite the wide ideological spread of the coalition, the incoming prime minister, Naftali Bennett in the first instance, commands only six seats in parliament. His main aim, though, is to replace Netanyahu, and he pledged to do so when he entered his alliance with Lapid, Lieberman, and Sa’ar, after difficult negotiations that lasted several weeks.
We know, of course, that Netanyahu’s Likud party and the ultra-Orthodox MKs will challenge the new government in the Knesset with partisan bills on issues of religion, state, and political affairs, and they will try to break the coalition. The secret of his government’s persistence lies in Netanyahu himself, who will be an opposition leader with vast political experience whom no one will be keen to face either in parliament or at the next election.
Aside from the ideological differences within the “government of change”, there are personal interests and ambitions which will increase its chances of survival. For example, Yair Lapid will be keen to take over from Bennet as rotating prime minister in August 2023, while Bennett himself will try to use his time in office to justify the coalition agreement and restore his public credibility. The same applies to Lieberman, who will oversee the state treasury and do everything in his power to retain some dominance. As far as Sa’ar is concerned, he will try to prove that important things can indeed be done outside the Likud. The left-wing parties in the coalition will not want to return to the barren wasteland of opposition.
The United Arab List, meanwhile, faces the rejection of the majority of Palestinian citizens of Israel. It is entering a hitherto unknown realm with its strange and reprehensible attempt to integrate Arab politicians into Israeli politics. The desire to overthrow Netanyahu has thrown together some strange bedfellows.
Adnan Abu Amer is the head of the Political Science Department at the University of the Ummah in Gaza