Israel’s government held out for a year – and that alone exceeded the expectations of many analysts. They had prophesied that the eight-party alliance made up of right-wing and left-wing, Jewish and Arab forces would end even more quickly.
In the end, the ideological rifts turned out to be too deep. On Monday evening Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced his intention to clear the way for new elections.
“In the last few weeks we have done everything possible to preserve this government,” he said in a televised address. “But our efforts have not borne fruit.” According to his schedule, the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, could vote on its dissolution in the coming days.
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If the law is approved in three rounds of voting, new elections will be held in October. It would be the fifth in just three and a half years.
From the start, the coalition had a razor-thin single-seat majority. That majority was lost in April when a lawmaker from Bennett’s right-wing Yemina party left the alliance over political differences.
Another Yemina MP has just deserted. In addition, several Arab MPs in the coalition recently voted against the party line in a critical vote, exposing the government to scorn from the opposition. Its leader, longtime former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, had claimed from the outset that a coalition of such opposing forces was incapable of action.
Efforts to moderate, conciliatory rhetoric
The alliance had, for a time at least, proved the opposite. True, it ignored the conflict with the Palestinians, an issue on which the parties involved have radically different attitudes. But it passed a state budget.
The similarly short-lived previous government under Netanyahu failed at this hurdle. It passed some sensible economic reforms, brought the Covid-19 pandemic under control without lockdowns and decided on overdue investments in the Arab sector.
To this end, the coalition changed the tone of the debate: instead of demonizing political opponents and denigrating them as enemies of the state, as former and possibly future Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu liked to do, Bennett and his allies tried to use moderate, conciliatory rhetoric. Bennett is said to have surprised even some coalition partners with his willingness to listen and to compromise.
Nevertheless, his political career could already be coming to an end. Israeli media are spreading rumors that he is considering a career change. In any case, if the Knesset decides to dissolve it, he will have to hand over his post to Yair Lapid, the leader of the centrist Yesh Atid (“There is a future”) party, in the coming days.
Yair Lapid takes over as Prime Minister
This is what the coalition agreement says: Should MPs from the right-wing camp of the coalition, from “Bennett’s bloc”, participate in the overthrow of the government, Lapid will automatically take over the office of prime minister until the new elections.
For Lapid, these months represent an opportunity. The 58-year-old, who previously worked as a TV journalist, was long described by the Israeli media as a charismatic but somewhat superficial politician with a penchant for populism, more of a gossip than a doer.
Lapid’s tireless work for the coalition has already changed his image. He should use the next few months to present himself to voters as a statesman.
Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud is likely to become the strongest force
However, Lapid’s chances of leading a government after the election in the fall are marginal. As in previous votes, Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud is likely to become the strongest force.
According to current polls, its block lacks a majority. But it should suffice to persuade one of the remaining right-wing or centrist forces to defect.
It won’t be easy: their leaders Benny Gantz, Gideon Sa’ar, Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman have all broken with Netanyahu in the past after bitter arguments. It seems even more unlikely that the now failed right-centre-left alliance will be repeated.
Difficult times are ahead for all those Israelis who couldn’t get enough of hearing the unfamiliar phrase “opposition leader Netanyahu” a year ago.