Middle East
Misc 14/06/2021

An eclectic government led by ultra-conservative Naftali Bennett ousts Netanyahu after 12 years in power in Israel

The Israeli Parliament votes in the new executive, which must pass into Lapid's hands by 2023

4 min
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the special session of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, to approve and swear in a new coalition government in Jerusalem

BarcelonaThere have been no surprises. The Israeli Parliament has given its confidence by 60 votes in favour, 59 against and one abstention to the government formed with the sole objective of dethroning Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after twelve years in power. After a tense four-hour debate, in which some deputies have been expelled, the ultra-right-wing Naftali Bennett was sworn in, despite the fact that his party, Yamina, has only seven MPs. The government agreement establishes that in two years he will hand over the post to his partner Yair Lapid, the television presenter who represents a somewhat more moderate discourse and who was the second most voted in the last elections, behind Likud, Netanyahu's party. The outgoing Prime Minister has promised to bring down this government "sooner than people think".

The anti-Netanyahu coalition - hatred of the outgoing Prime Minister is its only unifying element - is made up of eight parties: from the radicals representing the settlers to Labour, the pacifists of Meretz and the United Arab List, including the Islamists. All have put aside differences to put an end to the longest-serving ruler in Israel's history, who had plunged the country into a bottomless political crisis: four elections since 2019 and an incumbent Prime Minister on trial for multiple corruption scandals. Bennett, a billionaire and former Defense Minister who set himself up as a spokesman for the settlers, has been the target of Netanyahu's criticism, branding him a "liar". The head of the ultra-Orthodox, who supports Netanyahu, has accused him of having abandoned Judaism: "How are you Jewish?".

"The political establishment has broken new ground after two and a half years of drifting with election reruns, after twelve years in which one person has consumed all the oxygen", he wrote a few days ago to the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth columnist Nahum Barnea. Netanyahu had indeed alienated everyone, including his former allies, to the point of making Israeli political life unbreathable. Bennett, who advocates religious nationalism, and Avidgor Lieberman, who calls for the annexation of the West Bank to Israel, are key figures on the right who have abandoned him. The coalition also includes the Islamists of the United Arab List, which represents Palestinians with Israeli citizenship and will be the first Arab party to form part of a government in Israel.

Israel's new Prime Minister, Naftali Bennet, this afternoon in parliament

Itxaso Domínguez, coordinator of the Alternatives Foundation in the Middle East and the Maghreb, recalls that "it is a fragile coalition, because of its heterogeneity and the ego of those who compose it", and adds that, although the hard core portfolios of the government are in the hands of the radicals, there are also figures like Benny Gantz in Defense, separated from Bennett by an "ideological abyss". On the incorporation of Raam's Islamists, who are part of the United Arab List, he notes that its leader, Mansur Abbas, "has made a strategic calculation that could attract more Palestinian voters with a pragmatic approach, promising them improvements in their living conditions while they remain second-class citizens". And in the end he notes: "The Zionist conservatives and the Arabs need each other and have shown that they can understand each other".

The text of the government agreement, which was finalized on Friday, outlines an action focused on economic and social issues, in the context of the post-pandemic recovery. Bennett will have executive powers to further consolidate the occupation of the Palestinian territories without having to consult his partners and expose himself to a crisis. To try to block Netanyahu's political comeback, the partners have agreed to push through a law to limit the Prime Minister's term of office to eight years. In his investiture speech, Bennett also made it clear that he will in no way accept the resumption of the nuclear agreement with Iran that was dynamited by Trump and that Biden and the EU now want to revive: "Restoring the nuclear agreement with Iran is a mistake that will legitimise one of the most violent regimes in the world. Israel will maintain its total freedom of action", he assured.

Netanyahu's Trumpist temptation

Netanyahu, 71, has decided the fate of Israel for fifteen years (from 1996 to 1999 and then, uninterruptedly, for twelve years) and in recent weeks has tried desperately and until the last minute to wreck the coalition, which he has described as left-wing and fifth columnist. In his last speech as Prime Minister in the Knesset, he did not hesitate to describe Bennett's party as "fake right-wing" and accused the deputies who followed him of being "deserters". He accused the new government of wanting to promote "fascist and anti-democratic laws" and, recognising himself as leader of the opposition, he promised to lead it "against this dangerous and left-wing government and, with God's help, to overthrow it sooner than people think".

Even the latest offensive against the Gaza Strip, which left more than 200 Palestinians dead, is interpreted as an attempt to force unity behind him against the external enemy. He may lose parliamentary immunity in the fraud, corruption and bribery trials he faces in Israeli courts, and it is not ruled out that he will continue his manoeuvres to break up the coalition and force new elections. "I fear for the fate of the nation", he declared last week. His supporters have staged protests at the homes of key figures in the new government, who have had to ask for protection, in a climate reminiscent of the incitements to hatred that preceded the assassination of Prime Minister Yitshaq Rabbin by an extremist in 1995, after the signing of the Oslo Accords.

Daniel Levy, President of the US-Middle East Project, explains to ARA that "the big question is whether this coalition can last": "Their goal was to oust Bibi [Netanyahu's nickname], and now that they've succeeded, this is when things will get interesting. They will probably put aside some issues like what to do now in Gaza or the relationship between religion and the state. But obviously the situation for the Palestinians will continue to worsen and Israeli control will increase". "We are facing an inherently unstable coalition, in a parliament with a strong right-wing majority and where only the Netanhayu controversy has prevented a natural right-wing coalition from forming. Now what we have to see is whether Netanyahu maintains control of Likud, which I think he will, and if so he will do everything possible to make the government's life miserable: he and Likud have the tools to do so, from Parliament, in the street and also with the media at their disposal," he adds.

In any case, what is clear is that the prospects for peace with Palestinians are as far away or more so with the Bennett-Lapid government than with Netanyahu's: "Bennett is a man of the right-wing of Greater Israel - recalls Levy - so for the Israelis the government agreement is important but for the Palestinians it means nothing new".