Bibi Is Dethroned

After innumerable elections, Israel might have an alternative to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

By , a journalist covering Middle East politics.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses supporters at his Likud party headquarters on election night in Tel Aviv, Israel, on April 10, 2019. Thomas Coex/AFP via Getty Images

TEL AVIV, Israel—“I have a government in hand.” With those simple words, opposition leader Yair Lapid officially proclaimed on Wednesday the likely end of long-serving Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reign and the start of what Lapid called “a new era” for the country.

Barring any last-minute defections before the official investiture vote in parliament, the new government will be a narrow and complex power-sharing coalition among some eight parties, spanning the ideological gamut. Their only common denominator? The goal of toppling Netanyahu after 12 straight years—and 15 total—in power.

Naftali Bennett, head of the pro-settler Yamina party, is set to serve as prime minister for the first two years, after which Lapid—head of the centrist Yesh Atid party—will rotate into the top spot from the foreign ministry for the remaining two. The incipient government will also include left-wing parties Meretz and Labor, centrist faction Blue and White, and additional right-wing factions Yisrael Beiteinu and New Hope. The Islamist United Arab List is set to join the coalition as well, marking a historic first for an Arab Israeli party.

Netanyahu’s dramatic denouement was made possible by Bennett’s abrupt about-face of recent days. Last month, Bennett had indicated that this “change government” was “off the table” due to the ongoing Gaza war and intercommunal clashes between Israel’s Arab and Jewish citizens. But in a primetime address on Sunday, Bennett said that after four inconclusive elections in a two-year span—and with a fifth looming—it was time to “stop the madness and take responsibility.” Netanyahu, Bennett averred, wanted “to take the entire country to his own private Masada,” a reference to the suicidal last stand by Jewish rebels against the Roman Empire almost two millennia ago.

Netanyahu simply didn’t have the votes to form his own government even with Bennett.

More to the point, according to analysts, Netanyahu simply didn’t have the votes to form his own government even with Bennett. Last-ditch talks between the two to possibly merge their respective parties failed as well. “Bennett made this move in order to fulfill his core promise to voters—no fifth election—and there was no right-wing government possible,” Rotem Danon, editor of Liberal magazine and a longtime Bennett watcher, said. “He also wants to be prime minister, of course, and Netanyahu wouldn’t have fulfilled any promise he made” to him.

Nevertheless, Bennett, a former settler leader and religious nationalist, described his decision to form this heterogeneous government as “the most complex” of his life. Netanyahu, for his part, has launched withering attacks against Bennett in a bid to derail the alternative coalition, calling it, in his own Sunday address, “the fraud of the century” and a “dangerous left-wing government” that would imperil the country’s future.

Some Netanyahu allies have even termed Bennett and his party members “traitors”; personal security around both him and his No. 2, Ayelet Shaked, has been ratcheted up due to threats of physical harm. Right-wing activists have held angry nightly protests outside their homes, demanding continued fealty to Netanyahu.

“It’s not a transfer of power, it’s the stealing of power,” one member of parliament from the ruling Likud party told Army Radio on Tuesday, summing up the mood. The only remaining chance of survival for Netanyahu is if Shaked and other Yamina officials wilt amid the pressure and withdraw their support for the new government before it’s sworn in, perhaps as early as next week but more likely on June 14.

Lapid and other opposition leaders have slammed Netanyahu for such divisive rhetoric and incitement. Some have even drawn parallels to events leading up to the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol.

“The fact that someone argues with you doesn’t make them an enemy,” Lapid said on Monday, urging calm. “If this government is formed, the key word will be responsibility. … To restore quiet. Not to blame others, not to look for enemies within, not to brand anyone who thinks differently a traitor who should be killed.”

Bennett may head the new government initially, yet Lapid—as alternate prime minister—wields mutual veto power and will likely be the real force behind the coalition, according to analysts. Indeed, as Bennett vacillated, Lapid was finalizing agreements with the other disparate members of the “change government.” Lapid’s Yesh Atid party is the largest in the new coalition, dwarfing all other factions, including Bennett’s smaller Yamina. Lapid sacrificed his own standing by offering Bennett the top spot first. “We said we would do whatever it takes [to end Netanyahu’s rule], and we did,” one Lapid aide told Foreign Policy, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Bennett will not have an easy time of it.

“He’s lost much of his public standing, he has a party of six seats, and the other government members are in some cases more senior than him and despise him. It’s not a healthy situation,” Danon said.

The many internal contradictions within the new government have also raised doubts about its staying power, as has the narrow parliamentary majority it enjoys—61 seats in the 120-seat parliament.

For now, senior officials are tempering expectations and focusing on consensus issues like economics, health, and education. “No one will be asked to give up their ideology, but everyone will have to postpone the realization of some of their dreams,” Bennett said on Sunday. “We will focus on what can be done, instead of arguing over what is impossible.”

Just as Netanyahu’s enduring presence on the political scene brought the coalition together, his refusal to depart stage left, even if only as opposition leader, could help keep the new government intact.

Netanyahu’s refusal to depart stage left, even if only as opposition leader, could help keep the new government intact.

“[Netanyahu] likely thinks that this government will collapse very soon, and he’ll be right back on track for winning a fifth election,” Tal Schneider, a political correspondent for the Times of Israel, told Foreign Policy. “He’ll get himself ready … and label everyone who is not Likud dangerous for the country.”

At the very least, however, Lapid and Bennett will have felled the giant, doing what countless politicians through endless election cycles failed to do. “[Netanyahu] may be the most talented marketing person that’s ever set foot here,” Lapid told Foreign Policy in a March interview just ahead of the last election.

“My middle son was born in 1995. When he was seven months old, Netanyahu became prime minister [for his first term from 1996 to 1999]. In the meantime, my son has gone to the army, finished the army, got engaged, broke his engagement, went to university, and is now finishing his degree. And Netanyahu is still prime minister.”

A deep and corrosive change had occurred within Netanyahu in recent years, and Israel’s future was now hanging in the balance, Lapid added. It had to end after the upcoming ballot.

“Too many years in power is a bad thing. All of human history shows us this.”

Neri Zilber is a journalist covering Middle East politics and an adjunct fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He is the co-author of State with No Army, Army with No State: Evolution of the Palestinian Authority Security Forces, 1994-2018. Twitter: @NeriZilber