Naftali Bennett’s announcement that he will form a so-called government of change with Yair Lapid sent me looking for recipes for how to cook my hat – in order to eat it. I didn’t believe the “anyone but Bibi” camp would last; I scoffed at the New Hope proposed by Gideon Sa’ar. And now, it seems that I was wrong.
Two months after the election, and following another war with Hamas and even clashes between Arabs and Jews in Israel, the parties working to replace Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are joining hands and sticking to the mission – getting Bibi and his wife Sara out of the prime minister’s residence – lock, stock and barrel.
This is the place to note all the obvious caveats. It will be another week until the planned government is sworn in, and that’s an eternity in Israeli politics; Netanyahu could yet pull some rabbit out of his hat or filch some deserter from the other side; Bennett might change his mind again, this time about Lapid; there might be some unexpected twist in the plot that we can’t even imagine; and so forth.
Nevertheless, something happened Sunday, and the possibility has emerged of forming a governing coalition without Likud and the ultra-Orthodox parties, for the first time since 1977. Ladies and gentleman, it’s an upset.
Anyone who imagined this change as a dramatic development in which the lights would suddenly go out on Netanyahu’s reign is surely disappointed by the quiet manner in which it’s taking shape. Another Knesset caucus, more exhausting reports about coalition agreements, more angry tweets by Bibi’s supporters, more “announcements to the media” on the evening news.
Pictures of the future cabinet members – including Merav Michaeli in the Transportation Ministry and Nitzan Horowitz in the Health Ministry, which seemed beyond imagining just a few weeks ago – are greeted apathetically, aside from angry headlines in the daily Israel Hayom rebuking senior right-wing politicians for turning their backs on their leader, Netanyahu. You’ll be punished for this yet, Likud’s in-house bulletin promises.
And leftist hearts are filled with schadenfreude, mixed with the fear of once again falling prey to a false optimism. This time, it’s the other side’s turn to taste defeat – if only everything doesn’t fall apart before next Monday.
Bennett, as of this moment, looks like the man who won 76 million shekels ($23 million) in the lottery last week. He demonstrated a rare ability – unprecedented in Israel’s political history – to exploit opportunities and leverage his political power, managing to leap from the status of a loser who didn’t even win enough votes to enter the Knesset in 2019 to almost being prime minister.
This is an exit with an unbelievable rate of return, to borrow the slang from his days as an entrepreneur. This is what he’s aimed at from the moment he entered politics and began challenging Netanyahu, first from the right and now from the center.
Bennett isn’t a charismatic leader who thrills the masses, like Netanyahu. But people like working with him much better than they do with his rival. In the coming days, his leadership will face a small-scale test – his ability to keep his Yamina party behind him until the government is sworn in at the Knesset.
Sunday’s speeches by both Bennett and Netanyahu underscored their mutual loathing; each promised that the other would destroy the country. Bennett looked statesmanlike, determined and persuasive, at least for now.
Netanyahu correctly accused his potential heir of flip-flopping and of breaking his campaign promise not to sit in a Lapid-led government. Then he compared the American government under Joe Biden to Iran and Hamas, depicting all three as threats to Israel. That doesn’t sound like someone who expects to visit the White House soon. It sounds like someone hurling curses in all directions on his way out of the Prime Minister’s Office.
The emerging government of change is far from being a left-wing dream come true. It includes Bennett the annexationist as prime minister, Gideon Sa’ar in the Justice Ministry, Ayelet Shaked in the Interior Ministry, the settler Avigdor Lieberman in the Finance Ministry and a rightist majority on the Judicial Appointments Committee.
Even if they are restrained to some extent by the leftist parties in the government, they’ll try to take steps to join the settlements to Israel, hurt asylum seekers and restrict the power of the attorney general and the High Court of Justice. This is their ideology, and we mustn’t forget it, even if they manage to replace Netanyahu.
But it’s also possible to find rays of light in the emerging coalition. First of all, there’s the cooperation between the Zionist parties and the Arab ones, which, ironically, was made possible to a large extent by Netanyahu’s legitimization of Mansour Abbas’ Islamist United Arab List party and its Arab voters. Second is the fact that the Haredim will lose control of the money faucet. Third is the large number of women in the new cabinet. And of course, most important, there’s the fact that power is changing hands after more than a dozen straight years of Netanyahu.
It’s still too early to declare that “Bibi era” of Israeli politics has ended. But if change is ultimately achieved, Netanyahu will have been toppled by his colleagues on the right, who had it with his leadership.
This includes the politicians who led the rebellion on the right – first Lieberman, then Sa’ar and Zeev Elkin and now Bennett as well. But it also, and to no less an extent, includes the 300,000 Likud voters who stayed home on Election Day, thereby signaling that they’d had it with all of the divisiveness, incitement, and the cult of personality and simply wanted someone else.
Every single one of them will be responsible for this revolution. In another week, we’ll know whether or not they succeeded.