Don’t believe the cynics: Israel’s new government may be durable

Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid (Credit: Yesh Atid)
Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid (Credit: Yesh Atid)

About an hour before the midnight deadline on June 2, Knesset members Yair Lapid, head of centrist Yesh Atid, and Naftali Bennett, nationalist Yamina’s party leader, announced they were able to form a coalition government. Their coalition will include eight of Israel’s 13 political parties, uniting those on the right, centre and left. The coalition will only control a bare majority—61—of the Knesset’s 120 seats.

Commentators immediately used words like “fragile” and “unwieldy” to describe a coalition that draws together secular nationalists, religious Arabs, and leftists from Tel Aviv, under the leadership of the first religious prime minister in Israel’s history. After two years as prime minister, Bennett will step aside and let Lapid serve – if the coalition lasts that long.

The challenges facing the coalition were clear through the evening, as Bennett’s ally, Ayelet Shaked, demanded a role in judicial selection that had been promised to Labor Party leader Meirav Michaeli.

Meanwhile, Mansour Abbas of the religious Arab party Ra’am insisted on changes to laws concerning municipal governance, illegal building without zoning permission, and a watering down of coalition principles to expand LGBTQ rights. The former two demands were objectionable to Bennett’s nationalist party, while the latter was opposed by parties on the left, Meretz and Labor.

Even after Lapid and Bennett announced that they had reached an agreement with all eight parties, one of Bennett’s allies in Yamina, Nir Orbach, threatened to vote against the coalition, denying it the majority it requires. Orbach’s dithering revealed how difficult the task of forming a coalition would be without Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud. Orbach, a new MK but a longtime political operative, would normally have much more in common with members of Likud than several of his new governing partners.

Despite these policy differences, there are indicators that the coalition may persist. First, its precarious nature will likely temper the ideological divide. Regular compromises will be necessary; without them, the coalition will collapse. Confronted with a choice between compromising and letting the coalition collapse, none of the eight parties would prefer a collapse. None could expect a better deal from Netanyahu’s party and religious allies, and few can expect to win more votes in a fifth election.

But outside their differences on relations with the Palestinians (including policies on settlement expansion), the coalition partners share a desire to warm relations with Democrats in Washington. Each also desires funding for various pet projects and key constituencies, and most of the parties are opposed to special accommodations and power given to the ultra-Orthodox community.

Most importantly, the parties share a resolute resistance to Netanyahu. As long as he remains head of the Likud while standing trial for corruption, Lapid, ex-Likud star Gideon Sa’ar, and Blue & White leader Benny Gantz will not even consider negotiating with the Likud, forcing them to tolerate each other and their coalition allies to the left.

Bennett and Sa’ar will especially want every opportunity to diminish Likud’s base of support. The only way they can do that is by keeping the coalition together to deliver popular policies and an effective governing style. They are betting that successful leadership will benefit Bennett and Sa’ar, compared to Netanyahu or his successor as head of Likud.

The more the coalition can effectively govern while drama swirls around Netanyahu’s corruption trial, the easier it will be for Bennett and Sa’ar to support their narrative—that it’s time for Israel to move on from Netanyahu.

This is the riskiest part of Bennett’s strategy. If his closest allies are demanding more concessions, Bennett will know to expect periodic posturing from those whose politics are quite different from his own.

But Bennett will have leverage over his coalition partners: the two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, will be hoping to get into government to secure funding for their communities, and especially schools linked to each party. If a party makes too many demands of Bennett, he’ll open the door to the ultra-Orthodox parties. This will be especially useful to him if events in the settlements, the West Bank, or Gaza, motivate him to jettison his coalition allies on the left.

Absent such shocks, Bennett and his allies will be incentivized to work together on other issues as Israel emerges from the pandemic, and can expect that there will be room for compromises and cooperation.

Renan Levine is an associate professor, teaching stream, in the department of political science at the University of Toronto, Scarborough. He has published articles about Israeli voting behavior and is currently researching public opinion towards Benjamin Netanyahu during his years in power.