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Israeli political shake-up sends country to fall elections

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced that the coalition government will dissolve in the coming days following weeks of turmoil

Maya Alleruzzo/Associated Press

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, left, speaks during a joint statement with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem, Monday, June 20, 2022.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s announcement on Monday that the government will dissolve and head for new elections caught few observers off-guard, following weeks of political uncertainty amid a spate of defections that left Bennett’s coalition government in the minority.

The always-tenuous coalition government has teetered for months, experts on the region noted, following Knesset Member Idit Silman’s resignation from the coalition in April.

“I don’t think this news should come as a real surprise to people who’ve been paying attention, because once you started having these defections, anything could have blown it apart,” Susie Gelman, board chair of the Israel Policy Forum, told Jewish Insider.

The proximate trigger for the government’s collapse, analysts explained, was the Knesset’s failure last week to pass a bill extending Israeli law to settlers in the West Bank, a policy that has been in effect consistently since 1967. 

Some right-wing lawmakers who support the policy but are aligned with former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, voted against the bill as part of an effort to scuttle the coalition government, joining left-wing and Arab lawmakers — a situation that David Makovsky, the Ziegler distinguished fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, described as “surrealistic.”

Rob Satloff, executive director of The Washington Institute, added that Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid — who will take over as prime minister until a new government is formed — likely decided it would be preferable to dissolve the coalition on their own terms and organize elections at a time of their choosing rather than “continue the water torture” of a continually eroding coalition.

“The pressure was coming like a pincer movement from both edges of the coalition,” Makovsky said. “It was just not a tenable situation.”

Bennett may have determined that it was preferable for him not to be prime minister at the time of the coming election, allowing him to focus on reinforcing his support among his base, while Lapid will now have the opportunity to prove himself capable of leading the country, Satloff said.

Recent terror attacks, in which more than a dozen Israelis were killed, were “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Makovsky said, noting that terror attacks have historically pushed Israelis to the right. The attacks coincided with a campaign of “intimidation” from right-wing members of the opposition targeting members of the coalition.

The coalition collapsed under “the sheer weight of contradictions and anomalies inherent within it,” explained Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Given the odds arrayed against it, Miller said that the coalition had “fared remarkably well” and “lasted longer than many would have imagined.”

Satloff praised the government for achieving “some laudable results” including approving a budget, “breaking the barrier on Arab participation in Israeli government,” handling ongoing Palestinian tensions and terrorism and organizing the Negev Summit with Arab and U.S. allies.

But, Makovsky noted, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict proved to be an “inescapable” obstacle.

“That’s what this experiment was facing. The premise was, ‘We don’t agree on the conflict, but we can agree on everything else,’” he said. “But what you found is you couldn’t totally ignore this issue. And it would bite you.”

Netanyahu’s Likud party is likely to again emerge as the largest party in the Knesset, according to Satloff, but, as in previous elections, Netanyahu will need to bring together 61 votes to form a coalition, something had failed to do in several previous rounds of elections.

Despite the attacks from Netanyahu’s opposition coalition linking MK Mansour Abbas and the Ra’am party he leads to Hamas terrorists, analysts did not dismiss the possibility that Abbas and his cohort might join a future Netanyahu-led coalition. Netanyahu had previously courted Abbas in his own efforts to form a government.

“It’s certainly possible for the ultra-Orthodox to sit with Mansour Abbas,” Miller said. “And you can’t rule out Abbas’s determination to remain on the inside and at least get a piece of the pie.”

The key question to emerge from this coalition is whether Arab parties can be included in future governing coalitions or this government will go down as a failed experiment, according to Makovsky.

Satloff argued, “you can’t undo the fact that Mansour Abbas’s party was in this government.”

Gelman was skeptical about the future of Arab parties in government.

“I hope [the dissolution of the coalition] doesn’t mean that all that is for naught and that you will never have an Israeli Arab party in a coalition government again, but I would hasten to add that for the foreseeable future, that’s extremely unlikely,” she said. “The trends are not in that direction at all.”

Satloff described the coalition government as an effort to “transition” from the Netanyahu era to “something else,” but warned against “ascrib[ing] great historical forces at work to the dissolution of this government.”

Now, he continued, members of the coalition will need to “make the case not just why such a government existed and survived, but why their party deserves to survive into the next Knesset and potentially to the next government. And that’s a much more ideological argument… It’’ll be quite a challenge for some of the members of this government, especially Prime Minister Bennett, who lost considerable support among his right wing base.”

The sea change in Israel is unlikely to impact President Joe Biden’s upcoming visit to the region next month, which is set to include a stop in Israel.

“The trip is definitely going to happen because, as you know, the trip is as much about Saudi Arabia as anything else, probably more so,” Gelman said. 

Satloff said the change in government “will trigger some shuffling, some rethinking of the optics of the visit, but by and large this doesn’t have a huge impact.”

“From the Biden administration’s perspective, this may provide an opportunity for a little bit more leeway of discussion on the Palestinian issue given that Lapid is less allergic than Bennett to discussing the question of a political horizon,” he said. “I don’t think there will be a substantial change. While Lapid may be to the left of Bennett, remember that we’re now in an Israeli election campaign, and so everything will be viewed through that lens.”

Miller noted that the Biden visit could potentially be a boon to Lapid. “Photo ops, Lapid and Biden, Yad Vashem, whatever else is on the agenda for Biden and Lapid will play to Lapid’s strength,” he explained. “And if the Saudi-Israeli normalization process goes forward… that will redound to the caretaker government’s credit.”

But a renewed agreement with Iran over its nuclear program — while currently unlikely — would give Netanyahu “a huge edge on which to run,” Miller said. And if Biden is seen to be “tipping his hand toward Lapid or undertaking things that clearly benefit a caretaker government,” Netanyahu might increasingly frame his campaign as being anti-Biden.

Satloff was skeptical that Netanyahu would openly attack Biden, calling such a move “risky” given that U.S.-Israel ties have traditionally been important to Israeli voters and “Joe Biden is viewed as a strong friend of Israel.”

Depending of the timing of the elections, dynamics could be shaped in part by the outcome of the U.S. midterm elections, Makovsky said. Should Republicans retake Congress, Netanyahu might take a more partisan line. If the Israeli elections take place before the midterms, Netanyahu might “play it more safe.”

Miller called the government’s collapse “a bad sign” for the long-term future of U.S.-Israel relations and Israel’s relationship with the U.S. Jewish community, which he said had improved overall under Bennett. He said the situation could turn positive if Lapid manages to form a new, centrist or center-left coalition without some of the further right and religious forces in the current government.

“If it doesn’t turn out that way, and Netanyahu returns to office, I think that all of the trend lines that appeared to be more positive… all of that is going to revert to a situation where the U.S.-Israeli relationship — [which is] powered by the critical importance of bipartisanship — is going to get once again ground up in American partisan politics.”

Satloff urged against “read[ing] too much into” the long-term significance of the government for the U.S.-Israel relationship.

Analysts were dubious that Lapid will have much capacity to effect change as head of the caretaker government, particularly as he seeks to avoid further alienating right-wing forces ahead of the election.

“Historically, during an election period, everything freezes when it comes to the Palestinian issue,” Makovsky said, “because there’s no [incentive] in it for politicians to make any major moves.” The coalition, having lost its majority, will also be unable to pass any legislation.

Gelman speculated that the failure of the settlement bill could prompt renewed discussion about  annexing areas of the West Bank, a move that was halted in 2020 as a condition of the Abraham Accords. The bill’s failure, she said, may highlight that the settlements are not a full and permanent part of Israel.

Satloff noted that Lapid will remain prime minister until a new government is formed, a process which could stretch into next year.

“It’s not an insignificant period of time,” he said. “There will be restrictions on what the government can do because it’s the caretaker government. But you’re going to see perhaps a slight more centrist approach on some issues, because of the difference between the two, but you’ll probably see a lot of continuity.”