Fresh from its spring break, Israel’s Knesset resumed work on May 9, plunging straight into a chaotic summer session that is expected to last until the end of July. The tenuous prospects of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s ruling coalition are fueling speculation from critics that their cash run will be cut short.
Expectations of a restful Passover break for parliamentarians were dashed when Yamina MK Idit Silman resigned from her position as majority whip on April 6 Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – brought the Knesset to a 6660 impasse and sent the government into a staggering slide, with little room for error.
Bennett’s main mistake here was diverting his focus from both sides of the split screen at the same time. While he was out brushing up his diplomatic credentials on the global stage – at briefings with World Leader at the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, the first-ever visit by an Israeli Prime Minister to the United Arab Emirates (United Arab Emirates) and Bahrainand engage in shuttle diplomacy to resolve the issue Ukraine Crisis – The supporting cast of his Yamina party has been tasked with absorbing the fury of allegations from conservative voters that he and his cohort have betrayed their Jewish-Zionist ancestry by aligning themselves with the Israeli left. Inadequate attention to the distress calls from his own caucus prepared Bennett to bleed more from Yamina’s disgruntled delegates. (Amichai Chikli, a former defector, was officially ousted from the faction on April 25. Also, on May 13, Minister for Religious Affairs Matan Kahana, Bennett’s consigliere, announced that he was returning for an encore on Yamina’s Knesset list allegedly motivated by a push to oust and thus neutralize his party colleague Yomtob Kalfon – whose loyalty to Bennett’s agenda has been called into question – and to avoid a repeat of the Silman debacle.)
The focus subsequently shifted to Mansour Abbas and his United Arab List’s (UAL) four Knesset seats, whose exit from the coalition – a possible consequence of Silman’s departure – would almost certainly drop the curtain on the current government. After UAL suspended its involvement in the Bennett Ensemble on April 17, UAL reaffirmed its support for the collaboration on May 11, but tensions with and within the bloc remain high, particularly since the Al Jazeera correspondent was shot dead Shireen Abu Akleh during violent clashes between them the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and Palestinian militants in Jenin. If Abbas decides that his experiment to “improve the lives of Israeli Arabs on issues such as housing and fighting crime” has failed, or if for some reason the UAL religious Shura Council exercises its supervisory authority and directs Abbas to stop, the show will as good as cancelled.
Meanwhile, on May 19, Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi of the progressive Meretz party announced that she would relinquish her affiliation with the fragile coalition. Bennett is now making headlines in what is officially a minority government.
Faced with a divided group of Knesset rivals, the unity coalition was its own worst enemy from the start. Hot spots like the Temple Mount – where Israel’s claims of sovereignty have met Arab resistance – and the resurgence of Hamas attacks (and Israel’s countermeasures) will continue to test its structural integrity. A May calendar full of fleeting commemorations – including Israel’s Independence Day on May 3rd and 4th; Nakba Day on May 15, when Palestinians mourn Israel’s founding; and Jerusalem Day on May 28-29, when Israel celebrates the reunification of that city, heightens the challenge.
‘Back to the Future’
For the future, there are three potential spin-offs of the current storyline. At a pitch, Team Bennett regains momentum and even approves a budget for 2023 that will go to ministers for a vote on June 16. This contingency is given life by the fact that various components of the coalition – including Yamina and the UAL – are prominently represented – would risk being relegated to the opposition or falling below the electoral threshold if Israelis voted now. In fact, for all its shortcomings, the government survived two motions of no confidence on May 9 and managed to pass more than two dozen bills in the Knesset the following week – with just one defeat. But the prevailing conditions, particularly since Bennett’s loss of a majority, suggest that the sustainability of this momentum is highly questionable.
A second option would require sixty-one or more lawmakers to nominate another of their 120 peers to replace Bennett as prime minister. The internal appeal of this approach stems from its inherent bypass of the ballot box. Instead, a new government would be seamlessly installed without the need for a preliminary Knesset election that could send some of its existing ranks to the unemployment line. The viability of this narrative is undermined by the likelihood that the Knesset will roll out a red carpet for an alternative leader, with precedents demonstrating the inability of its members to ally themselves around another aspiring prime minister. Even if the opposition were to grow to 61, Netanyahu – his boss and still the most popular politician in Israel – could never get the critical voices of his Joint Arab List (JAL) for an attempt to regain control.
Under these circumstances, the most likely scenario is a spiraling descent towards elections and, due to the ongoing stalemate preventing consensus building, a relapse into the sustained string of inconclusive elections that beset Israel between April 2019 and March 2021. A Likud-sponsored bill to dissolve the Knesset was withdrawn on May 11 after the UAL returned to the fold of the Bennett government, but it is sure to reappear now that the stars are aligned for its passage.
‘Game of Thrones’
Against this backdrop, Bennett and Secretary of State Yair Lapid are struggling to write the script for the government’s next and perhaps final act. Widespread skepticism about their ability to stabilize the coalition continues to fuel doubts that this company can somehow survive until August 27, 2023, when Lapid is expected to step into the post of prime minister. This predicament fuels mutual suspicion that each of the protagonists is plotting to seize power.
Under their original agreement—which was intended to ensure that Bennett could not arbitrate on his own, thereby denying Lapid his continued tenure as head of the franchise—Bennett committed to Lapid’s immediate appointment as interim prime minister in the event of until the end of the government and until Formation of a successor cabinet. The caveat to that agreement says that if the collapse were engineered by one of Lapid’s six constituent parties – Yesh Atid, Blue-White, Labour, Meretz, Yisrael Beiteinu and the UAL – within the coalition, Bennett would remain in office.
This fact has given rise to the suspicion that Bennett and Lapid are operating covertly to frame each other’s lieutenants for a dissolution of their partnership. The recent approval for thousands of new settlement units – which incensed left-wing elements – and parallel reports that Lapid was ready to push legislation in cooperation with the JAL, a bright red flag in the eyes of the Israeli right, were perceived by some as unsubtle attempts to rout ideological opponents in order to leave the government.
Though Bennett and Lapid have easily shared the limelight for most of their co-production, their respective political careers could depend on who wins this competition’s spoils. Those of them who are to fill the prime minister’s office in Israel at the start of the next election season – assuming no candidate emerges to sideline them and avert an upcoming campaign – will not only rejoice in a rowdy campaign pulpit, but also finds himself as the leading man for a very long-term house championship.
The tangible danger of the transition period will come from a preference for politics over the substance of governance, with pandering from election-seekers hoping to ingratiate themselves with the public. Harsh speeches will dominate the discourse, and saber-rattling against Israel’s enemies—who continue to rehearse for battle—is likely to turn to violence. The need to deliver tangible “results” to the electorate could foster a variety of ailments, from fiscal irresponsibility to military adventurism. Prolonged instability will not do Israelis any good.
A cameo in the drama will feature US President Joe Biden, who has tentative plans to visit Israel in June. The president’s itinerary – which media reports could include a tour of a Palestinian hospital in east Jerusalem and a summit with school leaders from Israel, India and the United Arab Emirates – is being scrutinized by Israelis for partisan nuances and factored directly into their assessment of Bennett’s performance a. Whether he or another candidate for office will then collect the golden trophy will only become clear when the election envelopes are opened.
Shalom Lipner is a Nonresident Senior Fellow for Middle East programs at the Atlantic Council. From 1990 to 2016, he served seven consecutive Prime Ministers in the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem. Follow him on Twitter @ShalomLipner.