Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, has fought tooth and nail to hold onto power during a grueling two-year-long electoral standoff with open opponents and sometime-allies denying him the votes to form a stable majority government. But with the prospect of a fifth election in two years, and with it clear that animus for Netanyahu is the sticking point, it appears the logjam is about to be broken.
The decision of Naftali Bennett, the leader of the Yamina Party to the right of Netanyahu’s Likud, to join forces with Yair Lapid, the head of the centrist opposition Yesh Atid Party, has created the likelihood that a “government of change” will be sworn in within the next week. That means that unless he can somehow sabotage that deal at the last minute, after 12 consecutive years as prime minister, Netanyahu will be heading to the opposition benches.
The proposed coalition involves parties of both the right and the left and will rely on the votes of an Arab political party that will remain outside of the government to be sworn in. As such, it’s far from clear whether the Bennett-Lapid alliance can survive for long.
But given the only viable alternative to this scenario is a fifth election and implacable opposition to Netanyahu from a majority of the members of the Knesset, or parliament, it appears Bennett will soon become prime minister as part of a bargain in which he will serve for two years followed by two years of Lapid as the country’s leader.
For many Israelis, this is hard to swallow. Leaving aside the plurality of Israelis that continue to support Netanyahu and his remaining religious party allies, the rest of the electorate is also not entirely pleased with the compromises for both left and right that are obligatory to achieving this outcome. There’s little doubt, however, that President Biden will be among those cheering for the new coalition.
While Biden likes to boast of his long friendship with Netanyahu, there is little love lost between him and the president as well as the rest of the Obama administration alumni that make up his foreign policy team. They rightly viewed Netanyahu as an ally of former President Donald Trump and an implacable foe of their goal of reinstating Barack Obama’s disastrously weak and soon-to-expire nuclear deal with Iran.
President Joe Biden and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken are also seeking to re-establish ties with the Palestinians. President Donald Trump had cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority because of its support for terror as well as its longstanding refusal to make peace with Israel.
Biden has already moved to restore some of that aid even though U.S. law forbids aiding the P.A. so long as it continues to pay convicted terrorists and their families salaries and pensions. In the aftermath of the latest fighting between Israel and the Hamas terrorist organization, Blinken seems also intent on aiding Gaza, something that will inevitably wind up strengthening the strip’s Islamist rulers.
From their point of view, and that of the Democratic Party’s left-wing base, which is increasingly hostile to Israel, Netanyahu’s removal is bound to make it easier to achieve both of their Middle East objectives.
On the surface, that conclusion seems hard to refute. Netanyahu was burdened by all of the baggage he accumulated during his long career. The corruption charges lodged against him may be flimsy but also undermined his authority. Yet it was equally clear that Netanyahu was his country’s most able and experienced statesman, and few would argue that either Bennett or Lapid has his stature or skills as a diplomat and national leader.
Whatever his faults, in Netanyahu’s tenure Israel became both more secure and wealthier as he guided it toward alliances with moderate Arab nations and helped enable its First World “Start-Up Nation” economy to thrive. Indeed, he was coming off a year of unique achievements in expertly handling the coronavirus pandemic and joining the historic Abraham Accords of normalization with Arab and Muslim states.
President Biden, however, would be wrong to either underestimate his successor or to assume that the divided government he’ll lead will be vulnerable to U.S. pressure. The new Israeli coalition will be largely paralyzed on many issues, especially regarding settlements and the peace process. But that’s also because it is predicated on the notion that war and peace issues have been largely decided for the moment.
Indeed, parties of the left and right wouldn’t think of serving with each other had there not been a realization of a consensus that stretches from the moderate left to the right that the PA is no Palestinian peace partner. Similarly, there is an equally broad consensus on the need to stop Iran. Tehran’s aid to terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah comprises a deadly threat to Israel’s security in addition to the existential peril from its quest for nuclear weapons.
While elements of the new coalition will applaud Biden’s dangerous policies, the cabinet will be dominated by those who will largely continue Netanyahu’s policies on both the Iranian and Palestinian fronts. And if, as President Barack Obama and before him Bill Clinton did, Biden tries to intervene by aiding those who would undermine Bennett from the left, that will only make the Israeli right stronger.
Bennett will make history by becoming both the first observant Jew (he wears a kippah) to serve as prime minister as well as the first one who is a child of American immigrants. He knows he will have no future in politics if he is seen as betraying the country’s interests for the sake of office or good relations with Biden, as Netanyahu is already claiming.
The inherent instability of this ramshackle alliance is obvious. But, ironically, the one factor that may ensure its longevity is the certain knowledge that its failure is the only thing that could bring Netanyahu back to power.
Biden’s flirtation with terrorist-funding Palestinians and his obsession with returning to a policy of empowering and enriching Iran gave Hamas and the Palestinian Authority an incentive to gin up the controversies that led to the recent fighting. While Trump left him a stable region that was uniting against Iran and its terrorist allies, Biden’s policy shifts are not so much destroying his predecessor’s legacy as setting the stage for a renewal of violence and chaos.
Rather than planning on aiding Biden’s feckless appeasement of Iran and its terrorist allies, Bennett and Lapid are hoping Netanyahu’s absence will make it easier for them to persuade Biden to change his mind. Should Biden and Blinken ignore their pleas, they’ll find the new Israeli leadership no more likely to accept American decisions that endanger their country than the old one.