Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.
Q: The Bennett-Lapid government appears to be facing two serious crises: a wave of Palestinian terrorism in Israel, and the loss of the government’s majority in the Knesset. Which is the bigger threat?
A: Probably the political one. The terrorist wave and even the threat of military escalation in the West Bank are nothing new to Israelis. The security establishment, after making worrisome mistakes, is nevertheless up to the task. The political establishment, on the other hand, may not be. The new coalition crisis risks again plunging Israel into a prolonged state of genuine ungovernability.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett lost his narrow 61-mandate Knesset majority last week when the coalition whip, Idit Silman, from his own Orthodox pro-settler Yamina party, defected to the opposition. The Knesset is now deadlocked at 60-60 between the coalition and the opposition. This means the government does not fall, but it also cannot legislate. When it comes time to pass the 2023 budget and the coalition fails, it will fall automatically.
The Knesset opposition, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, is making every effort to tempt at least one additional defector in order to attain a majority. Bennett, whose small Yamina party is the target for an opposition campaign of ugly incitement coupled with blandishments, is trying desperately to shore up the ranks (“we’ve stopped the hemorrhaging”) and prevent more defections. He is even hoping to tempt one or more Arab members of Knesset from the opposition Joint List, which is hardly a political or ideological ally of the Likud, to support the coalition.
Q: We need a few clarifications here. What can Netanyahu do with 60 or 61 opposition votes? And what went wrong with the prime minister’s own party, Yamina?
A: With 60 opposition votes, Netanyahu can hope to deadlock the Knesset and embarrass the government, which will now be hard put to govern. Nothing more for the moment. Further, it is hardly a given that the Joint List will vote with Netanyahu on any issue.
With 61 opposition votes--now a realistic political objective for Netanyahu--the Likud-led opposition can hope to win a vote of no-confidence that precipitates new elections. This assumes that all members of the parliamentary opposition, including the Joint List with its six MKs, will be interested in elections at this juncture. After all, alone among the key players only Netanyahu has a clear interest in new elections: if he can just head a new coalition--after a fifth, sixth or seventh round, whatever it takes--he can hope to legislate his way out of prosecution for serious crimes. Now, thanks to Silman, Netanyahu has a reason to at least avoid again negotiating the plea deal he almost made before Attorney General Mandelblit left office in January.
(With 61 mandates, Netanyahu can also theoretically present an alternative coalition of 61 and replace the Bennett-Lapid government without elections. But this is purely theoretical because the Joint List would not support a Netanyahu government.)
Between the moment the government falls and the swearing in of a new coalition following elections, Yair Lapid will, in accordance with his coalition agreement with Bennett, serve as acting prime minister. His tenure could be extended if the next elections, like those that preceded Bennett’s ascent to power, end in deadlock. Based on the latest polls, that is a distinct possibility insofar as Netanyahu and the right are not projected to win a majority.
Turning to Yamina, Silman’s is the party’s second defection--the first accompanied Bennett’s formation of the government. Yamina is now down from seven to five MKs, including Bennett and two key ministers. It turns out that, in selecting his Knesset list, Bennett showed very poor judgment of character. His mainly Orthodox right-wing party members are more loyal to the right-religious mainstream than to Bennett’s right-center-left-Arab anti-Netanyahu government.
Q: Silman cited, as her reason for defecting, the Meretz health minister’s insistence on allowing unleavened bread into hospitals during the upcoming Passover holiday. Seriously?
A: Over more than seven decades, some Israeli governing coalitions have indeed fallen over issues of Jewish orthodoxy like this: who is a Jew, what government actions are permissible on the sabbath, etc. In this case, ultra-secular left-wing Minister of Health Nitzan Horowitz was simply (albeit energetically) enforcing a High Court ruling. Silman seized on it for convenience, when in fact her real complaint and that of her fellow Yamina MKs who have not yet followed her is that Bennett has been moving toward the political center in defiance of their core beliefs and without consulting them. Bennett, they charge, burnishes his international credentials in Moscow and Sharm a-Shaykh but neglects the settlements, neglects “Jewish values” and neglects security.
Examples? In a public exchange with US Secretary of State Blinken, Bennett deliberately used the term West Bank instead of Judea and Samaria. In another diplomatic exchange, he allowed the term “settler violence” to go unchallenged. Heresy! The former head of the Council of Settlers is making compromises on ‘value’ issues to ensure Israel’s good standing among the nations? The cause of keeping unleavened bread out of hospitals full of non-Jewish and non-observant patients and medical staff is far more important.
Q: If indeed Bennett falls and an election countdown begins, Lapid immediately replaces him at the head of a transition government. Why do some seasoned observers point to Defense Minister Benny Gantz as a possible compromise candidate for prime minister in the current political constellation?
A: Even if the government hangs on with a 60-60 tie; indeed, even if new elections end up in deadlock, Gantz is lurking in the shadows. Lest we forget, two elections ago we ended up with a Gantz-Netanyahu BlueWhite-Likud rotation agreement that collapsed due to Netanyahu’s inevitable double-dealing. That abortive deal gives a Gantz premiership a certain potential legitimacy in the eyes of some. If and when Bennett’s failure is a done deal, Gantz may be more capable of recruiting right-wing, Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) and even Joint List support for a new coalition than Lapid, whose political fate is more closely tied to Bennett’s.
Q: On to security. How does the new Palestinian terror wave inside Israel factor into the political crisis?
A: Chaos, anarchy and violence do not reflect well on any government. In this case, with Bennett weakened they provide an abundance of fodder for angry attacks on Bennett’s cabinet by Netanyahu and the political opposition. Last Thursday night’s attack by yet another lone-wolf gunman from the Jenin area, killing three Israelis in the heart of Tel Aviv, encapsulated all possible unsettling mistakes: the security fence was still not sealed, the police were not around and when they were no-one took charge, the media ran wild with live coverage of blood and door-to-door commando operations, it took all night to track down and ‘neutralize’ the killer, etc.
That Jenin and the northern West Bank have, not for the first time, turned into an autonomous terror statelet is primarily the fault of the Palestinian Authority under the weak and aging Mahmoud Abbas and of 12 years of neglect by Netanyahu. But Bennett, who opposes any sort of two-state process and also neglects the Palestinian issue, also bears blame.
Twenty years ago, when Ariel Sharon launched Operation Defensive Shield, Jenin, which prided itself as the ‘capital of suicide bombers’, was also the focus. Sharon, who led a large party and headed a right-left coalition, displayed leadership and carried the public with him through bitter fighting.
Right now it seems increasingly likely that the IDF will again launch a major military incursion into the northern West Bank to eliminate a terrorist challenge. If and when that happens, will Bennett with his small, crumbling party be able to do the same? Will Netanyahu and his over-aggressive minions line up behind Bennett, Lapid and Gantz as the opposition should loyally do at times of major conflict, or will they continue to openly seek Bennett’s downfall?
Q: Bottom line?
A: Bennett’s government has registered quite a few successes in ten months. For starters, restoring honest governance after Netanyahu, dealing effectively with the covid pandemic without disrupting daily life, energizing unprecedented economic growth, expanding Israel’s regional strategic ties, and restoring close coordination with the Biden administration. Bennett even gets a passing mark for trying to mediate the Ukraine crisis while avoiding antagonizing Washington as well as Israel’s next-door neighbor, Russia.
But in retrospect, Bennett’s entire coalition tempted fate by entrusting the premiership to the leader of such a small and vulnerable party. Judging by the fate of crisis-ridden Yamina, Bennett is failing at politics and is a very poor judge of character. His performance reflects the absence of genuine, high-caliber political leadership. Further, all potential replacements in Israel--Lapid, Gantz, Netanyahu--are unimpressive. The indicted Netanyahu is downright disgraceful.
Is this leadership vacuum unique to Israel? Hardly. With the possible exception of Ukraine’s Zelensky (it’s too early to judge), the global leadership situation is equally problematic. Here and there (Trump, Putin) it is catastrophic.
Yet Israel cannot be seen as merely a microcosm of this international malaise. Israel’s critical issues are unique. In Israel, too much is at stake.