Hard Questions, Tough Answers- The Bennett-Lapid Interlude: A Summing-Up (November 21, 2022)


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. Benjamin Netanyahu does not yet have a government. He is still bogged down negotiating with messianists, Kahanists and Haredim. But assuming he succeeds and again becomes prime minister, the Bennett-Lapid era will look like a brief interlude. Can you sum up that era for us?

A. Under Bennett and Lapid there were some important achievements, like the Lebanese maritime border deal and the entry of an Arab party into government. And there were failures, for example regarding security in and around the West Bank.

Q. The most obvious failure was the failure to get reelected. The Lapid-led coalition lacked the cohesion needed for a shared electoral strategy.

A. And the Netanyahu-led bloc displayed that cohesion, although as I write, it still seems unable to coalesce into a working coalition. Yet assuming somehow it does, its stability is far from guaranteed: despite its majority of 64 members of Knesset, it may dissolve sooner rather than later.

Q. The sooner, the better. For this reason if for no other, it is important to document where Bennett-Lapid succeeded and where they failed. Perhaps we can learn usable lessons for the political future. Let’s start with Bennett-Lapid successes.

A. I already alluded to bringing Mansour Abbas and Raam into the coalition--the first time an Arab party was integrated into mainstream Israeli politics. From the standpoint of attitudes toward Israel among Arab citizens of Israel, Abbas is a revolutionary: he accepts Israel as a Jewish state and campaigns for equal rights rather than conflict-related Palestinian issues.

Bennett and Lapid deserve full credit for their pioneering partnership with Mansour Abbas. Their coalition may have been too short-lived (just under 18 months: now as a caretaker government) to see results. But Raam was returned to the Knesset in the November 1 elections with an added mandate, indicating a degree of approval by Arabs in Israel.

Still on the domestic level, Bennett and Lapid restored a sense of governance and normalcy where under Netanyahu there had been none. Bennett managed the covid-19 pandemic without Netanyahu’s reliance on lockdowns; that too contributed to normalcy.

Q. And successes at the regional and international level?

A. The Lebanon maritime border/energy deal stands out. Lapid made concessions that neither of his predecessors--Bennett and before him Netanyahu--seemed prepared to make. He got what looks like a good deal that should contribute to stability on Israel’s northern border as well as to Israel’s growing natural gas market. Despite sniping at the deal during the negotiation stage, Netanyahu is almost certain to honor it. (Knowing Netanyahu, he will now argue that he could have gotten a better deal regarding Israel’s maritime border with Lebanon, but that it is too late to change it.)

Bennett’s decision to allow Gazan day-laborers to work in Israel has emerged over the past year as a risk well worth taking. No security incidents involving these commuters have been registered, while the payoff in border tranquility and Gazan economic benefits is undeniable.

Turning to the broader Arab world, Bennett and Lapid succeeded in broadening and developing the Abraham Accords, particularly in Israel’s relations with Morocco. Flights over Saudi Arabia expanded, while flights to and from Qatar--at least during the current soccer world cup--have been initiated. Despite tensions over the Palestinian issue, Jordan and Egypt have expanded their strategic economic relations with Israel--Jordan by trading solar energy for desalinated water, and Egypt by reexporting Israeli natural gas to Europe.

Turning to Syria, Iran and the ‘campaign between wars’, the Bennett-Lapid (and Gantz) era witnessed continued success, building on Netanyahu’s achievements in keeping Iran and its weapons as far as possible from Israel. Here, security coordination with the United States and friendly Arab states was also maintained successfully.

Q. And the Ukraine-Russia arena? This is a war that did not yet exist under Netanyahu, so we are judging Bennett and Lapid tabula rasa.

A. And the jury is still out. The overall picture is far from complete. After February 24, 2022, Bennett and Lapid tried to position Israel somewhere in between Moscow and Kiev. On the one hand, Israel did not want to antagonize Russia, which is now militarily Israel’s neighbor in Syria. On the other, it recognized that Russia is the aggressor.

Lately, despite the knowledge that Israel’s arch-enemy, Iran, is supplying lethal attack drones to Russia and that they are being used against Ukraine, Israel under Lapid has refused to sell Ukraine even defensive weapons and has sufficed with humanitarian support. Essentially, the fear of complications with Russia in Syria is too great. Indeed, because the emerging Russia-Iran alliance functions in Syria as well, this suggests even greater need for Israel under Lapid, followed by Netanyahu, to tread carefully in Ukraine.

Diplomatically, Bennett tried to position Israel as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine in order to rationalize his neutrality, and failed. (Only Erdogan of Turkey has had some success here.) Lapid tilted slightly more toward Ukraine than did Bennett, though the difference is not substantial.

Then too, Israel’s neutral stance is explained by virtue of its desire to be able to welcome Jewish immigrants fleeing both Russia and Ukraine. And, apparently in the interest of political correctness, to accept non-Jewish asylum-seekers as well. Here Ayelet Shaked, a Bennett ally still serving as caretaker interior minister, has managed the effort with a total lack of both compassion and bureaucratic finesse--without being called to order by her prime minister.

Overall, the verdict here is a suspended passing grade. Suspended, because we may never know whether Israel’s judgment regarding the dangers from Russia in Syria is justified (personally, I believe it is). Passing rather than excelling like, say, NATO, because Israel is ignoring, at its peril, an obviously just cause in Ukraine along with the greater global danger posed by Putin’s Russia.

It is doubtful that Netanyahu, with his close relationship with Putin, will do any better.

Q. Turning to failures, besides Lapid maneuvering and manipulating the coalition out of power, where do both he and Bennett look bad?

A. They look bad on the Palestinian, or more specifically West Bank, front.

Shortly after ascending to the premiership, Bennett faced a wave of Palestinian terrorism in Israeli cities, much of it spontaneous and not traceable to the more familiar culprits, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. His government’s response, led by Defense Minister Gantz and maintained under Lapid, has been to take the fight deep into the northern West Bank and, in the course of a prolonged siege, root out terrorist cells and individuals.

This approach has registered success insofar as Palestinian attacks inside Israel proper have been radically reduced. But the death toll among Palestinians in the West Bank, both combatants and civilians, has broken records. Israel’s friends (the US) and neighbors (Jordan) are noticing and criticizing.

Israel’s inability to satisfy American demands for an accurate accounting of the death near Jenin of Shireen Abu Akleh, a US-citizen reporting for Al Jazeera, has not helped. American authorities surely know from their experience in Iraq and Afghanistan that collateral damage in a battlefield situation is not always fully explainable. Yet now the FBI has suddenly decided to investigate. Somewhere along the line, Lapid and Gantz have badly mishandled this issue.

Turning to the diplomatic sphere, no one expected the Bennett-Lapid government with its strong right-wing component to renew two-state negotiations with the stagnant and corrupt West Bank leadership under the aging Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). Yet the overall Israeli-Palestinian situation has become undeniably worse on Bennett and Lapid’s watch. Combining the Palestinian casualty toll in the West Bank with the lack of any Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic movement whatsoever, Israel can expect not only more judicial action against it in The Hague, but conceivably a third Intifada as well.

Finally, the dramatic electoral achievements of fascist-Kahanists Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir on November 1 do not reflect only Netanyahu’s manipulations to unite their parties (which he may already be regretting). They also reflect the public’s alarmed response to the Arab-Jewish violence that characterized the May 2021 Guardian of the Walls conflict--the first such violence inside Israel since 1948.

That happened on Netanyahu’s watch. But the Bennett-Lapid government appears to have failed to learn and apply the lessons of that dramatic event. This has augmented public alarm, thereby contributing to the Israeli electorate’s dramatic tilt to the far right at the beginning of this month.

Q. Bottom line?

A. Considering the odds against them and their coalition’s incredibly complex composition--right, center, left, Arab Islamist--the relatively inexperienced Bennett and Lapid did not perform so badly.