Bennett Coalition Government Collapses, New Elections on Horizon—and the Return of Netanyahu?

It’s over. Almost one year to the day after the most unlikely coalition of right, center, and left-wing parties managed to come together and form a “change government” that ousted Benjamin Netanyahu from his 12-year reign as Israel’s prime minister, the 24th Knesset led by Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid has collapsed.

After a stunning failure to pass the “settler’s law”—a critical bill regarding the safety and welfare of the Jewish people living in Judea and Samaria, and weeks of speculation as one member after another quit, Bennett and Lapid announced on Monday that they would put forth a bill to voluntarily dissolve the government and call for new elections. Lapid will become the interim prime minister as early as next week per the coalition’s original agreement and will serve until sometime in late October, when Israelis will return to the polls yet again—the fifth national election in four years.

Bennett will not be completely out of the political scene—he is expected to become the alternate prime minister and be responsible for the “Iran file.”

However, if Netanyahu could form his own government in the next few days, we would not go back to elections. He was not able to do that a year ago, and it doesn’t appear that he has the votes to do it now.

It is being reported that Bennett made this decision on his own and then informed his partner Yair Lapid. The opposition was willing to risk chaos in the West Bank in hopes of bringing down the government (see below).

“A year ago, we formed a government that had seemed impossible, that stopped the severe leadership paralysis,” Bennett said in a televised address to the nation Monday night. “We formed a good government, and together we got Israel out of the slump. Israel went back to being governed.”

“Over the past weeks, we did whatever we could to save this government, not for us, but for the benefit of the country. I held many talks and understood that if the Knesset did not dissolve within 10 days, Israel’s security would be severely harmed.”

One thing that was supposedly chief on Bennett’s mind in making the decision to dissolve the government was the settlers in the West Bank (biblical Judea and Samaria). As our first orthodox Jewish prime minister, Bennett wanted to ensure that a key Israeli law did not lapse at the end of June. His advisors told him last Friday that if the settler’s bill failed to get passed, it would send the State of Israel into chaos.

The “settlers’ law” has been routinely passed by the Knesset since it was first enacted in 1967. After the ‘67 war, Israel won the land of Judea and Samaria, but we did not officially annex it. Hundreds of thousands of Jewish people live there now, but in order to provide them with basic services such as police security, the Knesset has to renew this law every few years—without it, lots of people living in the West Bank would lose their legal status with Israel.

Earlier this month, in spite of the majority of the Knesset being on the same page about this bill (as I said, it has been routinely passed for decades), the measure was defeated, basically to embarrass Bennett and the coalition.

With the Knesset dissolved, the crisis is averted—the law regarding the settlers will receive an automatic extension.

“Unlike the opposition, which turned Israel’s security into a political pawn, I refused to harm Israel’s security for even one day,” Bennett said. He said that his decision to dissolve the government was similar to the situation King Solomon faced when two women claimed to be the mom of a child. The one who was willing to give up the baby in order to save its life was the true mother—and so, Bennett was willing to give up his seat of power for the good of the State of Israel.

“We chose to be the mother that saves the baby’s life,” Bennett said, referring to Solomon’s wisdom when the two mothers claimed the same baby.

Bennett called Lapid, who has been serving as Israel’s Foreign Minister, a “mensch” (Yiddish, meaning a man of integrity and honor) of a coalition partner. Lapid thanked Bennett for his “friendship” and praised him “for the responsibility he is showing today, for the fact that he is putting the country before his personal interests.”

“Our friendship was put to the test and met obstacles along the way, but we always overcame them. We showed that you can think differently, and still work together towards a common goal,” Lapid said. “Prime Minister Bennett is younger than I am, and we still have a road ahead of us together. He’s a vital Israeli leader, innovative and brave, and I have no doubt that his place is in the leadership of this country for many years to come.”

Perhaps forecasting his aims during his coming tenure as the interim leader of Israel, Lapid added, “Even if we are going to elections in a few months, the challenges we face will not wait. We need to tackle the cost of living, wage the campaign against Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah, and stand against the forces threatening to turn Israel into a non-democratic country. What has happened in the past few days, what has happened here tonight, is further proof that the Israeli system is in need of serious change and major repairs. A year ago, we started the process of rebuilding, and now we’re carrying it on, and carrying it on together.”

During their joint press conference Monday night in the Knesset Hall, the lights in the room temporarily went out, and things went dark—just as Bennett was promising an “orderly handover” of power to Lapid.

Without skipping a beat, Lapid wryly quipped, “How symbolic.”

A year ago, when the “unity government” coalition formed, no one (including me) thought it would even get to the starting line, much less last more than a few weeks. It was an unlikely cast of characters from pretty far to the left, right, center, and there were even some Arab Muslim members—a first in Israel. Basically, the “glue” that held them together was their mutual contempt for Netanyahu—anything but Bibi, again. Most of them had been his political protégé at one time, and all had been burned by his broken promises and “stay at the top at all costs” political mantra.

This past year, with Bennett as prime minister and Yair Lapid (the architects of the coalition) as foreign minister, has actually been an amazingly productive one for Israel. Before the bonds of the coalition factions started to fray at the edges a few months ago, the Bennett-Lapid government managed to pass a massive budget (before that, we hadn’t had one in several years), stop a wave of terror earlier this year, and make great strides on the regional and international diplomatic stage—taking the agreements signed in the Abraham Accords to the next level.

But the question on everyone’s mind is, will we now see the return of Benjamin Netanyahu? Netanyahu entered the opposition bitterly, pledging to bring down the government at all costs. However, his bitterness turned to joy over the year, and now, having brought down the government, he is in full jubilation. His goal has been to return to power, even as he is on trial for serious fraud allegations.

Netanyahu hailed the collapse of the Bennett-Lapid government (the “worst government in Israeli history,” he said) as “great news for millions of Israeli citizens.” However, many in his own party just want him to retire. He has burned too many bridges and broken too many promises. It is being reported that he made even more promises to MKs who broke away from the government, only to be contradicted by his fellow Likudniks, who understand that promises to someone else mean that they will lose something.

Netanyahu promised that he would form “a wide, national government headed by Likud. A government that will look after you, all the citizens of Israel, without exception. A government that will cut taxes, reduce prices, lead Israel to amazing achievements, including widening the circle of peace, as we have done in the past. And above all, a government that will restore national pride to the citizens of Israel so that you can walk in the street with heads held high. With God’s help, we will do this and we will succeed.”

But the truth is, we could have had that a year ago if he simply allowed someone else in Likud to replace him. He was the pariah. Bennett and the other right and center parties would have entered into a government with a Netanyahu-less Likud. Some of the Likud leaders suggested that maybe it was time for Netanyahu (72) to retire, only to be rebuffed by the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history.

According to polls, Netanyahu and those political partners who traditionally have been with him (the ultra-religious) would have command of 60 seats in the Knesset—just one member short of a ruling majority.

For now, the bill to dissolve the government and call for new elections has a few hurdles to clear. Lapid will be our interim prime minister. And in Israeli politics, anything can happen between now and October, when we vote.

Ron Cantor

CEO of Tikkun Global

Tel Aviv, Israel

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