As night fell on 2nd June, Israelis across the land went to sleep assuming they would wake to the news that the nation was headed back to the polls for the fifth time in just over two years. Having borne witness to the trials and tribulations that faced Yair Lapid (leader of centrist Yesh Atid) it was inconceivable that in his final moments to form a coalition, with a multitude of diametrically opposed political parties, he would triumph.
With just minutes to spare, rumours began spreading throughout various news outlets that Lapid had succeeded, and eight coalition partners had signed on the dotted line. Just shy of midnight, with 25 minutes to spare, Lapid made the momentous call to President Rivlin and Knesset Speaker Yariv Levine to inform them of his achievement.
A colossal coalition of eight parties had put aside their political and religious differences coming together to form the ‘Change Government’. United by one goal, the coalition sought to end Prime Minister Netanyahu’s 12-year long premiership, the longest ever held by a leader in Israel, and plunge the country into a new political era. In a historic moment for the State of Israel, this was the first time a coalition deal had been signed by an Arab party.
As per the coalition agreement, Naftali Bennett would serve as Prime Minister for the first two years of the term while Yair Lapid serves as Foreign Minister. The duo plan to rotate positions for the final two years of their term.
The coalition curated by Lapid was razor thin, comprising of 61 Members of Knesset, a majority of just one. The parties are as follows: Yesh Atid (17/Yair Lapid/Centre), Yamina (7/Naftali Bennett/Right Religious), Yisrael Beitenu (7/Avigdor Lieberman/Right), New Hope (6/Gideon Sa’ar/Right), Blue and White (8/Benny Gantz/Centre), Labor (7/Merav Michaeli/Left), Meretz (6/Nitzan Horowitz/Left), Ra’am (4/Mansour Abbas/Arab).
Before Lapid could breathe a sigh of relief, another storm was on the horizon. Having failed to inform the President and Knesset Speaker of his success prior to the end of the session that day, a vote of confidence in the newly formed government would be unable to take place the following week and a painstaking 11-day wait began.
With eleven days to rescue himself from being plunged into opposition, Prime Minister Netanyahu played every card in his hand to tempt Members of Knesset away from the coalition. If he succeeded in getting just one defector, the coalition would have collapsed. Tempting offers of ministries, concessions and benefits were made but they were to no avail. Eventually, temptations and promise transitioned into bullish threats and demonising those on the right who chose to neglect their traditional roots and principles. With neither approach yielding success, Israelis across the country begun to wonder if an end to the Prime Minister’s 12-year tenure was in sight.
As Sunday 13th June arrived, Israelis from across the spectrum watched on in disbelief as they lept towards a political revolution. The moments prior to the confidence vote in the government were fraught and full of anguish.
Disgruntled with no offer of a ministerial position, Yisrael Beitenu MK Eli Avdar announced he was breaking away from his faction and would sit independently. However, he did reassure party leaders he would be voting for the government and would only split from his faction after. Although the breakup would still allow the government to be approved, in all votes going forward it is unclear whether the coalition can rely on Avdar. If they are unable to, they no longer have a voting majority.
With one hurdle crossed, another arose. Ra’am MK Said Al-Harumi announced he would be abstaining from the crucial vote. Al-Harumi’s decision to abstain was on the grounds that the coalition agreement had failed to iron out certain policies with regards to the demolition of Bedouin homes in the Negev. Subsequently, it was reported that Al-Harumi’s abstinence had been cleared with Lapid and Bennett on condition that should there be speculation the government may not be approved, he would alter his position and vote with the coalition. Following the government’s approval, Ra’am party leader Mansour Abbas reassured the media that the MK’s choice to abstain on Sunday was not representative of how he will vote going forward.
As time careered towards the four o’clock vote, a few more minor obstacles presented themselves. A major outbreak of fire in the Jerusalem Hills caused the closure of the 1 Highway, the main entrance to Jerusalem. Police were charged with the task of locating all stuck politicians, extracting them from the chaos and bringing them to the Knesset. Religious Zionist MK Itamar Ben Gvir was involved in a car crash in northern Israel and refused hospital treatment in fear of missing the vote, while simultaneously Labor MK Emilie Moatti was hospitalised to undergo a spinal tap and was brought to the Knesset mid-treatment to vote while lying horizontally on the Knesset floor.
Challenges overcome, the plenum was full and the inaugural session commenced with speeches from the (hopeful) incoming and outgoing Prime Minister’s. True to form in Israeli politics, Bennett’s inaugural speech was overshadowed by relentless heckling from far-right politicians. They believe that Bennett’s controversial decision to sit in a coalition with not only left-wing parties, but an Arab party, has dishonoured the electorate and is fundamentally against what that right-wing camp believes.
Trying his best to overcome the hecklers, Bennett thanked the Netanyahus for their service to the country and outlined his plans. Internally, he chose to highlight Arab rights, Haredim and civil unrest as key issues on his agenda. Shifting globally, he focused on Iran and his vehement opposition to the renewal of the nuclear deal.
Order of ceremonies allowed for Yair Lapid – coalition negotiator, Prime Minister elect and Foreign Minister – to speak. Having borne witness to the disruptive behaviour displayed throughout Bennett’s speech, Lapid decided to forgo his debut chastising the plenum and warning that their inappropriate behaviour brings shame to democracy and is the reason that they have been replaced.
Silence fell as Netanyahu rose to address the Knesset for the final time as Prime Minister. Vowing to bring the downfall of the new coalition, Netanyahu lamented what had become of Israeli politics. He declared that it was an honour and privilege to serve his country and he intends to continue his mission of ensuring security and flourishment of the State of Israel.
Some predicted that Netanyahu may announce his retirement during his speech or a return to Likud primaries, yet neither of these topics were addressed. With such a precarious coalition, Benjamin Netanyahu will continue to lead the Likud party and undertake the role of Leader of the Opposition. It has been speculated that Netanyahu will be in position while he assesses the chance of the coalition collapsing. Should it collapse, he may run a campaign to reclaim his title, but should it be successful it is rumoured he may choose to retire from politics.
‘Every vote counts’, had never been more accurate under the circumstances of this vote. With ballots cast and results announced it was confirmed that the Lapid-Bennett coalition had been approved with 60 votes for, 59 against and 1 abstention. Israel’s 36th Government was born.
With the momentous success came both certainty and uncertainty. Without a doubt, the new coalition had ended Prime Minister Netanyahu’s 12-year premiership over the country and ousted him to the opposition. However, with a razor thin majority of just one and a tumultuous political history, there is much speculation about how long a coalition of diametrically opposed parties, beliefs and policies will be able to maintain their unity. Should one person falter, so would the entire government.
Following a further debate, the vote for the Knesset Speaker took place. The coalition had nominated Yesh Atid MK Mickey Levy as their candidate and the opposition had chosen Shas MK Yaakov Margi. Winning the vote with 67 nominations, Mickey Levy succeeds Likud’s Yariv Levine.
After a truly ground-breaking day in Israel’s political history, former Prime Minister Netanyahu rose and shook hands with incoming Prime Minister Bennett. Each member of the Bennett-Lapid coalition cabinet was then sworn in and the change of power officiated. Ensuring that feelings were heard by citizens across the country, there were concurrent parties in Tel Aviv to celebrate the demise of Prime Minister Netanyahu and demonstrations in Jerusalem to grieve it.
As news spread across the globe congratulatory tweets from world leaders began rolling in with the majority congratulating both Bennett and Lapid on their success. The following morning, Israelis woke up with a new leader and government.
8 Parties, 1 Cabinet
With a coalition of eight parties, negotiating which party won control of each ministry was an unenviable challenge. Despite heavy criticism of the previously bloated cabinet, the incoming cabinet will be formed of 35 ministers, just one short of the Netanyahu government. Additionally, 16 of the newly appointed ministers have chosen to enact the Norwegian Law. The law allows ministers to resign from their position as Member of Knesset to focus solely on ministerial duties and permits a new MK from their party lists to replace them. This approach means there will be a total of 136 politicians that form the government. Overtaking the last government’s record, Israel’s 36th government will see a record-breaking nine women hold ministerial portfolios.
The top three positions to watch in the coming weeks are Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (Yamina), Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) and Finance Minister Avigdor Liebermann (Yisrael Beitenu).
When analysing the coalition deal, political commentators around the globe are struggling to make sense of how a party with just 7/120 seats (Yamina) can be awarded the premiership role of Prime Minister. This scenario reflects the substantial pitfalls with Israel’s electoral system, and it is the hope of many Israelis that the new government will lobby for electoral reform at the first available opportunity.
With 17/61 seats in the coalition, Yair Lapid has the largest share of the vote, almost triple that of the incoming Prime Minister. Possessing the greatest share of power will allow Yair Lapid to have considerable control over governance and policy not only in the foreign ministry but across all fields. With Yesh Atid defining themselves as a centrist party, we could see a more moderate stance on political issues being taken which would be welcomed by a large share of the electorate.
A previous bone of contention and catalyst for returning to elections has been the passing of the state budget. Israeli law dictates that an incoming government must pass a state budget within 100 days of its inauguration; the passing of the state budget will become the most pressing challenge for the new government and finance minister, Avigdor Liebermann (Yisrael Beitenu).
Finance Minister Lieberman – Yisrael Beitenu party leader – holds seven seats within the coalition, equal to that of Prime Minister Bennett’s Yamina party. This would indicate that in a similar scenario to Lapid, Lieberman will have greater say over Israel’s financial decisions going forward and, in some circumstances, may be able to overrule the Prime Minister. Liebermann has already vowed that there will be a mass increase in investment and a freeze of tax hikes.
Benny Gantz (Blue and White) will be remaining in his position as Defence Minister. Speculation has been made that he is retaining this position as the previous mission in Gaza is not yet complete and he will continue navigating this. Newly elected Gideon Sa’ar (New Hope) is the incoming Justice Minister. Formerly of Likud, Sa’ar ran against Netanyahu in the primaries in 2019 and lost; ever since, the duo have had a prickly relationship. Being in control of the Justice Ministry, Sa’ar will be involved in several aspects of the upcoming Netanyahu trial. Merav Michaeli (Labor) has been handed the Transport Ministry – in the previous government Miri Regev (Likud) was the first women to hold this role. Although Ra’am (Arab) did not gain a ministry, they will be given a deputy-minister position in the Prime Minister’s Office.
Israel’s newest Prime Minister and his coalition truly believe that the country has entered a new political era and the volatility of the past has been laid to rest. Israelis, however, are not easily lulled into that false sense of security. If just one person puts a foot out of line, dreams will be shattered as government crumbles once again. Watch this space.