Benjamin Netanyahu’s rivals join forces with centrists to oust the Israeli prime minister
The leader of Israel’s hardline Yamina party has confirmed plans to form a coalition with centrists to seize a majority in parliament.
WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden has yet to comment on the political earthquake shaking Israel, which could depose his longtime friend and sometimes nemesis Benjamin Netanyahu as the country’s powerful prime minister.
On Wednesday evening, Netanyahu’s opponents, led by right-wing politician Naftali Bennett and centrist Yair Lapid, beat the clock to finalize a coalition government that would end Netanyahu’s 12-year rule. The agreement still needs to be approved by Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, in a vote that is expected to take place early next week.
If approved, Bennett would replace Netanyahu as prime minister for the next two years, and then Lapid would take the top post, under a rotation deal the two men struck.
Bennett’s rise as Israeli’s possible next prime minister might, at first blush, seem to pose a fresh geopolitical headache for Biden.
For starters, Bennett has vowed to do “everything in my power, forever” to fight Palestinian statehood, and he supports unilaterally annexing 60% of the West Bank, among other inflammatory proposals that could threaten an uneasy truce in the Middle East.
And while Biden has frequently clashed with Netanyahu, the two men have a decades-long personal relationship that gave the U.S. president insights into Netanyahu’s political tactics and pressure points.
“There’s a kind of devil-you-know dynamic,” said Khaled Elgindy, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, a Washington-based think tank.
But Elgindy and other Middle East experts say Israel’s new coalition government may actually be easier to deal with in some respects than Netanyahu, whose terms as Israel’s prime minister overlapped with those of four American presidents.
Bennett’s grip on power will be tenuous and conditional. And while Bennett will take the top job, Lapid is slated to serve as Israel’s foreign minister in a coalition that includes at least eight parties and spans Israel’s ideological spectrum.
“They will govern jointly, and in fact, with many others,” said Natan Sachs, director of the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy. “Bennett will be a very weak prime minister” compared to his predecessors.
Bennett and Lapid have agreed not to pursue contentious policies that could split their fragile, multiparty alliance; they plan to focus mostly on domestic priorities.
“The coalition is so diverse that it’s hard to change much when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” said Avi Eisenman, a long-time Bennett supporter from the Jewish settlement of Maleeh Adumin in the West Bank.
That would suit the White House well, since Biden had made it clear he does not want to become embroiled in Middle East peace negotiations.
And while Bennett would be a very “awkward partner” for Biden because of his far-right views on Palestinian issues, Lapid will be more simpatico, Sachs says.
A former TV journalist, Lapid’s secular Yesh Atid party has championed socioeconomic issues and supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Perhaps more importantly, he has pledged to improve Israel’s rapport with Democrats in Washington, which frayed under Netanyahu’s partisan approach to U.S. politics.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu has made the mistake of affiliating himself way too much with the Republican Party,” Lapid said during a forum with Brookings earlier this year. He noted that Netanyahu clashed repeatedly with former President Barack Obama over Middle East policy and then cultivated cozy ties with his GOP successor, Donald Trump.
Netanyahu seemed to have “taken a side in American politics” and sometimes appeared to be seeking confrontation with Democrats, Amir Tibon, an Israeli journalist with the Haaretz newspaper, said at a briefing this week hosted by the Israel Policy Forum.
“Bennett will be a fresh face,” Tibon said. “It’s easier to build new trust than to rebuild trust with someone that you’ve been confronted by and insulted by for so long.”
Elgindy and others say the U.S.-Israel relationship is not likely to change dramatically in a post-Netanyahu era.
“Both the Biden administration and a Bennett-Lapid government will have an interest in downplaying differences,” Elgindy said. But those differences could generate sparks nonetheless, he said.
One major flashpoint: The Biden administration’s decision to revive the Iran nuclear deal, which Israel opposes. Under that agreement, Tehran agreed to limit its nuclear enrichment activities and submit to international inspections in exchange for sweeping sanctions relief.
“The differences on Iran are considerable,” Sachs said. “That’s going to be a big question.”
And while Bennett and Lapid will try to “freeze” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Sachs notes that “reality might unfreeze the situation – as we just saw this last month in the worst way.”
The underlying issues that triggered the 11-day war between Israel and Hamas in May have not been resolved. Hamas is the militant Islamic group that controls Gaza, home to about 2 million Palestinians.
“The settlement machine is going to keep on rolling,” Elgindy said, referring in part to a legal case pending before Israel’s Supreme Court. That case involves an effort by Jewish settlers to evict Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem. The settlers say the land was owned by Jews before Israel became a state in 1948.
The Supreme Court delayed a ruling on the case in May but it is still pending.
“It’s almost surreal to imagine Bennett tamping things down in terms of evictions or settlement announcements,” Elgindy said. “The big question is, how is this very precarious Israeli government going to deal with these issues that will inevitably come down the pike.”
Biden and Netanyahu have portrayed their decades-long relationship as warm and friendly. And the two men were careful to present a united front during Israel’s recent conflict with Hamas.
The White House tried to use that to Biden’s advantage as he pressed Netanyahu to agree to a cease-fire with Hamas last month. But the relationship has grown frosty in recent years, particularly as Netanyahu moved further to the right and embraced Republicans in Congress.
Biden may have described the relationship best himself when he recalled signing a photograph for Netanyahu with this blunt note: “Bibi, I don’t agree with a damn thing you say but I love you.”
Even some Netanyahu supporters don’t believe his ouster will impact the U.S.-Israeli alliance.
“I don’t think Israel’s relationship with the U.S. will change just because Netanyahu isn’t prime minister anymore,” said Amar. “We are allies, and the U.S. has a big interest in Israel. The Gaza war showed how the U.S. stands with Israel, and supports it militarily when it needs it.”
Frank Lowenstein, who served as special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations during the second term of the Obama Administration, said there will be “suspicion” toward Bennett in Washington because of his extremist views on Palestinian issues and because, unlike Netanyahu, is not a known quantity.
But Biden may be relieved not to deal with Netanyahu’s savvy maneuvering in Washington, Lowenstein said, particularly if the White House is successful in reviving the Iran deal.
“Bibi has a lot more experience and relationships in the United States that he could draw on to turn our political system against the Iran deal,” he said of Netanyahu’s efforts to derail that agreement in 2015. Bennett does not have the same kinds of relationships and connections in the U.S. to leverage political opinion, Lowenstein said, so he may be resigned to statements of “grave concern” about any Washington-Tehran rapprochement.
At the same time, Lowenstein noted that Netanyahu will not fade from Israel’s political scene even if he is removed as prime minister. The new coalition, if it wins approval, will be very fragile, and Netanyahu will be leading a vocal opposition.
“The one thing you can bank on is that Netanyahu is not going anywhere,” he said.
Contributing: Jotam Confino reported from Tel Aviv.