Israel may be on the cusp of a new era

Are the Days of Benjamin Over? Israel May Be On the Cusp of a New Era

More than two weeks have passed since Israel’s fourth round of elections, yet no resolution is in sight. On April 6 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received a mandate from the Israeli president to form a government. However, the path forward for the prime minister appears blocked. To form a functioning government at least 61 Knesset seats are needed. To achieve this, the premier will have to successfully woo two unlikely partners, the Islamist United Arab List (colloquially known as Ra’am) and the hawkish Religious Zionism party.    

Ra’am was elected as the pragmatic option on offer to Israeli Arabs, promising to put aside ideological aspects of its agenda for the sake of addressing social and civic issues that plague the country’s Arab population. Securing its support, therefore, should be relatively simple for the prime minister, such as through granting Ra’am relevant promises, mainly committing additional resources to the Arab population and forming working plans to tackle problems such as the blight of violent crime afflicting the demographic group. These are all easy promises to make politically-speaking.

The problem is convincing MP Bezalel Smotrich, the head of Religious Zionism, to form a government which includes Ra’am.

The crux of the problem, though, is convincing MP Bezalel Smotrich, the head of Religious Zionism, to form a government which includes Ra’am. Smotrich, other party members, and the spiritual and ideological leader of the movement, Rabbi Haim Drukman, have all expressed their staunch, unwavering opposition to this possible solution. As long as they stand strong, Netanyahu’s path forward appears blocked.

Netanyahu’s opposition, however, was left in no better shape by the elections result. With 52 MPs committed to the ‘anti-Netanyahu’ bloc, Yair Lapid, the leader of main opposition party Yesh Atid, cannot move forward without first securing the support of the two parties that have until now avoided aligning with either Netanyahu or his critics, namely, Ra’am and Yamina.

Ensuring the support of Ra’am seems to be within the reach of Lapid as well, and at no great political cost. Yamina and its leader Naftali Bennett, however, are a different story. The party, literally meaning ‘To the Right’, sits ‘to the right’ of Netanyahu’s (arguably) moderate rightwing Likud. A Lapid-Bennett government would require the latter to give preference to a coalition comprised of center and leftwing parties, rather than join Netanyahu’s alliance, in which no member can be suspected of dovish tendencies. Such a move by Bennett would damage his reputation, and possibly break the trust in him amongst his rightwing constituency irreparably.

And so, Israel’s notoriously complicated political arena appears to be at a standstill, raising the prospect of yet another round of elections. Still, two other paths forward might exist, and both pose a threat to Netanyahu’s 12-year streak as the country’s leader.

In a press conference this week, Bennett seemingly opened the door to forming a government with Netanyahu. While this may appear to improve the PM’s chances – and it does – Bennett’s declaration does nothing to conciliate Smotrich to the prospect of forming a government with Ra’am. Netanyahu needs Yamina in addition to Religious Zionism, not instead of it. Once again, so long as Smotrich maintains his opposition to Ra’am, Netanyahu’s path to the premiership is blocked.

Yet, it has also been suggested this week that Bennett has no intention of forming a government with Netanyahu. Instead, he may be hoping that the prime minister will fail. Bennett is counting on the hawkish Religious Zionism’s opposition to Ra’am. Once the prime minister has failed, it will be much easier for Bennett to convince his voters on the idea of joining Israel’s left in government. The Israeli electorate is suffering from severe election fatigue and will accept much to avoid a fifth round of elections. This would, therefore, pave the path to a Lapid-Bennett government in which, according to reports, they would each serve two years each as prime minister, with Bennett taking the seat tenure. Thus, Israel would have a centre government, with Lapid and Bennett at the helm.

With Netanyahu out of the picture, potential allies would be lining at the door to form a coalition with Likud. Two obvious partners are the rightwing New Hope and Yisrael Beitenu parties.

While this is plausible, it discounts one important factor that is yet to come into play – the Likud leadership – and this points to a second option. Israel’s ruling party does not begin and end with Netanyahu, as much as it may seem this way. With 30 seats in the Knesset, it remains the country’s largest party, and without the controversial figure of Netanyahu – whose corruption trial has furnished the headlines of Israeli media throughout the last week, as well as many times before – it would have held on to its political ascendancy more easily. With Netanyahu out of the picture, potential allies would be lining at the door to form a coalition with Likud. Two obvious partners, currently situated firmly in the ‘anti-Netanyahu’ bloc, are the rightwing New Hope and Yisrael Beitenu parties, both of which are natural partners of the Likud.

Rumours circulating in recent days have brought into question Netanyahu’s future in Israeli politics. The premier and his inner circle are reportedly considering a ‘secret option number three’, whereby Netanyahu’s party nominates him in the Knesset in order to set-up an eventual honorable exit for him. While this ‘secret option’ appears to have come out of nowhere, it may in fact point to shifting allegiance dynamics within the Likud. With Netanyahu weakened by his trial, and with his road to power reliant on an unlikely partnership with an Islamist movement, other Likud figures may be pressurising him to step aside. This would allow them to assume the leadership of the country, rather than push Israel to another round of elections or, even worse in their eyes, turn Likud into an opposition party for the first time in over a decade.

If Bennett’s bet proves correct on Smotrich’s obstinacy to cooperate with Ra’am, and the next few weeks pass by without Netanyahu forming a ruling coalition, the Likud’s leadership will face a choice: push Netanyahu out and continue to hold power in the country; or allow itself, as the country’s largest party, to be demoted to the opposition. Netanyahu’s weakness then may well supply them with the courage needed to mobilise against him. In this case, Bennet and Lapid would have to settle for ministerial positions, but Netanyahu’s era, after 12 long and eventful years, would come to an end. The name to look out for if no progress is made by Netanyahu is Nir Barkat, who – according to recent polls – has the most support inside and outside the Likud for succeeding Netanyahu, thus making him a candidate to be Israel’s next prime minister.

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Published by the Cambridge Middle East and North Africa Forum (MENAF) in Cambridge, England.

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