Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s worst fears became a reality last week when two of his foremost rivals – ultranationalist Naftali Bennett and centrist Yair Lapid – announced they had reached a deal to form a new coalition government.
“This government will work for all the citizens of Israel, those that voted for it and those that didn’t,” boasted Lapid. “It will do everything to unite Israeli society.”
“No one will be asked to give up their ideology, but everyone will have to postpone the realization of some of their dreams,” added Bennett. “We will focus on what can be done instead of arguing over what is impossible.”
The announcement ends a years-long series of elections in which Netanyahu’s Likud party failed to form a majority coalition with its allies.
Netanyahu won re-election for Prime Minister in April 2019. Snap elections took place in September to elect lawmakers. However, Netanyahu failed to form a governing coalition – the first such failure in the nation’s history. Lawmakers voted 74-45 to hold new elections. Those in favor seeking to block Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz from gaining power.
Legislative elections were again in March 2020. When results produced a stalemate between Netanyahu and Gantz, they made a deal to rotate the premiership between the two leaders.
According to an agreement they signed at the time, the next round of elections would be 36 months later – making May 23rd, 2023 the latest possible date. However, when lawmakers failed to approve a 2020 state budget by the end of the year, the Knesset (Congress) had to dissolve once again. Elections were scheduled for March 2021.
This time around, Lapid and Bennett managed to form a coalition government with a similar agreement. Bennett would serve as Prime Minister for the first two years and Lapid the second two years. Center-left politician Isaac Herzog will serve as President.
The unlikely alliance was formed with support from eight political parties seeking to oust Netanyahu and avoid another round of elections.
For the first time in Israel’s history, the Islamist United Arab List is a partner in a coalition government.
Bennett, a Trump ally who had vowed never to participate in a government with Lapid or an Arab party, now faces criticism from former right-wing allies.
“We won’t forget,” said Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the ultranationalist Religious Zionists. “And we won’t forgive.”
So what does Israel’s new government mean for the Biden Administration?
Bennett has vowed to do whatever it takes to fight Palestinian statehood and supports annexing 60% of the West Bank. This view is at odds with a growing push from progressives to support Palestinians.
On the flip side, Bennett is expected to be somewhat weak compared to Netanyahu given the diversity of his coalition.
“The coalition is so diverse that it’s hard to change much when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” notes Avi Eisenman, a Bennett supporter.
Lapid, who will replace Bennett in two years, supports a two-state solution to the conflict. He has promised to improve Israel’s relationship with Democrats in the United States.
“Any major decision will need to pass Lapid’s veto,” explains Ofer Zalzberg, director of the Middle East Program at the Herbert C. Kelman Institute. “Lapid is publicly supportive of a two-state solution, and publicly opposed to any form of annexation, so from that point of view Lapid’s party is also considerably larger than Bennett’s and there are other left-leaning parties in the coalition…So Bennett’s ideology will face signifiant coalition restraints.”
Another major issue is the Iran nuclear deal, which Biden supports and Israel opposes.