07.06.2021 Author: Viktor Mikhin

Israel: The New Rules of the Game


A momentous event has finally taken place in Israel, hopefully bringing about a change in its internal and external course that has been unshakeable for years. Isaac Herzog, former leader of the Labor Party and previous head of the Jewish Agency, was elected head of Israel for the next seven years. The Knesset voted to elect him as the country’s 11th president, a largely ceremonial position currently held by President Reuven Rivlin.  Herzog defeated his opponent Miriam Peretz, an educator and Israel Prize laureate who vied to become Israel’s first female president.  Current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is finishing his last days in office, congratulated Herzog on his victory, saying: “I wish him great success on behalf of all the citizens of Israel.”

Although it is mostly pomp and ceremonies, the president in Israel is also the person who chooses which party gets a chance to form the government after each national election.

The 60-year-old Herzog has a legendary pedigree. His grandfather, Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog, was the second chief rabbi of Israel. His father, Chaim Herzog, was a general in the Israel Defense Forces, an Israeli ambassador to the UN and a member of the Knesset before becoming the sixth president of Israel.   Herzog left active politics in 2018 to become chairman of an organization that maintains contact between Israel and Jewish communities around the world. He campaigned vigorously among Knesset members, spreading his expertise in politics and diplomacy, saying that the job of representing Israel at the state level requires someone with his deep experience.

The second important development is, apparently, the resignation of Binyamin Netanyahu. Just 38 minutes before midnight on June 2, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid told President Reuven Rivlin that he had finally succeeded in forming a coalition government to replace Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.  “I promise you, Mr. President, that this government will work for the benefit of all the citizens of Israel, those who voted for it and those who did not,” Lapid told President Reuven Rivlin. “The new government will also respect its opponents and do everything in its power to unify and unite all parts of Israeli society,” he solemnly promised.

In the coming days, the parties will have yet to discuss the details.   According to the agreement, the head of the Yamina Party, Naftali Bennett, will be the first prime minister in rotation with Lapid, although Bennett won only 7 seats in the recent national election and Lapid won 17. Lapid and his party finished second behind Netanyahu’s Likud, which had 31 votes but could not form a coalition.  Led by Lapid’s party, that won 17 seats in the March elections, the coalition will include Bennett’s right-wing Yamina party (7 seats) as well as the right-wing New Hope party, led by former Likud member Gideon Saar (6), nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party led by Avigdor Lieberman (7), the centrist Blue and White party led by Defense Minister Benny Gantz (8), and the leftist Labor parties (7) and Meretz (6).   Nevertheless, this amounts to only 58 seats, forcing Lapid and Bennett to rely on the expected four votes of the Islamist United Arab List (Ra’am) party led by Mansour Abbas. It would appear that Ra’am will support the government in exchange for legislative and budgetary considerations that favor Israel’s Arab sector

In analyzing the current political situation in Israel, it must be stated that Binyamin Netanyahu’s unprecedented 12-year term as prime minister of Israel seems to be coming to an end. Despite the fact that he is wrapping up a year in which he has added new brilliance to his record of great accomplishments in office, World Israel News has complained, a bizarre coalition of leftists, centrists and rightists is about to unceremoniously toss him out of office. If Netanyahu and his increasingly desperate and angry supporters somehow fail to sabotage the creation of a “government of change” or if potential partners do not allow the disputes over cabinet posts to derail the agreement, Yamina Party leader Naftali Bennett could soon be sworn in as the country’s new prime minister.

If so, he will be at the head of a group of politicians who agree on one thing: Netanyahu must leave. Bennett, who would gladly serve in another Netanyahu-led government if it were possible, was essentially forced to choose between condemning Israel to its fifth election in more than two years or agreeing to be part of a government that would end the electoral madness in the country. It seems that his choice reflected what most Israelis wanted, even though it was contrary to the will of most of his own right-wing voters.  This means that as soon as he and Yair Lapid, head of Yesh Atid, the country’s second largest party, finish sharing patronage with the other small parties that have joined them, as well as completing the deal with Mansur Abbas of the Islamist Ra’am party, the Netanyahu era will be over. After that, the Knesset is likely to pass a law establishing limits on the Prime Minister’s terms of office.   In addition, there will almost certainly be a bill passed that would force any prime minister accused of a criminal offense to resign. This effectively guarantees that Netanyahu can never return to his official residence on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street.

Netanyahu remains the person most Israelis consider most suitable to lead their country. He also still enjoys the overwhelming support of his Likud party. Many of them, like their leader, are a little nervous about a scenario in which the coalition would be made up in part of people whose views on security issues do not coincide with the national consensus on both the peace process and the need to stop the threat from Iran. But the creation of the so-called government of unity, it must be stated, was made possible “thanks” to one and only one person, by the name is Benjamin Netanyahu.

The reason why Netanyahu was unable to form his own majority coalition lies in his own self. Just now, after the triumphant fight against the coronavirus pandemic and the conclusion of treaties with several Arab states, known as the “Abraham Accords,” Netanyahu is entitled to say that he is reaching the top of his political career. These achievements may have been reasons to keep him in office, notes Egypt’s Al-Ahram, especially in the face of such challenges as the threats facing Israel from Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran, as well as efforts by the Joe Biden administration to further shift the geostrategic balance in the region against the Jewish state and its new Arab allies.  But due to political differences such a coalition became impossible because of Netanyahu’s personal unreliability. One could argue that his skills as a leader outweigh his character flaws. His problems go deeper than the fact that most Israeli media, intellectual, legal and bureaucratic institutions are set against him. The allegations of corruption that he is trying to deny in court can be seen as a result of this campaign against him.  The weight of all those years in power would have been a burden heavy enough for anyone to carry under the best of circumstances. But he has spent the last decade ousting most of his possible successors from the Likud. He also convinced almost everyone who made a coalition deal with him that they had been duped. In this way, much of the credibility of Netanyahu has been eroded among the majority of politicians.

Will the new government be the disaster claimed by Netanyahu’s supporters? It may be. But then again, it is quite possible that they greatly exaggerate its potential shortcomings. In order to function, assuming that the government can survive long despite its contradictions, its members will have to put aside the ideological aims of their left and right components and focus on governing a country that has been without a budget for years as a result of the deadlock over Netanyahu’s fate. They will have plenty of reasons to unite in order not to plunge the country into another election which could be dominated by the Likud after Netanyahu (which some of the members of the new government would like to join). Nevertheless, the presence of leftists in cabinet positions will make many of those who support Netanyahu and the rest of Israelis worry about whether the new government will be able to adequately and reliably protect Israel’s interests.

Viktor Mikhin, corresponding member of RANS, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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