By: Jonathan Feldstein
For a country of news junkies, Israelis sure have had a lot of news the past week. Maybe I am projecting, and admittedly I don’t ride buses that much anymore, but it’s not uncommon to be on a public bus at the top of the hour and have the driver turn up the volume of the radio so all can hear. Unlike the US and other representative democracies with fixed terms for their political leaders, Israel’s parliamentary democracy “allows” for the up-until-now unprecedented four elections in two years. It also “allows” for the scenario that the outcome of these votes are indecisive and tenuous, and even makes it unclear that a new government will emerge, even down to the breathtaking Knesset vote to do so.
Watching the Knesset vote, I felt like I was watching a close basketball game, with two- and three-point shots scored alternatingly by the home and visiting team, in our case the incoming coalition and the opposition. The vote was a roll call of all 120 members and went back and forth until it was clear that it was not going to flip or flop any longer. And though it was anticipated that the new government would win, the paper-thin margin of 60-59, while a majority, was astounding all the same. The difference with a basketball game is obvious: there’s a winner and a loser. Yet in the Israeli political system, the opposition made it clear from the moment the last vote was cast, that it exists to overturn that vote. Already this week, two votes of no confidence have been called.
The news that’s unfolding is as divergent as the parties are that make up the new coalition, which is news in and of itself. It is an unlikely coalition of eight parties ranging from left to right, including an Arab Islamist party, and any number of parliamentarians now sitting in a government with people and ideologies with whom they said they’d never sit in a government. Which parties ally with others and on what issues is not clear cut. There’s a right-wing party politically that said they’d never sit in a government with an Arab party, but which is socially liberal and opposes religious coercion and many of the underpinnings of the Jewish character of the state. One would think that the Arab party would be in the left-wing camp which it is regarding peace with our neighbors. However, as an Islamist party they not only reject, but openly contradict, many of the knee-jerk social policies of the left-wing parties. And this continues on multiple levels in many dimensions.
Other news was that the formal introduction of the new government before the vote was as disrespectful as it was. Dozens of opposition lawmakers heckled incoming Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, showing a side of Israel that was once common, but is not now, and is never acceptable. It debased the shouting lawmakers, former Prime Minister Netanyahu, and the Knesset as an institution.
The juxtaposition of tone of the remarks by incoming Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and outgoing Prime Minister Netanyahu could not have been more different. Bennett expressed hope, speaking of unity, looking forward to a bright future. Netanyahu basically said the sky is falling, that without him Israel is entering doomsday. For most Israelis, whether we like Netanyahu or not, we know that Israel is bigger and greater than any one person. As incoming Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said, the behavior of the opposition demonstrated in fact how much it was time for change.
After the new government was elected, there was a quick handshake between former Prime Minister Netanyahu and new Prime Minister Bennett. That’s where the courtesy ended. Netanyahu refused to be part of the tradition of a formal public handing over of the office (or official residence, in which he’s still living). Rather than providing any meaningful transition as was done for him, has always been done, and is for the good of the country, Netanyahu gave Bennett only a cursory 25 minutes on Monday before running off to an opposition meeting to discuss how to topple the new government.
Even Netanyahu’s archrival, Shimon Peres, put differences aside following his dramatic loss to Netanyahu in 1996, while the country was still healing from the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin a few months earlier, and played the role of statesman.
Finally, given how improbable it is that these eight widely different parties came together, much less that they might form a stable coalition, each day we wake up and the government hasn’t collapsed is news in of itself. Nobody knows how long the coalition and government will remain stable, to the extent that a government with a mandate as slim as this one is stable. But every day it does is newsworthy.
What have Israelis learned from this and what do we have to look forward to?
Change – Israel is bigger than one person
Israelis went to sleep Sunday absorbing (many celebrating) the news that after 15 years, 12 consecutively, Benjamin Netanyahu was no longer their Prime Minister. We saw the first cabinet meeting of the new government broadcast live on national TV. We saw that meeting begin with Israel’s new and first religiously observant Prime Minister invoke an age-old blessing, albeit with a modern political undertone: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.” The new leaders got right down to business.
We awoke Monday to a new, post-Netanyahu era, realizing the sky had not fallen (yet) and that it was not a dream, or nightmare depending on one’s perspective. The unprecedented and unique diversity of the coalition raises question as to its stability. That diversity seemed to underscore that Israel is bigger than one person on a few levels. First, the simple fact that Naftali Bennett is the new Prime Minister, having unseated who many both affectionately and deridingly called “King Bibi.” It was a bloodless coup.
Also underscoring the point that Israel is bigger than one person, that eight different and divergent political parties with vividly diverse ideologies came together, expressing a determination to rise above their differences and work for the good of the country. Unity has to be the sum of more than one. The largest of these parties only has 17 seats out of the Knesset’s 120 members, just under 15%, and the smallest only has four. If anything highlights that Israel is bigger than one person, is that the new coalition has 61 members of eight divergent parties, each literally putting their political future – and the well being of the country – on one another. This gives new meaning to the idea that a chain is as strong as its weakest link, because if one party, or just one or two people, within the governing coalition decides to threaten or part ways, they all fall.
The end of Netanyahu’s tenure
Netanyahu has ended his tenure in a less than respectable way on many levels. I’ve written about that a lot as one who voted Likud/Netanyahu every election the past 20 years except for two, most notably the last one. He’s got so many truly great achievements for which he deservingly can take credit. But he made it way too clear that his politics was about him, not the country. The last number of days leading up to the vote this week, he tried every trick in the book, and then made up some more, to do anything to stay in power. It was really unbecoming. Now, we look at a man who has truly done so much, ending his term by casting a spotlight on his tricks and unreliability, rather than on all the good that he’s done.
It’s come to a point that ultimately, as one pundit noted, “He is not Prime Minister because no one believes a word he says anymore.” Sadly, he may have tainted his career so badly, this may be how people will remember him, not as a statesman competing with better ideas and more success than anyone, as he well could have. He may be back, who knows. Part of it depends on how long the new government is able to last. Part is based on how/if/when he’s “deposed” within the Likud party for another leader. Part depends on the outcome of his trial.
Netanyahu’s tenure is over, but his political career is not necessarily over. Depending on the success of the new government he could return. Or the Likud could tap new leaders to bring it back to power and push Netanyahu into retirement. If that happens, it will be up to him how he wants to be viewed: as a once in a generation political leader with many achievements that are indeed his to take credit for, or as a Prime Minister in exile. But his embarrassing behavior in the past two years and several weeks in particular remind many Israelis why it was time for a change.
Some have observed that not only was his defeat his own undoing, but among the great paradoxes that exist here, he is also in part to blame/credit for the formation of the new government. By pushing out other prospective right-wing leaders and successors who went to establish their own parties, and actively campaigning against them, he became the glue that helped the eight divergent parties stick together. This is a similar paradox to the response of Israel, the Gulf Arab states, and Saudi Arabia to Obama’s empowering Iran. Obama indirectly can be credited for bringing Israel and these Arab countries together. The normalization of relations was something for which Netanyahu and Trump rightly deserve credit. But the big catalyst was Obama.
The question remains as to whether the new government or the Abraham Accords has more staying power, and if the new government will in any way strengthen or weaken that.
Stability of the new government
I have lots of thoughts about Israel’s new government and new Prime Minister, about how we got here, and about the end of the tenure of Prime Minister Netanyahu.
The bottom line is that it could be very good, or very bad. The new government could rise to the occasion and work together as adults leading the country, seeking unity through compromise. With a coalition ranging the political gamut as this one does, and with each party able to agree or disagree with policies of almost every other member of the coalition, this is a tall order. Or they could start fighting and working against one another, bringing us to a fifth election anyway. One of the first tests of this will be the ability of the government to pass a budget. By law, that needs to be done within the first hundred days. No grace period here. If that doesn’t happen, the government will automatically fall in the fall, and new elections will be called for the winter.
That’s a consequence of the government being unable to do something for which it is mandated. But there are many other things that can see the end of this government, proactively. Any one major, divisive partisan issue could do that. The leaders need to balance their agendas and future careers with being selfless and recognize that much more hangs in the balance.
The flip side to this is having clarity as to what brought them together. If it has not been about “change” as they branded the government, but solely about unseating Netanyahu, they did that. But it might not last. The longer that the government does stay together, the greater the chance that Netanyahu will be sidelined permanently. If that’s the case and a new Likud leader rises up, the adage “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” may have no legs. A well-known commentator observed that, “This government’s contradictions are the source of its hope.” Or demise. Underscoring the hope, Israel’s new Arab Minister for Regional Cooperation (yes, let it sink in that an Israeli Arab will be representing Israel to its Arab neighbors) said, “I thought this (swearing in ceremony) would be no big deal, but actually it’s very emotional. Now, though, I’m solely focused on what we can achieve.”
Restoring respect and hope for our democracy
The swearing-in of Israel’s new government reaffirmed the truism that Israel’s is indeed the only democracy in the Middle East. The system is not perfect, nor are many of the players. But there was a peaceful (albeit sometimes ugly) transfer of power. Even for a relatively new country, the transfer was steeped in laws and tradition.
Personally, this was reaffirmed all day Sunday. The nail biting was nerve racking as to whether the government would pass the narrow majority that was projected, or whether Netanyahu would come up with a new trick, knocking out the government before it could start. But the need for change was reaffirmed over dinner. As the Knesset vote took place, I was out to dinner with my nearly 16-year-old son. At one point he commented that he doesn’t know any prime minister other than Netanyahu As he said this, I thought that all the more reason it’s time for a change. Democracies are not and cannot be about one person. There needs to be an exchange of ideas, and a change of leaders. It’s not healthy to define our democracy about one person.
Throughout the day I got really choked up a few times. I got choked up watching the local media jockeying for interviews with the new government ministers, listening to our language revived, Hebrew accented with Russian, Arabic, that of Moroccan, and Ethiopian Israelis, a short 73 years since our sovereignty was restored.
Having a Prime Minister who wears his Judaism outwardly, opening his first official meeting thanking God for enabling us to reach this occasion, sets a new tone for the country within, and how people look at Israel from outside. I’m overcome by gratitude for this occasion.
Time will tell whether this government is able to be the hope that many Israelis wish for it. I join the voices that express concern, but I pray for their success and restoration of a sense of stability that we’ve lacked. Based on the shameful behavior by the opposition in announcing the new government, it’s clear we’ve got more than our share of divisiveness, something that is probably not going to just go away with a government of such a slim majority. I pray that rather than nastiness we’ll see an exchange and competition of ideas, not insults, and that Israel continues to lead from within as a light unto the nations.