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Can Lapid-Bennett coalition keep it together?

Eight years after an alliance was forged between Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid and Yamina leader Naftali Bennett, that brotherhood is getting the latter into the prime minister's seat.
This combination of pictures shows (L to R) leader of Israel's Yesh Atid party Yair Lapid and leader of the Yamina party Naftali Bennett, arriving at the president's residence, Jerusalem, May 5, 2021.

If all goes according to plan, Yamina leader Naftali Bennett will be sworn in as Israel’s 13th prime minister on June 13. The following day he will join the other members of his eight-party coalition government for a traditional photo with the president. Bennett will be setting several major precedents. For the first time in Israeli history, a politician whose party only won 5% of the vote (translated into six seats in the 120-member Knesset) will lead the Jewish state. This is also the first time that a yarmulke-wearing Jew is being handed the reins to the sovereign Jewish state.

A tremendous burden of proof lies on Bennett’s shoulders. Most leaders of the coalition he heads, probably the most complex in Israeli history, do not hold him in abundant esteem. Against all odds and through an incredible constellation of circumstances, timing and history, the 49-year-old Bennett is about to replace Benjamin Netanyahu, who had become a fixture in the prime minister’s office for the past 12 years.

The cornerstone for this unusual edifice was laid ahead of the 2013 elections by two political newcomers. One was Bennett, who together with his running mate Ayelet Shaked took over the defunct National Religious Party and swept up a significant following that netted him 12 Knesset seats. The other was Yair Lapid, who a year earlier had established the Yesh Atid party and raked in 19 Knesset seats in the 2013 elections. Despite their joint haul of 31 Knesset seats, they were defeated by Netanyahu and Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Liberman, but in the final analysis, they won.

Despite Bennett’s impressive showing, Netanyahu boycotted him after those elections, reflecting the historic resentment the Netanyahu family harbors for Bennett and Shaked — who both worked as aides to Netanyahu when he led the opposition in 2006 until they were kicked out ignominiously by Mrs. Sara Netanyahu. In putting together his government, Netanyahu turned for support to various party leaders — all except for Bennett, who was probably his most natural ally.

Lapid faced a different problem in those days. His ambition to partner in a government without the ultra-Orthodox parties reflected the anti-clerical legacy of his father, the late politician Yosef (Tommy) Lapid, who pulled off a similar feat a decade earlier. While Lapid Jr. lacked sufficient power to force Netanyahu to split with the ultra-Orthodox, he and Bennett realized the obvious — that together they could easily force themselves on Netanyahu and edge out the two ultra-Orthodox parties. This was the inception of what was dubbed “the brotherhood” between Bennett and Lapid. Eight years hence, in a powerful reincarnation, that same brotherly alliance is bringing down the man who has single-handedly ruled Israel for 12 years.

The basic idea that motivated Lapid and Bennett in 2013 was simple: They promised each other not to be lured into a Netanyahu-led government separately, only as one bloc. Netanyahu was incredulous. He could not believe these two upstarts were manipulating him. He put out separate feelers to each to gauge whether their mutual commitment was ironclad.

"You really won’t join me without Naftali?" he asked Lapid, who answered in the affirmative, as did Bennett when Netanyahu put the question to him. Without them, he did not have the required majority to form a government. With his hands tied, Netanyahu named Lapid finance minister and Bennett minister of economy. The ultra-Orthodox parties relocated to the opposition benches from where they plotted their revenge. The third Netanyahu government got underway but Netanyahu did not forgive the two young gentlemen who had forced his hand and he dismantled it at the earliest possible opportunity, in 2015. The Lapid-Bennett “brotherhood” unraveled, only to return six years later, big time.

Their new agreement that will be voted into law on June 13 will make it very hard for Bennett to renege on the deal that puts him in the prime minister’s chair until 2023, when he is committed to move over and give Lapid the job. But with all due respect to the constraints of the law, the future of their fragile government depends first and foremost on their personal relationship. In this sense, the prospects are reasonable, perhaps even more than reasonable. Contrary to the similar power-sharing agreement that Netanyahu forged with his rival Benny Gantz in May 2020, on which he reneged, the Lapid-Bennett duo is an honorable partnership of relatively trustworthy politicians who aspire to keep their word and adhere to their signed commitments.

At first glance, Bennett and Lapid appear complete opposites. Bennett is a committed religious Zionist who holds a distinct right-wing ideology. Lapid is a fervently secular bourgeois Tel Aviv liberal, a classic political centrist. Bennett was a fighter in the vaunted, elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit that has spawned three Israeli prime ministers over the years and in the elite Maglan reconnaissance unit. Lapid, on the other hand, enjoyed a comfortable military service as a correspondent for the army’s Bamahane newspaper. Bennett is a frenetic high-tech entrepreneur, known for thinking outside the box and being perhaps overly hasty. Lapid is calmer, more calculated, less prone to adventures.

Despite their different characters, the chemistry between the two men is sound. Both are Israeli-born, relatively young (Lapid is seven years older), ideologically different but with a similar scale of values. They speak the same language and like each other quite a lot. This is the axis along which the Bennett-Lapid government will rise or fall. If these two are skillful at preserving their mutual trust, they could surprise us.

But they are not on their own. Their coalition will be the strangest, most diverse and problematic in Israeli political history, made up of right-wing ideologues (Gideon Saar, Bennett and Liberman), classic centrists (Gantz and Lapid), ideological leftists (Labor’s Merav Michaeli and Meretz’s Nitzan Horowitz) and for the first time in Israeli history, Arabs (the Ra’am party led by Mansour Abbas). Capitalists will sit side by side with socialists, conservatives with liberals, secular Israelis with religious ones, Muslims with Jews. On paper, the survival odds of such a mix in the political minefield of Israeli politics are virtually nil. In fact, everything and anything could happen.

This complicated alliance depends on two other members, Finance Minister-designate Liberman and Justice Minister-designate Saar (who will become foreign minister mid-way through the government’s term). Liberman has an excellent relationship with Lapid and enjoys deep mutual respect with Saar. For Bennett, however, Liberman has nothing but contempt. Saar is in a similar bind: He gets on well with Liberman, respects Lapid but has no time for Bennett. Bennett’s ability to generate an aura of authority and leadership, on the one hand, and at the same time maintain the fragile balance among his widely disparate partners, will determine his prospects and those of the coalition in the coming months.

The powerful engine running this convoluted structure is the deep resentment that all its components feel for Netanyahu and the critical public and political mass desiring his replacement. If Netanyahu bows out of politics, the coalition that came together to unseat him will have a hard time maintaining the artificial ties that bind it. If, on the other hand, Netanyahu assumes the leadership of the Knesset opposition, which right now seems a logical option, he could provide the glue to preserve the government that replaced him. The Netanyahu threat will continue to overshadow the political arena and bind everyone who thinks Bibism (the Netanyahu phenomenon) is a threat to Israel. This will become clearer in the coming weeks.

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