Barring a last-minute surprise, Israel’s 36th government will be sworn in on Sunday and the the strangest Israeli coalition ever assembled will take begin its term of office.
Yair Lapid, head of the centrist Yesh Atid, brought together eight parties from across the entire political spectrum, from the far-right Yamina, whose leader Naftali Bennett will serve first as prime minister in a rotating premiership agreement, to right, centre and left-wing parties and, for the first-time in an Israeli coalition, an Arab party, the Islamist United Arab List (UAL), also known as Ra’am.
The parties are united only by their opposition to outgoing prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
With all of them pulling in different directions, the formation of policy guidelines was a painful process that left most of the areas deliberately vague and non-binding in order to ensure that each party could sign up without compromising on ideology. Both Bennett and Lapid will have veto power over any government decision.
Some parties in the so-called government of change favour the establishment of a Palestinian state while others advocate annexing most of the West Bank. Such issues, important as they may be, will be on hold for the duration of the Bennett-Lapid government.
But other issues are just as divisive. The left-wing Meretz insisted on a clause promising to promote LGBT rights but it is unlikely that the deeply conservative UAL would be able to remain in a government that gave a green light to same-sex marriages.
Focusing on ending the country’s political chaos and the cycle of inconclusive elections, together with economic recovery after the coronavirus crisis – Israel hasn’t passed a budget for more than 2½ years – may be the most Israelis can hope for from the new government.
For most citizens that would be enough– the mantra “anything but a fifth election” has been a popular refrain ever since the election in March yet again failed to result in a decisive winner.
But the new coalition is fragile and less than a quarter of Israelis believe it will last its full term. The coalition has the support of only 61 of the 120 members of the Knesset – the Israeli parliament.
Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, who is on trial for serious corruption charges which he denies, will now become leader of the opposition, He is waiting in the wings, ready to return if the wafer-thin government majority unravels.
“We are witnessing the biggest election fraud in the country’s history,” he said. “Nobody will silence us. When a huge public feels that it has been deceived, when the national camp is vehemently opposed to a dangerous left-wing government, it is their right and their duty to express protest in all legal and democratic means.”
Israel’s ultra-Orthodox parties will also be in the opposition– a rare occurrence in Israeli politics – and they also launched bitter attacks on the emerging government, terming it “evil” and warning that the Jewish character of the state was under threat.
“After he signed the coalition agreement, Naftali Bennett should take off his kippah; he is shaming it,” said Yaakov Litzman head of the United Torah Judaism party, referring to the skullcap worn by orthodox Jews.
Bennett (49) will become Israel’s first ever religious prime minister but he represents what in Israel is referred to as ‘light religious” – he observes Jewish laws but maintains a liberal outlook.
Bennett is a relative political novice – he entered the Knesset for the first time eight years ago and since then he has led a number of small right-wing parties. Only two years ago he was written off after one of his parties failed by 1,400 votes to cross the electoral threshold.
Always by his side has been Ayelet Shaked, number two on the Yamina list, who will be interior minister in the new government.
In the army Bennett served in the same elite unit as Netanyahu – the Sayeret Matkal reconnaissance unit, famed for carrying out secret missions beyond enemy lines.
After six years in the military, he became a self-made millionaire, establishing an information-security start-up, which sold in 2005 for $145 million.
After working together with Shaked as chief executive in Netanyahu’s office when the latter served as opposition leader between 2006-2008, he headed the Yesha settlers’ council before being elected to head the right-wing Jewish Home party in 2012.
He has served in various Netanyahu governments, including as defence and education minister.
“I’m in a great position, always a bit to the right of Bibi. Whenever I make a statement on security or diplomatic matters, he has to match me,” he said, describing his ministerial career.
From Sunday, it will be prime minister Bennett making the decisions and opposition head Netanyahu, after 12 consecutive years in power, making the statements.