This assessment discusses the expectations concerning the Israeli government under Naftali Bennett in June 2021, its points of strength and cohesion that enabled it to continue over the past months, and its performance during the first hundred days. A number of expected scenarios were put concerning the continuation of this government; it will either continue until the end of the official term of the Knesset, or its continuation remains shaky and may fall in the near future, or perhaps it will soon collapse. The assessment concludes that the most likely scenario is the continuation of the shaky government, with problems emerging along the way, threatening its fall from time to time.
In mid-June 2021, the current Israeli government was formed under the duo Naftali Bennett as president, and Yair Lapid as his deputy. This formation came after a series of Israeli governmental and political crises that began in 2019, in which four early elections were held without precedent in its history. Thus giving worrying indications to the Israelis about the instability of their internal political system and its negative effects on the ability of this system to confront external threats.
At the same time, the Israeli Knesset’s narrow approval of this government, was not considered a birth certificate that would last for four years, as is the norm with Israeli governments. For it faced a number of challenges from the first moment of its formation, both internally and externally, paving the way to many, mostly pessimistic, scenarios, regarding the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of completing its full Parliamentary term. As a result, some estimates indicate that the term of this government will last between one and two years at the latest.
First: Reasons For Pessimism
From the day the former Israeli opposition leader, the current Foreign Minister, Yair Lapid, began his consultations to form the 34th government, Israeli assessments were pessimistic. They ruled out the chance of him being able to form an alternative government to succeed Benjamin Netanyahu, who had been in this position for more than 12 consecutive years since 2009, in addition to being a prime minister between 1996 and 1998.
There were many “good” reasons for the lack of conviction of Lapid’s ability to form a new government, most important of which is that its members have little in common. For it spans the far left to the far right, where the far left is represented by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Justice Minister Gideon Saʻar, and the far-left is represented by the Meretz party led by Nitzan Horowitz. Other members include Mansour ‘Abbas, head of United Arab List, and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz who represent the center-right.
These components have different political platforms, and in some cases contradictory ones, whether related to internal issues like confronting Israel’s COVID-19 spike, approving the state budget that tries to cover the different demands of the government members, the relationship between religion and state, where the religious background of the prime minister contradicts the stark secular identity of some of his partners in the government.
As for the external issues, Israeli pessimists saw that this government’s future relations with the Palestinians would cause crisis within the government. Whether the relations with the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank (WB), and the possibility of new negotiations despite the disagreements they may cause within the government, or with Hamas in Gaza Strip (GS), and the assumptions of reaching a long-term calm agreement, or launching a large-scale military operation, or continuing the current political stagnation. In addition, there are the relations with the 1948 Palestinians, especially after their recent popular uprising in May 2021.
Hundred days after the formation of this government, these pessimisms were relatively proved. Internally, Bennett was able to pass his policies to confront COVID-19, despite the objections in some healthcare circles; his cabinet approved the state budget for the first time in three years, in which Israel operated without a budget. For Netanyahu was afraid of angering some of his coalition partners, therefore, he ran ministries without an approved budget, but rather with a discretionary one, an unusual measure in political systems.
Palestinian wise, Israeli fears were valid. Recently, the government witnessed initial cracks, which may develop further, after Gantz met PA President Mahmud ‘Abbas in Ramallah. Members of the government coalition criticized the move, to the extent that its president himself expressed his discouragement of this step, although he agreed to it after Gantz urged him to do so. However, the rest of the government’s party components, especially Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, Sa‘ar and Lieberman, expressed their rejection of the meeting, and threatened that the continuation of “political” contact with the PA might threaten the stability of the government! However, it is noted that some of them remained silent about the meeting and were satisfied with its results after it was held.
It is difficult to overlook Gantz’s personal aspirations in this government, where the above step would prove his ability to set the political process with the Palestinians in motion. Gantz wants to put his mark on the performance of the government, as the third man in it. He wants to regain his popularity among the Israelis that he had lost in the last elections, by being capable of developing relations with the Palestinians, and breaking the political stalemate, without guarantees of success. Such aspirations are clear to the rest of the government coalition.
Concerning the relations with Hamas in GS, differences erupted again within the government, when Lapid announced the “economy for security” plan so as Hamas would commit to a long-term quiet. The movement poses a threat to Israel, due to the continuing security tension with it and signs of a new military escalation, at a time the Israelis have not yet restored the prewar status quo.
After the announcement of this plan that Lapid claims it had the approval of Bennett and Gantz, there were rejections inside the government, which seemed strange. For as long as the plan was approved by the Prime Minister, the ministers are not expected to publicly reject it, they have even considered it a prize to Hamas.
In this case, we can assume that Lapid was not accurate about obtaining the government’s approval for his plan. The prime minister cannot “silence” his ministers from voicing their political positions, even though this marks troubling indications for him in case he was considering other options concerning the Palestinians.
A stark example of this, the confirmation of the United Arab List that it will not remain in the government for one day, if a military operation is carried out in GS. In this case, the countdown to the end of the government would begin, because it has a majority of just one seat. Also, this means that the various components of the government have the power to “blackmail” the prime minister.
It is noted that the Israeli government was subjected to heavy security shocks; first, the killing in broad daylight of a Border Police officer along the border with GS by a Palestinian gunman; and second, six Palestinian prisoners managed to break out from Gilboa prison overnight through a tunnel. Consequently, the Israelis voiced criticism of the government’s lax security measures, which may encourage the Palestinians to further challenge Israel’s security, and undermine its deterrence image.
Second: Elements of Strength
Despite all the above indicators that are increasing with time concerning the instability of the Israeli government, its first 100 days have revealed points of strengths that would make it survive, even if it encounters subjective or objective problems. Here, also, there are internal and external factors that may help the government to continue.
It appears that the Israeli internal factor is more than anything else responsible for supplying the government with oxygen to survive. It unites all the contradictory components of the government. It is the exclusion of Netanyahu from the Israeli political scene, once and for all, and this is an an “existential” concern among the majority of government ministers. They will not allow it to happen, because it means, in short, their overthrow, absence from the political arena, and their replacement with members of the Israeli right; the religious and national right.
Ironically, if there were given consolation awards, some of the current ministers do not have personal problems with Netanyahu if he returns to the fore, such as the case of Gantz, Shaked, Sa‘ar, ‘Abbas, and before them Bennett himself. Others believe that they are in zero sum game with Netanyahu, especially Lapid, Lieberman and the Meretz movement.
Therefore, there is a “bloc” in this government against Netanyahu’s return to the political stage. It is willing to navigate its internal disagreements, while leaving some margin for criticism or rejection. However, it will not allow the destabilization of the government and its downfall, for this would mean for some leaving the political scene, and perhaps forever.
At the same time, there is internal discontent within the Likud party itself, and there are voices calling for holding its “primaries” to elect a new leader. Some main party figures began to present some of their political positions, including Yisrael Katz, Nir Barkat and Avi Dichter, who believe that Netanyahu has ruled long enough, and may be he should focus now on his trial. They claim that they may return the Likud to the front with the rest of the partners who stipulate that Netanyahu must not be at the forefront of the party.
As time passes and as the calls in Likud of Netanyahu’s rivals increase, the more it will be in the interest of the stability of the current Israeli government, which may encourage these voices and give them some hope that the Likud could join its ranks, if Netanyahu is not included.
There is another Israeli detail that may not be visible to non-Israelis, which is the remarkable intervention of the newly elected Head of State, Yitzhak Herzog, whose position is largely a ceremonial figurehead role. However, this time, he did marketing for the new government, whether by supporting it, or by arranging for it regional and international contacts while receiving congratulations on his inauguration as president, as was the case with the leaders of Jordan, Egypt and Turkey.
As for the foreign countries, the new Israeli government received a clear regional and international welcome, from a number of Arab and European countries, and most importantly from the United States, which expressed an unmistakable “happiness” with Netanyahu’s absence more than Bennett coming in his place. For the US President Joe Biden has an unfavorable impression of Netanyahu, who blatantly challenged former President Barack Obama, whether concerning the Palestinian file or the Iranian nuclear project. Biden and his presidential staff were afraid of repeating the same scenario, which prompted them to warmly welcome Bennett at the White House. As for the Biden-Netanyahu relations, they stayed cold from the former’s inauguration in January 2021 until the latter’s departure of office in June 2021.
It is no secret that the US policy is intertwined with its Israeli counterpart, and vice versa. It is true that there are no evidences of a US interference in the recent Israeli elections and the formation of the new government. But the signals from Washington during the past months had its impact on the performance of the new Israeli government, which feels “embraced” by the world’s number one power. This is contrary to what would have been the case had Netanyahu remained the prime minister, where the Israelis would witness polarization and tension between Tel Aviv and Washington, leaving a negative impact on them.
Regionally, in its first 100 days, the Israeli government managed to restore the Israeli-Arab relations. It is true that Netanyahu promoted the issue of normalization in his election propaganda, but this matter was not limited to him. For his new opponents, or the new government, succeeded in maintaining relations with the normalizing countries, and they even restored the deteriorating relationship with Jordan, while Egypt openly welcomed Bennett in Cairo, and not secretly, as had happened with Netanyahu.
Third: Expected Scenarios
With the current Israeli government reaching the 100-day milestone and its relative stability, and based on the above internal and external factors, a number of future scenarios are expected for this government, as follows:
1. Completion of its four-year term: It would remain until June 2025, which is highly unlikely, in light of the impressions that the Israelis have had for more than a quarter of a century, specifically, since the assassination of the former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995. For it caused a historic rift in the Israeli political system, which has included, among other things, the inability of any government to serve its full constitutional term, i.e., four years.
This applies to all Israeli governments, from Shimon Peres to Netanyahu in his first term, Ehud Barak to Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, and finally to Netanyahu. All of these did not complete their four year term, rather, they had cut their term short and hold early elections, which has in particular happened to Sharon and Netanyahu.
In the case of the current Israeli government, it is increasingly estimated that it may not be able to last for four years, because its presidency is divided between Bennett and Lapid, where the former would end his term in 2023, and the latter would complete it until 2025. Furthermore, since political promises are usually not implemented, and as Rabin said, “There are no more holy dates,” it is expected that Bennett will not fulfill his promise and hand his partner the keys of the government on time. This is exactly what happened between Netanyahu and Gantz, when the former broke his agreement with the latter, and called for early elections, before Gantz fulfilling his term as prime minister, as stipulated in the coalition agreement.
2. Remaining Unstable: This is the most plausible scenario, which the government and ministers can live with. For they know more than others that their political and ideological disparities are too numerous to be ignored. However, as long as they have a common obsession called Netanyahu, who is waiting for the right moment to take over again, they will indefinitely postpone their disputes, or at least until this common threat disappears.
This means that from time to time, this government may experience a crisis here and a disagreement there, whether it is for purely internal Israeli reasons, such as the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, or the relationship of religion to the state, or a split in the coalition; or for external reasons, the pressure that might be put on Tel Aviv to start a political process with the PA. As well as the possibility of increasing tension with Hamas in GS, and the emergence of serious discrepancies within the government about the best way to deal with it.
3. The Collapse of the Ruling Coalition: This scenario may be likely but at later stages. For all members of the coalition are currently interested in remaining in their positions, and have no interest in losing their privileges. Nonetheless, as happened with other governments, when these members reach the line of no return, or the point of incompatibility, this coalition may come to an end. This may happen if a member of the coalition took a sudden decision to withdraw from it, for any reason, or if Israel launched a war against the Palestinians in GS, or any other country in the region, which will make it very difficult for the United Arab List to remain, and this is what it threatened to do more than once.
4. The expected scenarios may not exceed these options, however, there is a fourth unlikely scenario, which is the repositioning of the current coalition, by the joining of Likud, with a new leadership other than Netanyahu. In this case, the entire coalition will be reconfigured, in terms of who will get out or who will stay in.
However, it seems that the most likely scenario is that the Israeli government will remain relatively stable, with problems arising from time to time, for this is now in everyone’s interest.
1. Following-up on Israeli developments, and knowing their impact on the future of the government, and finding out how will these developments reflect on Palestinian interests.
2. Studying what options do Palestinians have concerning the Israeli government, and the possibility of contributing to its overthrow, especially if it adopted more aggressive policies towards Jerusalem, or if the security situation in GS escalates, leading to a new war.
* Al-Zaytouna Centre thanks Dr. Adnan Abu Amer for authoring the original text upon which this strategic assessment was based.