Netanyahu’s Legacy Is Safe In His Rivals’ Hands
Supporters cheer and wave flags during a Likud party event in Jerusalem, Israel. (Photographer: Kobi Wolf/Bloomberg)

Netanyahu’s Legacy Is Safe In His Rivals’ Hands

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It now looks likely that Israel will have a new government on Wednesday, formed by a coalition of political parties united in their determination to end Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12-year lock on power. His protégé-turned-rival, Naftali Bennett, is expected to become prime minister for two years, before handing the reins to Yair Lapid, the former finance minister.

It is unlikely that this marriage of political convenience will last long enough for handover of power the between the partners. One reason is that the ideological chasm between Bennett’s far-right Yamina party and Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid is wide. Another is the political tenacity of Netanyahu, who is as adept at playing the spoiler as the survivor. He will devote himself to breaking the alliance, not least because it may be his best hope of avoiding prosecution on corruption charges lies in engineering a swift return to office. (Netanyahu had denied all wrongdoing.)

If Netanyahu is anxious about his future, he needn’t worry about his political legacy. His signature achievements as prime minister — the rightward lurch of domestic politics, the hobbling of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the normalization of relations with Arab countries — will not be challenged by the Lapid-Bennett combine.

The unlikely partners are already signaling that they will not make major policy changes. “No one will be asked to give up their ideology, but everyone will have to postpone the realization of some of their dreams,” Bennet said on Saturday. “We will focus on what can be done, instead of arguing over what is impossible.”

The new government will have plenty of non-partisan challenges to deal with, too. They include the danger posed by Iran and its regional proxies, the lingering effects of the pandemic and management of the Israeli economy (there has been no annual budget since March 2018).

Lapid and Bennett are not far apart in their assessment of the threat to Israel from Iran and its catspaws, especially Hamas in Gaza and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. They have each served in Netanyahu-led cabinets, and both men supported Netanyahu’s use of force last month, not only in retaliation against rocket attacks by Hamas, but also against Israeli-Arab protesters.

Bennett, a former defense minister, is the more hawkish of the two. He characterized the 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and the world powers as “an unmitigated disaster,” and has for the most part supported Netanyahu’s policies on the Islamic Republic. But Lapid was no fan of the nuclear agreement, either. He would like to see the U.S. maintain economic sanctions until the regime in Tehran agrees to new terms.

There is some sunlight between the two on how Israel ought to deal with the Palestinians: Lapid favors a two-state solution, but opposes any partition of Jerusalem; Bennett has said the creation of any Palestinian state would amount to suicide by Israel, and is in favor of Israeli annexation of more land in the West Bank.

On the Abraham Accords between Israel and Arab states, neither Bennett nor Lapid is likely to turn back the clock on Netanyahu’s achievements. The question of moving forward may be moot. After the latest war in Gaza and the security crackdown against Israeli-Arabs, it is unlikely other states will be in any hurry to normalize relations, no matter who is prime minister.

Lapid and Bennett may share a loathing for the man they intend to replace, but his legacy is safe in their hands.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and Africa.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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