Only One Thing Holds the New Israeli Coalition Together

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The new and bewilderingly heterogeneous coalition of rivals that is now forming a government in Israel owes its existence to one man: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Its members are not friends. They do not share an ideology or a common platform. They are so divided on contentious foreign policy and domestic issues that they have pledged to avoid them completely. They have come together for the sole purpose of getting rid of Bibi.

Most of them started out as acolytes, but Netanyahu’s 12-year incumbency has been a master class in how to lose friends and alienate people. Of the eight parties that compose the coalition, five are led by people who are out for revenge.

Naftali Bennett, today’s presumptive prime minister, started out in politics as an admiring unpaid assistant to Netanyahu. But he got on the wrong side of Netanyahu’s notoriously influential wife Sara and wound up persona non grata in a political world run by Netanyahu. Bennett and his wife (whom Sara publicly disparaged as insufficiently Jewish since she worked as a non-kosher pastry chef) will have the pleasure of replacing the Netanyahu family as tenants of the prime ministerial mansion in Jerusalem if he is sworn in.

Gideon Saar, the leader of a right-wing Likud breakaway faction, New Hope, is slated to be minister of justice. He began his career in politics as Netanyahu’s trusted cabinet secretary. When he became a rising star in the Likud, Netanyahu purged him. In his new job, Saar will be in an ideal position to make sure Netanyahu’s ongoing corruption trial proceeds without delay or interference.

Avigdor Lieberman, an anti-clerical hawk who heads the Russian immigrant party, served Netanyahu loyally for decades as everything from a bodyguard to Minister of Foreign Affairs. In every job, Netanyahu treated the sensitive Lieberman with mocking disrespect. Lieberman is now returning the favor by questioning not only the honesty of his ex-boss but his patriotism.  

As designated finance minister, Lieberman will have his hand on the faucet of government funding which, in the Netanyahu era, has flowed lavishly in the direction of ultra-Orthodox parties. Lieberman is too good a politician to cut them out entirely. But the days of the proverbial free kosher lunches — from military exemptions to generous financial aid — are in jeopardy. 

Benny Gantz is another Netanyahu casualty eager for payback. During his career as army chief of staff, he reported to Netanyahu and they got along fine. Then Gantz entered politics in 2018, formed a centrist party, challenged Bibi and fought him to a draw. Netanyahu seduced the naïve beginner into an “equal partnership” with false promises and political tricks that left Gantz with no real power and half a party.

In the current coalition negotiations, Netanyahu had the nerve to offer the general another chance to partner with him. A wizened Gantz turned him down cold, even when Netanyahu dangled the first spot in a prime ministerial rotation. In the new coalition, Gantz will keep his job as minister of defense.

The biggest political power in the new government will be foreign minister and alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid. He, too, once served under Netanyahu, as minister of finance. Netanyahu, an economic expert himself, ignored Lapid’s counsel and fired him. Word got out to Netanyahu’s supporters that Lapid did his military service as an army magazine reporter (Bibi famously served in an elite combat unit and doesn’t let people forget it).

Not everyone in the new coalition hates the outgoing prime minister. Mansour Abbas, head of the Arab Front, is making history by becoming the first Arab party leader to be a full partner in government. He owes this to Netanyahu, who was the first to encourage him to enter the mainstream. Abbas got a better offer from other side and did unto Netanyahu as he has done so often to others.

Two caveats are needed. The new coalition won’t be sworn in for at least another week, time enough for Netanyahu to find a way to entice a deserter (only one is needed) and force a new election.

And a coalition this diverse and this fragile could be brought down for any reason by any one of the parties. How and to what end they will govern — with Netanyahu poised to attack from opposition — is another matter entirely. For now, their opposition to Netanyahu is what binds them together. But if he should retire, or allow a surrogate to replace him as head of the Likud, this coalition won’t last long enough for a group picture. 

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

Zev Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books. He was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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