Is Israel heading for Knesset elections?

The fragile 61–59 majority becomes a problem when maverick individual lawmakers seek to undermine stability due to their ideological commitments.
Illustration: Soumyadip Sinha
Illustration: Soumyadip Sinha

Even by the Israeli standard of coalition fragility, the Bennett-Lapid government, which completed one year in office last week, appears to be counting its days in office. Against all odds, the unwieldy and politically contradictory coalition has survived so far and handled some of the pressing problems facing Israel. Disproving several political pundits, eight ideologically incompatible and contradictory parties joined hands and ended the 12-year reign of Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.

The centrist Yash Atid, which has 17 seats in the 120-member Knesset, agreed to play second fiddle and projected Naftali Bennett, whose right-wing Yamina has only six seats, for the post of prime minister. Under the rotation agreement, Bennett will swap his post with Yash Atid leader Yair Lapid in August 2023.

The past year has been tumultuous for the Bennett-Lapid government. Political stalemate following four elections between April 2019 and March 2021 and fears over a fifth election within two years galvanised leaders and parties to cobble up the narrowest coalition in Israeli history. Though the coalition had a majority, in the final vote to confirm the government, only 60 voted in favour and 59 against, with one abstention.

Since then, the government has been under severe pressure, both from the opposition and within. Yamina, committed to settlement expansion and partial annexation of the West Bank, had to compete with its ideologically compatible Likud in the opposition and with Meretz, a champion of Palestinian statehood. As the first religious prime minister in Israel’s history, Bennett had to manage the secular Yisrael Beitenu led by Avigdor Lieberman, committed to reducing the power of the religious parties over social issues. The four-member Islamist Ra’am broke with others and became the first Arab party since 1948 to join the ruling coalition in Israel. However, this pathbreaking move did not go well with other Arab groups, which sought to delegitimise Ra’am’s standing among the Arabs, who comprise nearly a fifth of Israel’s population. In short, smaller parties in the coalition face strong protests from their ideological cousins from within and across the aisle.

Contrary to expectations, leaving office did not end Netanyahu’s political career, nor did the Likud suffer from any leadership fatigue and implode. On the contrary, as the corruption trials are slugging along, Netanyahu continues to work towards toppling the government, which according to him, depends upon the support of parties supporting ‘Islamist terror’.

During the past year, the Bennett-Lapid government did make progress. Besides survival, it passed the two-year national budget, elusive under Netanyahu. It initiated measures to decentralise and regulate Israel’s rich kosher food market and fight societal crimes in the Arab sector. Despite provocations from Hamas and individual knife attacks before and during the holy month of Ramadan, the government avoided any major flare-ups with the Palestinians. Its Covid policies proved more effective than before. Notwithstanding periodic crises, especially during crucial Knesset votes, no coalition partner has bolted out. Moreover, one could notice a tone of reconciliation among erstwhile hardliners like Lieberman towards the religious and Arab populations.

At the same time, some of the larger challenges fester. Even a year later, the coalition is narrow, and the Bennett-Lapid government has not won over smaller parties in the opposition. Due to the turf battle in the Arab sector, Joint List, which has six seats, is constantly needling Ra’am. Opinion polls, a perennial pastime in Israel, continue to paint a mixed picture. While the Netanyahu-led right-wing is a clear winner, a simple majority of 61 seats remains elusive. With 30 seats, Likud remains the largest party in the Knesset and Netanyahu’s grip over the party and hence, the right-religious combine, is still strong.

The 61–59 fragility becomes a problem when maverick individual lawmakers seek to undermine stability due to their ideological commitments. A member of parliament voting against the party, ruling coalition and even government during a crucial Knesset vote is not unknown. At some time or another, most coalition partners faced internal dissent, threatening to bring down the government. Not all rebels could be persuaded to leave the Knesset, to be replaced by pro-stability members. The latest crisis concerns the application of Israeli laws to its citizens living in the West Bank for another five years. This controversial provision provides a legal umbrella for the settlers to be tried in Israeli civil courts rather than in the country’s military courts used for the Palestinian residents.

Thus, while international attention is focused on the impending visit of US President Joe Biden to the region in mid-July, especially to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the West Bank, Israel is preoccupied with its internal crises. There are increasing speculations of impending dissolution of the Knesset, facilitating fresh elections later this year. As per the coalition arrangement, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid would become the caretaker prime minister if the Bennett-Lapid government is voted out. So, when he arrives in Israel in a few weeks, who will receive President Biden? Naftali Bennett or Yair Lapid?

P R Kumaraswamy
Professor at JNU. Teaches contemporary Middle East there

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