Too Early for the Bubbly: Lapid and Bennett Still Face Stern Tests

Netanyahu's senior coalition partners may initially feel drunk with victory from their visible achievements, but they will soon find out that while the political situation made it easy to squeeze Netanyahu, difficult struggles like cuts to the budget and social services still lie ahead.

Sami Peretz
Sami Peretz
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Sami Peretz
Sami Peretz

The most intriguing question about the new government is whether the muscle-flexing by Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid and his new brother, Habayit Hayehudi chairman Naftali Bennett, are a flash in the pan by newbies who want to show their mettle but from now will be good boys. Or will this be the pattern in the next four years: strong-arming and cooperation that will force Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to repeatedly accede to their wishes.

So far, those wishes seem just fine. Insisting on principles like equal sharing of the burden, control over key ministries through which change can be made, and reducing the size of the cabinet are worthy goals. Netanyahu will easily heed elements of the pair’s platforms involving necessary reforms of the economy by reducing economic concentration and increasing competition, streamlining the public sector and dealing with the housing problem.

Lapid and Bennett may initially feel drunk with victory from their visible achievements, such as keeping the ultra-Orthodox out of the government, limiting it to a sane size and taking control of key spheres of influence. But they will find out quickly enough that while the political situation made it easy to squeeze Netanyahu, the most difficult struggles are still ahead, when the time comes to cut the budget or social services. Then the real powerhouses in the economy will emerge: the defense establishment, the major unions, the Histadrut labor federation, the government monopolies, Israeli bureaucracy.

Lapid and Bennett will find out that it is easy to plan the sale of land for tens of thousands of apartments, but much harder to overcome hundreds of bureaucratic obstacles to actually build them. They will discover that their declarations about the need to cut the defense budget will dissipate after one or two briefings in secret meeting with generals who have eaten more seasoned politicians than this pair for breakfast.

And of course, conflicts of interest will show up between Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi. The housing market has huge potential as the arena for this alliance to crack. The expected new housing minister is Uri Ariel, a man of the settlements. He can help Lapid make his vision come true of tens of thousands of new apartments, but not necessarily on the right side of the Green Line.

Most of the key economic posts in the new government will be filled by new and inexperienced people. That is not bad when the goal is to generate change, but it could be a very costly tutorial. Most of the ministries allow for a warm-up period, but there is one portfolio that whoever holds it must roll up his sleeves and present a budget that is slashed and responsible, yet inspiring.

Will Lapid be up to the job? Will Netanyahu want to help him, or will he want to see Lapid lose his way only so the prime minister can show up as the savior and super-minister of economics. We will know the answers in the months to come.

Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett in the Knesset. Credit: Michal Fattal

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