Analysis |

Bennett's Government Lost Badly, but Netanyahu Hasn't Won Yet

The Bennett-Lapid coalition has only itself to blame for a crushing defeat in a vote on regulations related to Israel's control of the West Bank. But that doesn't mean an election is imminent

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Bennett, Lapid and Netanyahu.
Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg, Emil Salman, Ronen Zvulun / AFP, Ronen Zvulun / Reuters. Artwork: Anastasia Shub
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

It would be the peak of irony if the Bennett-Lapid government were to fall on the eve of its first birthday because it failed to pass the routine five-year renewal of Israeli regulations in the occupied West Bank.

It was originally instituted by the Labor government and renewed by every consecutive coalition government, no matter who was in it, ensuring that Israeli law – including the right to vote in the settlements – extends to Israelis living and working in the West Bank, while Palestinians remain under military law. It has become so normalized a concept that, until just a few weeks ago, no one expected this to become a coalition crisis. What a way to mark 55 years since the Six-Day War.

In retrospect, it was foolishly careless of the leaders of the first Israeli coalition to depend on an Arab-Israeli party to expect that it would be just another vote. Their initial expectation that the members of the United Arab List and Meretz’s Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi (as well as Jewish lawmakers like Gaby Lasky and Mossi Raz, who are veteran anti-occupation campaigners) would dutifully vote in favor, without a murmur, only proves how inured even the Israeli center-left has become to the occupation.

It’s easy for the government to accuse Likud and its far-right allies of hypocrisy in voting against a law they naturally support. But they only have themselves to blame. The opposition’s job is to try to bring the government down, and the coalition may have just given them their best opportunity yet – exactly a week before the government’s first anniversary on June 13.

When the government was formed a year ago, the formula for dealing with its internal contradiction on the occupation issue was that there would be no change to the status-quo: no move toward annexation and no diplomatic process with the Palestinians. It was clear that this “compromise” was much more favorable to the right, as building in the settlements continued. But removing the direct threat to Israeli democracy that is Benjamin Netanyahu and the one chance in a generation for the left to be in government (and once in Israel’s lifetime for an Arab-Israeli party) made it seem worthwhile.

The “Judea and Samaria regulations,” however, seem to be one compromise too far. The coalition may try to pass the bill again before the current regulations expire at the end of the month, but it’s hard to see how it does any better than the 58-52 defeat it suffered in the Knesset on Monday night.

It’s not out of the question, and perhaps some members of the opposition will shift as well. Or a legal bypass will be found over the next few weeks. But the law is no longer the government’s biggest problem. The question is whether the fissure that has opened in the coalition can still be papered over, even for just a few more weeks.

United Arab List leader Mansour Abbas is still committed to the coalition. He needs the partnership to survive and deliver tangible benefits for his Arab-Israeli constituency. He has persevered through the last couple of months, despite a massive campaign against him orchestrated by the predominantly Arab Joint List and during the recent clashes at Al-Aqsa Mosque, and doesn’t want to give up now. He and two other members of his party abstained on Monday night, and if theirs had been the critical fingers, they may even have gritted their teeth and voted in favor. But Abbas has no control over the fourth lawmaker in his party, Mazen Ghanayim, whose only interest now is in trying to get reelected as mayor of his northern hometown, Sakhnin, next year.

Ghanayim will make his own calculations and is probably lost to the coalition. The same is true of Rinawie Zoabi, who just two weeks ago agreed to rescind her letter resigning from the coalition. Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz cajoled his other members, including Lasky and Raz, to vote in favor, but Rinawie Zoabi is on a trajectory of her own.

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem earlier this month.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

That doesn’t mean either of them will join the opposition and vote in favor of dissolving the Knesset. Many Arab-Israeli voters are still in favor of this coalition and certainly don’t want to open the door for Netanyahu’s return. But for now, they’re going to sit on the fence.

But the government’s weakest links are still on the right – in Naftali Bennett’s own Yamina party and Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope. Sa’ar especially put a lot of his credibility on the line, proclaiming that if the government can’t pass the West Bank regulations, “this is no way to run a coalition” and there will be “implications.”

Some have interpreted this to mean that he may be considering an alternative coalition with Netanyahu, though the vituperative tone he and other New Hope members used in recent days toward Likud and Netanyahu would seem to rule that out. But Sa’ar, whose party has been flatlining in the polls for months, may see this as a chance to regain some ground on the right and support a dissolution vote, blaming the Arabs.

Yamina lawmakers may be minded to do that as well. Nir Orbach slammed Ghanayim in the Knesset after his vote against renewing the law, shouting: “You don’t want to be partners, the experiment with you has failed.”

This may be political theater, but he could well be preparing the ground for his defection in the coming days. It’s tempting for any of the coalition’s right-wing members, who sense an election coming, to try to rebuild their nationalist credentials by accusing the United Arab List of being “terror supporters” and jumping ship.

As more than one veteran Knesset observer noted this week, the opposition doesn’t bring down governments; only the coalition can do that.” Netanyahu and the rest of the opposition have brought the government to the brink by refusing to vote in favor of the West Bank regulations. But to realize his dream of returning to power, the Likud leader still faces the same obstacles. He needs 61 lawmakers to support a new government headed by him in this Knesset. And since his bloc still lacks seven more coalition defectors to reach that elusive majority, he needs the same number to dissolve the Knesset and roll the dice again in another election. Here he can probably rely on the support of Joint List’s six members, so that leaves him needing just one more vote.

It’s just a matter of time before another coalition lawmaker breaks away, but it hasn’t happened yet. The eight party leaders, with the possible exception of Sa’ar, still seem determined to hold off the next, and probably final, defection – at least for now. Their prospects on the other side of the election don’t look any better, so why rush to the polls?

There is very little love left within this unhappy coalition, but the fear of being blamed by voters for its downfall and facilitating a Netanyahu comeback may keep it together for a while yet.

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