Analysis |

Israel’s ‘Change Government’ Had One Job, and It Did It – Almost

The Bennett-Lapid government fulfilled its prime directive: halting Israel’s inexorable descent into illiberalism. But that will count for nothing if Benjamin Netanyahu returns to power this autumn

alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas
Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid announcing their decision to call an early election, on Monday
Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid announcing their decision to call an early election, on MondayCredit: Ohad Zwigenberg
alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas

With the fall of a government – any government, irrespective of whether it fell by political coercion or due to its own volition – starts the predictable and inevitable barrage of political autopsies: flowery obituaries, savvy political eulogies, prescient retrospective analyses provided courtesy of the venerable “We told you so” group of pundits – those who predicted nine of the last five elections and said this particular government would never be formed.

As a jaded Israel heads toward a fifth election in three and a half years – a very Italian or French Fourth Republic thing to do, sans the Italian dolce vita or French joie de vivre – everyone has their own explanation as to why the government failed. And by “everyone,” I mean all 9.5 million Israelis.

Israel heads to fifth election, and its democracy is on the line

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The flurry of saturation-bombing analyses are overwhelmingly boring and pointless derivatives of:

* The governing coalition was too heterogeneous;

* There was never a real policy on any major issue in order not to disrupt the coalition’s precarious harmony and delicate political balance;

* Internal contradictions were bound to doom it eventually.

* Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party crumbled because he had no legitimacy with only six parliamentary seats and made very bad personnel selections, and so on.

The good thing is that this saturation will end soon. The bad thing is that it will be replaced by four or five months of dizzyingly circuitous spins with a life expectancy of three hours, meaningless and petty gossip, and pseudo-information and polls about the autumn election.

The worst thing is that the next election will not be about national security, the Palestinian issue, the cost of living, the climate crisis or anything remotely close to substance. Instead, like the four cycles preceding it since 2019, it will be about Benjamin Netanyahu.

And this bring us to one specific government postmortem that warrants attention.

This heterogeneous mutation of eight parties, from the right through the center to the left, and the Islamic Movement, had one gluten justifying its formation and holding it together: Netanyahu. More pointedly, a rejection of Netanyahu’s era of divisive and inflammatory rhetoric, disregard for the rule of law and democracy, corruption and love of power for no other reason than the power to weaken the judiciary and law enforcement. Anyone who claims that the government was forged for any other reason is delusional or falsely romanticizing it.

The government fulfilled its prime directive: it halted Israel’s inexorable and deliberate descent into quasi-autocracy and blatant illiberalism. It restored governability and the notion that it was busy governing, and began the process of rebuilding and strengthening weakened checks-and-balances and demarcating a mutually respectful separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary, after the legal system was viciously attacked and maligned for years.

In addition to those goals, the government set out to turn a page on the Netanyahu years and to restore civility and respectability to the political discourse. There, it failed miserably.

For starters, you cannot conceivably undo years of toxic demagoguery and incendiary discourse in a single year. When horribly inarticulate politicians with extremely limited intellectual faculties are being rewarded for inflammatory and profane one-liners, a change in government compounds the problem rather than reverses the trend. Vulgarity has become a defining trademark of Israeli politics and a cultural attribute politicians are proud of. It simply cannot be toned down by executive decision.

More importantly, the government was bombarded from Day One by a vitriol-spewing machine and venomous misinformation directed by Mr. Netanyahu. This is who he is, but in fairness this is what oppositions tend to do. The government’s dismal failure was in ignoring it, neglecting to counter this vast network of misinformation and innuendo until it was too late.

Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu smiling in the Knesset on Wednesday.Credit: GIL COHEN-MAGEN - AFP

The opposition didn’t need to win over 9.5 million Israelis; just to create the appearance of a teetering coalition and shake up four or five spineless and weak individual politicians. It did that masterfully.

The most virulent of these was the opposition’s repeated attempt to undermine the government’s legitimacy by claiming it relied on a “terror-supporting” Arab party – meaning Mansour Abbas’ United Arab List. Notwithstanding the bigotry, racism and hatefulness, this is the same Mansour Abbas to whom Netanyahu promised the moon when he tried to form a government in both 2020 and 2021.

Let there be no doubt whatsoever: Mr. Netanyahu would probably offer the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a seat at the World Zionist Organization if he thought it would help him form a government and possibly disrupt his corruption trial.

But if the government’s only justification for its existence was being a “non-Netanyahu” government, its demise was predetermined.

First, despite its pledges and guarantees, it failed to pass legislation to prohibit a person who has been indicted and is already on trial from becoming prime minister. What is natural and should be the norm requires legislation in Israel – and even that wasn’t done.

Second, Israel is too complicated to govern and the issues too serious for a government to declare in advance that it will refrain from dealing with contentious issues in order to stay intact.

Third, if the idea was to alter the ominous trajectory Netanyahu set for Israel, and which this coalition achieved for only a year, we will have to wait for the results of the October or November election before casting final judgment.

Yes, this coalition succeeded in preventing Netanyahu from forming a government three times, and formed one itself in the fourth round. But if Netanyahu – a man the voters of this diverse coalition believe has waged war on his own country – manages to form a coalition in the fifth round and returns to power, than their work was a comprehensive and monumental failure.

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