Opinion: 2021 Israeli Elections, six months on – Part 1

At face value, Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett are the most unlikely of duos. The pair represent just about the furthest thing from one another you can get in Israeli politics, at least in Jewish terms. Lapid, the eldest, was raised between London and Tel Aviv, constantly influenced by the intellectual frenzy around his neighbourhood of Yad Eliyahu. His own father, the Serbian-born journalist Tommy Lapid, had a reputation of being a hot-headed but media-savvy character. Like his father, Yair forged a career in print and on-screen. Upon his discharge from mandatory IDF service, Lapid wrote for a handful of minor newspapers before moving to Los Angeles to work in television. By the time he finally entered Politics in the 2010s, Lapid was a household name with over 20 years of experience in acting, presenting talk shows and anchoring news channels. His Yesh Atid party’s liberal platform – supporting a mixed economy, a two-state solution, religious pluralism and LGBT rights – along with his own demeanour have earned Lapid favourable comparisons to Barack Obama.

Naftali Bennett’s family background isn’t too dissimilar. He was born to affluent progressives on the Israeli coast (Haifa) and before his birth, Bennett’s parents took part in anti-racism and anti-war protests. Growing up, he spent time in the United States, and, like Lapid, is a proud Ashkenazi. But what deeply affected his parents, and would shape Bennett as the politician we know today, was the Six-Day War of 1967. By the time Bennett was born in 1972, his family were well on the way to adopting strict Orthodox Judaism.

A ruthless IDF commando, Bennett gained infamy in the 1990s for his role in special forces operations; units under his command reportedly worked a ‘shoot to kill’ policy on the Gaza border, something he said he’d continue to back as recently as 2018. Bennett would move back to his parent’s home country in 2000 to found a tech start-up in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Five years later, he was a self-made millionaire, and in 2013 got elected to the Knesset (Israel’s Parliament). The faction he currently sits for, Yamina (literally ‘rightwards’), arguably represent an even further right-wing doctrine than Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud. Widely labelled an ‘ultranationalist’, Bennett’s party is the only one in the Knesset that completely rejects Palestinian statehood. They advocate for increasing the Jewish settlement in the West Bank as well as the further annexation of territories in the north. Socially conservative and promoting an economic ‘laissez-faire’, it’s quite difficult to comprehend how Yamina could ever share power with Lapid’s Yesh Atid. Yet they do…

By mid-March 2021 it was clear Benjamin Netanyahu would not win his sixth term as Israeli Prime Minister. Elections to the Knesset work under proportional representation, and as such, coalition governments are unavoidable; and indeed, every Israeli election since 1948 has produced one. For the 12 years leading up to this June, these had been dominated by Mr Netanyahu’s Likud and propped up by a number of minor parties, at times featuring both Bennett and Lapid as ministers. However, the 35th government of Israel was beginning to collapse by December of 2020, only eight months after the previous election, largely due to issues revolving around Netanyahu himself. Facing criminal charges and with support suddenly pulled from Benny Gantz’s moderate Blue & White faction, the failure to pass a budget caused Israel’s fourth election in two years.

Needing 61 seats to form an absolute majority, it was relatively uncertain which one of the two camps would win. O one hand, Netanyahu’s Likud went down by seven seats, from 59 to 52 but nonetheless remained the largest party, supported by a right-wing religious fringe. On the other hand, the so-called ‘Change Bloc’ led by Lapid, won 51 seats. Yamina, along with two minor Arab parties, sat somewhere in the middle. Unclear who they would declare for, Naftali Bennet was suddenly a kingmaker. After a month of negotiations where President Rivlin afforded both groups chances to form governments, Yamina would finally settle for the ‘Change Bloc’. The terms of the agreement? Bennett would become Prime Minister for two years, before handing power over to Lapid.

By the 13th of June, he was sworn in as Prime Minister, with a majority of one single seat, despite his own party coming in joint 5th, with only seven members in the Knesset. In addition to Bennett and Lapid, other party leaders amongst the diverse coalition including openly gay socialist Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz), aggressive former army general Benny Gantz (Blue & White), ex-newsreader Merav Michaeli (Labor), conservative Islamist Mansour Abbas (Ra’am), ultra-secular Soviet-born minority leader Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu) and former Netanyahu protégé Gideon Sa’ar (New Hope). With a strange contrast of personalities and ideologies, the government still remains in place nearly five months on, six months after the start of the coalition discussions, which, in recent Israeli terms, is a relatively long time.

Keeping this in mind, my next piece for The Witness will explore how well the coalition has held up, and how well the government has managed to tackle the issues facing Israelis over this time period.

Image: Thirty-sixth government of Israel, June 2021 – Haim Zach// CC BY-SA 3.0

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