Newly sworn-in Prime Minister Naftali Bennett

After a record 12 straight years in power, Benjamin Netanyahu has been deposed by Israel’s parliamentary Knesset; but only by the narrowest of possible margins in the 120-member house – 60 in favor of Naftali Bennet for PM, 59 opposed, with one abstention! It was and still is a perilous victory. So what are the new PM’s chances of survival?

Perhaps the greatest shock has reverberated throughout the Jewish ultra-Orthodox religious community, which threw its undivided support behind Netanyahu. On the other hand, Naftali Bennett is also a religious Jew who wears a ‘kippa’ (a skullcap) and strictly observes the Sabbath. Bennett, aged 49, is a hi-tech millionaire whose parents immigrated to Israel from the US. Throughout his political career, he has been a staunch supporter of Israeli settlements on the West Bank. But he and Gideon Sa’ar, a former star on the Likud horizon, turned against the autocratic leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu (who is admired by his supporters as “King of Israel”). 

Ultra-Orthodox Knesset members

In his unprecedented rise to power, Netanyahu has displayed outstanding political prowess on the international and national stages while forming a partnership with Israel’s ultra-Orthodox religious Jewry in return for special financial aid and absolving ultra-Orthodox Jews from serving in the IDF. This “unholy alliance” will now be put under the microscope of new Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman – cause for great anxiety in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. Ironically, the big Saturday night demonstrations against Netanyahu outside the PM’s residence in Jerusalem might now be replaced by throngs of ultra-Orthodox protesters. Or, on the other hand, will the ultra-Orthodox political leaders seek a new deal with Prime Minister Bennett?

Benjamin Netanyahu (now the leader of the opposition)

Netanyahu, in his closing speech to the Knesset, ended with a defiant declaration, “I’ll be back soon!” In his new role as opposition leader, he can be counted on to exploit his oratorical skills and to make life miserable for his successor. However, Netanyahu will have to divide his time between the opposition leader and showing up in court to confront three charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. 

So, what can we expect from Prime Minister Naftali Bennett? He and his political sidekick Ayelet Shaked have been hardline supporters of Jewish settlement on the West Bank and opposed to the establishment of a Palestinian state. But now, with the new Biden administration in Washington, as well as Bennett’s surprising coalition with the Left-wing parties of Labor and Meretz, his settlement hopes have been relegated to the backburner! This is the key to understanding the formation of the new government composed of the Right-wing with the Left-wing and even an Arab-Israeli party that was constructed to depose Netanyahu, and only then by the narrowest margin. 

Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid

The architect of this political hydra is Yair Lapid, leader of the Centrist Yesh Atid party. Lapid hit on the idea that Bibi’s status was so formidable among the Right and ultra-Orthodox segments that he could only be toppled by forging a wall-to-wall political bloc that included Bennet and Gideon Sa’ar (former Netanyahu aids on the Right), his own Centrist party, and low and behold even Left-wing Labor and Meretz, as well as an Arab-Israeli party.

Nearly all the pundits predicted this political monstrosity would never fly. However, to his credit, Lapid, considered by many Israelis to be a lightweight former TV presenter, proved to be an outstanding political architect in persuading these bizarre bedfellows to bury their differences and join forces to oust the common rival, Bibi Netanyahu. Lapid, despite his flamboyant image, was able to convince potential allies that they must bury their separate political interests in order to depose King Bibi. And even though Labid won more Knesset seats than Bennett’s meager six, Lapid even agreed that Bennet would serve the first two years as Prime Minister while he took over at the Foreign Ministry. Then, after two years, they will rotate their positions. 

“Elephant in the new cabinet room”…

Ministers of the newly sworn-in 36th coalition government

Oddly enough, the West Bank settlement issue has somehow dropped below the political radar. Again, bear in mind that Bennett and Sa’ar (new Justice Minister) are former Right-wing hawks who are gung-ho for building West Bank settlements. How is it possible that they and their followers have now formed a coalition together with Left-wing Labor and Meretz as well as Arab party Ra’am, who are all opposed to settlement building? And again, this is to Lapid’s credit – apparently, by hook and by crook, Lapid persuaded all these political adversaries that the greatest political danger to Israel is the continuation of a Netanyahu dynasty. This must-have required the silent agreement of Bennett and Sa’ar that there will be no new settlement building in Judea and Samaria – otherwise, the new political bloc will break up immediately. No one will admit it, and strangely enough, this has been ignored by the media. This should also be considered against the background of the new Biden administration in Washington that is categorically opposed to settlement building on the West Bank, while it is also bent on building a new nuclear deal with Iran. 

Whatever the wording of the new deal, there is little doubt in Jerusalem that the crafty Iranians will create loopholes for continuing their nuclear missile development. Nuclear missiles are not only necessary for “wiping Israel off the map” but also for Iran’s continued expansion in the region, as currently exhibited in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen (for example, the former agreement provided for Iranian military bases being off-limits to UN inspectors).

In any case, as expected, President Biden immediately telephoned Prime Minister Bennett to congratulate him and express his administration’s continued support of Israel. 

Avigdor Liberman
Avigdor Liberman

PS. On second thought, when it comes to the ultra-Orthodox politicians, they may now reconsider the situation and, after blasting Bennett, they may reach out to the PM in return for their political support in the Knesset. Bear in mind that Bennett’s razor-thin majority could only take the absence of one or two of his coalition partners for a vote of confidence motion that could topple the new government. In this respect, Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman will be a very powerful cabinet minister who is perceived by the ultra-Orthodox as an “archenemy.” Will Lieberman uncover confidential deals granting the ultra-Orthodox special privileges and seek to curb them? Or, might he go along with a Bennett attempt to secure the crucial political support of the ultra-Orthodox? We are indeed entering an extraordinary period, even for Israel. 

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