On June 13, 2021, Benjamin Netanyahu delivered his last speech in the Knesset as prime minister. In a proud and bitter half-hour speech, he recounted his successes during 12 years in power and warned of the existential threats facing Israel under the new coalition government. He also pointed out that his conservative Likud party would soon be back in power.
“I will lead you into a daily battle against this evil and dangerous left-wing government to overthrow it,” Netanyahu shouted, amid rowdiness and mockery from the plenum. “With God’s help, it will happen much sooner than you think.”
Just a year later, the corruption scandal-ridden former leader might be about to realize just that.
Israel’s ambitious governance experiment – an eight-party coalition that overcame significant ideological differences by uniting to oust Netanyahu and end years of political stalemate – is struggling to work.
An agreement to focus on areas of common interest and avoid divisive issues such as the occupation of Palestinian territories has unraveled. A defection in April destroyed his slim majority, and now almost every week Prime Minister Naftali Bennett finds himself pressuring other wavering elements of the coalition not to torpedo important bills or sank his fragile government.
If just one more renegade member steps down, the coalition is unlikely to survive the no-confidence vote that Likud will immediately cast, and the opposition could call new elections.
Meanwhile, internal government divisions have resulted in a chaotic Knesset. Last week, left-wing coalition members were persuaded to vote in favor of a bill extending legal protections for Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank, while the right-wing opposition – which ideologically backed the bill – voted against, resulting in a government defeat. by a margin of four votes.
“For 12 years we had governments that weakened faith in democracy and the rule of law,” said Gaby Lasky, Member of Knesset (MK), human rights lawyer and party member leftist Meretz, who voted in favor of the legislation in order to avoid undermining the government.
“We make our voice heard in the plenum but we are a minority in government and a minority in society,” she said. “I have to admit it’s more complicated than I thought to take even one small step.”
Netanyahu capitalized on the disunity of the coalition by encouraging the opposition to vote against every bill proposed by the coalition, regardless of its content, in order to further cripple his rivals.
Now the patience of right-wing parties such as Justice Minister Gideon Saar’s New Hope is running out: if this pro-settlement faction abandons the coalition, Netanyahu could seek to form a new government without the need for new elections .
“Basically we are in the same position as a year ago. Opposition electoral discipline means we are still faced with the choice of Bibi, or not Bibi,” said Labor MP Naama Lazimi center-left side of the government, using the well-known nickname Netanyahu.
“It’s hard to plan even a month ahead under these circumstances… given that we’ve achieved a lot, but we need more time to really turn things around.”
Bennett’s government can claim some success: it has formed a historic coalition, which for the first time includes members of an independent Arab party; he successfully passed overdue budgets, guided Israel through the final stages of the pandemic, made amends with a justice system much maligned by Netanyahu, and restored relations with his Western partners in the United States and Europe.
The prevailing assessment among the public and inside the Knesset building, however, is that the coalition will be lucky to make it through the end of the summer session intact.
“The current Knesset is a world upside down. The coalition wanted to keep Netanyahu out of the prime minister’s office, and they did, but there is no other common denominator,” said Yuli-Yoel Edelstein, a Likud MK and former Knesset speaker.
“They can’t govern, so they should step down. There is a country to run and what is happening right now is hurting Israeli policy. »
Netanyahu’s return to power is becoming clearer, but not yet certain. The Likud leader is still on trial for corruption, and he has alienated key elements of his electoral base with actions such as voting against settler legislation. The 72-year-old could also face a leadership challenge within Likud ranks.
A recent poll suggests that 39% of Israelis would rather return to the polls for the country’s fifth election since 2019 than continue with the current government or form a new one in the current Knesset – but if an election is held now it is unlikely that the center-left bloc led by Foreign Minister Yair Lapid nor Netanyahu’s right-wing religious bloc will win an outright majority.
“On the one hand, it is important to be part of the decision-making process and to have Arab representation in the Knesset,” said Ahmad Tibi, the leader of the Arab-majority opposition Ta’al party.
“On the other hand, I’m sad to say that this coalition experiment was premature. The left and Ra’am [the coalition’s Arab bloc] will be destroyed in the next election for betraying their constituents and their principles. I said [Mansour Abbas, Ra’am’s leader] before: if you don’t want to swim with sharks, don’t get in the water.