Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu is Israel's longest-serving Prime Minister, who has held the office continuously since 2009. Now finally the rule of "King Bibi" – a nickname that has earned itself through his long term in office and authoritarian tendencies – has come to an end.
On Sunday, Netanyahu's opponents in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, voted to replace him with a "change" coalition: a group of diverse parties from across the Israeli political spectrum, united only by their interest, Netanyahu out of office to urge. The new prime minister is Naftali Bennett of the far right Yamina party – although Yair Lapid of the centrist Yesh Atid party will have a veto on his decisions.
Netanyahu's fall is, more than anything, the result of his own hubris.
For the past 12 years, Netanyahu has dominated Israeli politics. Not only has he successfully implemented a number of right-wing policies, such as anchoring the Israeli presence in the West Bank, but has also cemented dangerous levels of power in his own hands. He is currently on trial on corruption charges, including his attempt to buy media.
Israeli politics has split into pro and anti-Bibi camps; the split is so close that Israel had to hold four elections within two years, none of which delivered a decisive verdict.
It is this paralysis and the looming threat of Netanyahu's anti-democratic behavior that brought parties from across the political spectrum together to finally get over him.
Bennett will serve as Prime Minister for two years, followed by Lapid. It is a power-sharing that partly reflects the internal divisions within the coalition, which depends on the votes of eight different parties, right, center and left. One of the eight is Ra’am, an Islamist party and the first Arab party to ever join an Israeli government coalition.
Naftali Bennett (center) seen during a special Knesset session on June 2nd.
Ronen Zvulun-Pool / AFP via Getty Images
To call this arrangement unstable is an understatement. The members of this coalition almost disagree and therefore will not be able to make major political changes on most issues without collapsing. This is particularly true in the conflict with the Palestinians, where the divisions between the coalition parties are arguably greatest. A major event, like another flare-up of Hamas rocket fire, could bring them to each other's throats – and force another round of elections.
But the fact that this new government even exists speaks to the desire of many Israelis to leave the Netanyahu era behind – a desire that led to a seismic shift in Israeli politics.
"Just replacing Netanyahu is a big deal," said Michael Koplow, policy director of the US think tank Israel Policy Forum. "And to include an Arab party in a government is a huge thing, even if the coalition falls apart after six months."
How Netanyahu fell
For ten years, from 2009 to 2019, Netanyahu rode the long right-wing drift of the Israeli electorate to victory – and defeated his opponents in the center and on the left with a mixture of clever political strategy and demagogy. But after the Israeli election in April 2019, when the current political crisis began, things started to fall apart.
In that vote, Netanyahu's Likud and allied right-wing parties won a majority of the seats in the Knesset, seemingly preparing them for another extension of his historic tenure. But one party, the secular nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu, refused to join the government – citing a disagreement over special exemptions for the conscription of ultra-Orthodox Jews.
The inability of Netanyahu or his opponents to form a government in April 2019 led to a new election in September of that year that was intended to break the deadlock. Meanwhile, Israeli politics revolved around one big thing: Netanyahu himself and his alleged abuse of power during his tenure.
Bibi served as prime minister from 1996 to 1999. His defeat convinced him that he had to make Israeli society more indulgent to him personally – particularly by bowing the press to his will: "I need my own media," as he puts it at the time.
Netanyahu's opponents decided that enough was enough: two years of chaos and elections should come to an end.
After returning to the top position, he appears to have tried to put that proposal into action, allegedly trying to trade political and regulatory favors for cheap coverage in two other media outlets, leading daily Yedioth Ahronoth (Latest News) and the popular online newspaper portal Walla! News. He appears to have succeeded in allegedly reaching a secret deal with Walla !, to clear a merger the parent company wanted in exchange for steering the news in his direction.
The prime minister's attempt to subjugate the independent media with favors is not only undemocratic, it may also be illegal. Israel's attorney general, the conservative Avichai Mandelblit, announced in February 2019 that he would indict the prime minister on a range of corruption and bribery charges, including those that have resulted in up to ten years in prison.
At the time of the second election in September 2019, Netanyahu's maneuvers to avoid prosecution were becoming increasingly dangerous for Israeli democracy. His allies in Likud had already proposed a law that would grant Netanyahu immunity from prosecution during his tenure, allowing him to get away with attacking democratic institutions.
The September elections were inconclusive: Netanyahu did not have enough support to stay in office, but the opposition was too divided internally to form a government. A third election in March 2020 had similar results. The result was a temporary unity government designed primarily to respond to the coronavirus outbreak while sidelining the issue of the charges against Bibi.
Netanyahu broke that fragile deal in December, betting that a fourth election would bring him enough votes to form a more stable right-wing government. But it failed: this March election produced the current Knesset.
United Arab List Party leader Mansour Abbas speaks to reporters after joining a coalition that forced Israeli Benjamin Netanyahu out of office on June 2.
Amir Levy / Getty Images
This time, the opponents of Netanyahu decided that enough was enough: two years of chaos and elections had to come to an end.
Lapid, whose Yesh Atid party won the most votes in the anti-Netanyahu camp, reached a series of agreements with parties across the political spectrum to form the new coalition. These included not only Netanyahu's longtime opponents in the left and center, but also right-wing leaders who were previously either ministers in Netanyahu's cabinet or members of his own party.
What brings these groups together is their shared belief that the chaos of the past two years must come to an end. The only way to do this is to take Netanyahu off the top job.
"Netanyahu will not get a majority (in a fifth election) and then we will go to a sixth election," said Bennett, chairman of Yamina, during the coalition talks. "The country cannot go on like this."
And now Netanyahu has lost the top job – and will be forced to cope with his current criminal case without the power of the prime minister.
What will the “change coalition” actually change?
Now Bennett will serve as Prime Minister – a job he will hold for two years while Lapid serves as Secretary of State. After two years they will rotate, with Lapid in the top position and Bennett in the cabinet. Throughout the period, both have a right of veto over politics – even if Bennett is nominally the boss of Lapid, he can block the former's steps at will.
This complex power-sharing agreement is necessary to resolve the differences of opinion between these two men in particular and the coalition parties in general. In most of the major policy areas Israel is faced with, this government will not be able to agree on substantial changes.
Take what is arguably the most important issue in the country: the conflict with the Palestinians. Bennett and Lapid have different views on this. Bennett supports the annexation of much of the West Bank and opposes the creation of a Palestinian state, while Lapid supports a two-state solution negotiated with the Palestinian leadership. The broader coalition is similarly split and includes both Hawk factions like Yisrael Beiteinu and moderate ones like Meretz.
Any major action against the Palestinians, either aggressive or conciliatory, would bitterly split the exchange coalition. The most likely outcome is that as long as this government is in power, the conflict will essentially remain stuck in its abysmal status quo.
"When (the coalition) stands together, it necessarily means indolence on issues affecting the Palestinians," said Khaled Elgindy, director of the Palestine and Palestinian-Israeli Affairs program at the Middle East Institute. "Occupation, settlements, displacement, destruction and (and the) Gaza blockade continue as they are."
This is the case on a number of key issues dividing the Israeli left and right, such as whether Israel's courts have gone too far in protecting individual rights. Such controversial issues will generally be left untouched by the change coalition – tinkered around the margins, perhaps, but largely untouched.
“The limits to any contentious act are real. In a way, your mandate will be to simply govern, ”said Natan Sachs, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
Israel's youngest Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (left) and Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid were announced during a special Knesset meeting on Nov.
Ronen Zvulun-Pool / AFP via Getty Images
Still, there are a few exceptions to this rule – areas where the new government could actually make a difference.
First of all, there is the area that prompted Yisrael Beiteinu to break with Netanyahu in April 2019: the relationship between the synagogue and the state.
In the past, Israel's ultra-Orthodox parties have been willing to compete with governments on both left and right as long as the government maintains its privileged status under Israeli law. But in the current stalemate, the ultra-Orthodox parties have chosen to support Netanyahu – and are now excluded from power as a result. The right-wing parties in the current coalition are relatively secular by the standards of the Israeli right.
Judy Maltz, a reporter for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, points out that there are still limitations in this area: Both Yamina and Ra’am, the Islamist party, will block some steps towards a more secular society. At the same time, however, there are some areas – including cutting special funding for the ultra-Orthodox, supporting the public transition on Shabbat, and non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall – where policy change is possible.
Second, there might also be a way to improve the status of Palestinian citizens of Israel (also known as Arab Israelis). The very fact that one of the leaders of this group is in government for the first time – sharing power with right-wing politicians with a history of anti-Arab agitation – is evidence of the growing influence and legitimacy that Arab Israelis have in the Jewish-dominated one political mainstream.
In order to make Ra’am happy, the new coalition must deliver concrete achievements that its members can show to their long-marginalized voters. The party's leader Mansour Abbas has already called for more funding for infrastructure in Arab communities and an end to building regulations that discriminate against Arabs – but the coalition could do a lot more.
One of the main problems facing Arab Israelis is the rise in organized crime in the Arab world, leading to an epidemic of murder; In 2019, 71 percent of Israeli murder victims were Arabs, although Palestinian citizens made up only 21 percent of the Israeli population. The Netanyahu government has not been able to adequately address this issue by police means; maybe the new one will.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the government of change opens up prospects for political change.
The political right has dominated Israeli politics for 20 years. Right-wing dominance empowered Netanyahu both to deepen the occupation of the West Bank and to attack democracy within Israeli borders – two trends that are closely related.
The dethroning of Netanyahu will not end the occupation, nor will it completely stop Israel's slide from democracy. But by ending Netanyahu's stranglehold on Israeli politics, it will create an opportunity to move beyond the political status quo. Dahlia Scheindlin, an Israeli political strategist and Century Foundation fellow, sums it up in an article for the Guardian:
Part of Netanyahu's stamina was the snowballing effect of consolidating power. Voters cannot imagine that someone else rules, hence the often heard refrain “There is no one but him”. A new government would prove that. If the rotation goes as planned for the Prime Minister, from Bennett to Lapid, citizens will see that there are even two others. That is healthy for democracy.
Of course it can be different. Once Netanyahu is out of the picture, perhaps even in prison, his Likud party will be free to join forces with right-wing coalition members and religious parties in a far-right coalition.
But that's the nature of change: it's unpredictable. Whether it will be good or bad in the long run is hard to say, but what is clear is that some kind of change is finally coming to Israeli politics.
"I'm never optimistic about Israel," says Hadas Aron, a professor at New York University who studies Israeli politics. "But I think it's not insignificant that someone else will be in government, that something else might at least have the potential to move up."