Analysis: “It’s happening!”: Israel awaits “change government”

The “change” bloc. Raanan Cohen, Public Domain.

Israel’s “change coalition” faces its most critical test in the coming days as the Knesset holds a confidence vote in the new government on Sunday. Success in the vote will bring to an end to Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12 years in office.

What happened 

  • On Monday, the Knesset speaker, Yariv Levin, formally notified parliament that opposition leader Yair Lapid had succeeded in forming a government.
  • Under Israeli law, a new government must face a confidence vote within seven days of the speaker’s announcement. That vote, and the government’s swearing in, has been scheduled for Sunday. “It’s happening!” a jubilant Lapid tweeted.
  • Netanyahu continues last-ditch efforts to prevent the “change government” – an unlikely combination of right-wing, centrist, and left-wing parties backed by an Islamist Arab party – from taking office.
  • The new government holds a wafer-thin 61-59 majority in the Knesset. Netanyahu and his supporters are launching incendiary attacks on “change coalition” MKs in an effort to peel off defectors.
  • On Monday, Labor’s Central Committee gave party leader Merav Michaeli overwhelming backing to join the new government. It will initially be led by Naftali Bennett of the right-wing Yamina party. Bennett will hand over the premiership to Lapid, leader of the centre-left Yesh Atid party, mid-way through the government’s term in 2023.
  • “This government will be good and it will last because it is based on the right things – on trust, on decency, on goodwill,” Lapid told his MKs on Monday.

Thumbs up from the polls 

A survey for Channel 12 television showed 46 percent of Israelis backed the formation of the new government. Thirty-eight percent supported the country holding a general election – which would have been the fifth since April 2019 – and 15 percent said they didn’t know. The poll also showed more Israelis trust Bennett (at 44 percent) than Netanyahu (on 35 percent). However, only 24 percent believe the ideologically heterogenous new government will last.

Labor backing 

  • Ninety-seven percent of Labor’s Central Committee backed the party joining the “change government” at a meeting on Monday.
  • Party leader Merav Michaeli, who will become transportation minister, said that unlike previous party conferences “which approved entering Netanyahu governments as an unnecessary add-on, this conference approved the Labor party’s important role in establishing the ‘change government’ that will replace Netanyahu and bring about the end of his rule”.
  • Labor MKs Omer Bar-Lev and Nachman Shai will join Michaeli in the cabinet as public security and diaspora affairs ministers respectively. The left-wing Meretz party is also joining the government. Leader Nitzan Horowitz will become health minister, Tamar Zandberg takes the environment portfolio, while Issawi Frej is slated to becoming regional cooperation minister.

Benjamin Trump 

A desperate Netanyahu claimed on Sunday that the election had been stolen by the “deep state”. “We are witnesses to the greatest election fraud in the history of the country and in my opinion, the history of democracies,” the prime minister told Likud MKs. Speaking on the right-wing Channel 20, Netanyahu said the “deep state is deep within this government” and accused Bennett of being a “habitual liar”. “Bennett is holding a fire sale on the country,” he claimed, and said that votes had been “stolen from right [and given] to the left”.

Shades of 1995 

  • In an unprecedented intervention, the head of Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic secret service, warned on Saturday evening that it had “recently identified a serious rise and radicalisation in violent and inciting discourse, specifically on social media”. “This discourse may be interpreted among certain groups or individuals as one that allows violent and illegal activity and could even lead to harm to individuals,” Nadav Argaman. “It is our duty to come out with a clear and decisive call for an immediate cessation of the inciting and violent speech. The responsibility for restraining the discourse rests on the shoulders of us all.”
  • Israeli media says Shin Bet is particularly concerned about the safety of Bennett and members of his Yamina party. They have faced vociferous attacks – including protests outside their homes in which banners accusing them of being “Leftists. Traitors” have been displayed – from Netanyahu supporters. “We are getting closer and closer to 1995, to the months before the Rabin assassination,” a security source told Channel 13.
  • A number of Yamina MKs, including Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, have received additional security protection. Netanyahu’s son was briefly suspended from social media for publicly sharing the home address of Yamina MK Nir Orbach. Orbach – who has received messages inviting him to his own funeral – had previously been considered a potential defector from the “change coalition”. He has now announced he will back the new government. Fellow Yamina MK Idit Silman, who is thought likely to become the first female coalition whip since 1988, has also been targeted and has had to remove her children from their schools.
  • Netanyahu on Friday posted a message on Facebook on Friday which referred to an account in the Torah of “spies” who sought to weaken the “spirit of the people”. As opposition leader in the mid-1990s, Netanyahu faced criticism for failing to condemn incitement against Labor prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated by a far-right extremist.
  • The prime minister appeared to downplay the Shin Bet warning. “The principle must be clear and uniform for everyone: Incitement and violence — and incitement to violence — will always be out of bounds,” he said. “Criticism by the right can’t be treated as incitement and criticism by the left as a legitimate act of free speech,” he told a Likud meeting.
  • In a scathing op-ed, Jerusalem Post Yaakov Katz wrote of Netanyahu’s tactics: “This is dangerous territory for Israel, reminiscent of the way Donald Trump fought to overturn and delegitimise the November 3 election. Will this end in the storming of the Knesset, of Bennett’s home, or a physical attack against a Knesset member? We do not know.”

Raising the tone 

Setting a markedly different tone from Netanyahu, Lapid defended Israeli democracy but appealed to supporters of the new government to reach out to its opponents. “This government is being formed because it’s the majority. There were elections, we have a majority, we’re forming a government. That’s democracy, that’s its strength, that’s the choice Israel made,” Lapid said. “I know you waited a long time and this is your success, but there are a lot of people in Israel who are concerned about this government. We need to reach out to them and lower the tensions. We don’t need to celebrate in the town square and shout that we won. This is the time to unite Israeli society. They aren’t our enemies.”

What’s on the agenda?

Ahead of the confidence vote, the web of coalition agreements binding the new government together must be formally handed to the Knesset by Friday. However, details have already begun to emerge:

  • Agreements signed between Yesh Atid and Labor, Meretz and the populist Yisraeli Beitenu party indicate a big increase in health spending, sweeping new measures to tackle climate change and a boost to public transport, and a focus on tackling violence against women and within the family.
  • The new government is also expected to legislate to introduce term limits for the prime minister, as well as considering electoral reforms to make voting easier and potentially introduce regional voting lists.
  • The Israeli-Arab Ra’am party is thought likely to have won increased spending in Arab communities, measures to tackle crime and violence, and a nine-month freeze on the demolition of illegal constructions.
  • Deep splits within the coalition over Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians have reportedly been glossed over with vague language. “The government will work to strengthen Israel’s national security and safeguard the security of all Israeli citizens, alongside its constant pursuit of peace,” it is believed to state.

Bennett’s “golden straitjacket” 

Lapid needed Bennett’s MKs in order to depose Netanyahu but the hardliner will have limited room for manoeuvre in office, some commentators have suggested. “The power behind the throne will be someone else entirely. The coalition was negotiated by Lapid and will have a majority of ministers from the centre and left, in deference to their greater numbers. And the government will rely on the votes of an Arab party for its continued existence. In other words, Lapid outfitted Bennett in a golden straitjacket—giving him the trappings of power without the ability to fully exercise it,” suggested The Tablet’s Yair Rosenberg.

What happens next

  • The “change government” will take office if it wins a confidence vote on Sunday.
  • Out of office, Netanyahu faces a potential leadership challenge. However, his trial ongoing trial on corruption charges will also keep him busy.