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The Bennett-Lapid Duo: a Short-Lived Union

ARTICLES - 27 July 2022

Israel has resorted to a rotation system several times since the early 1980s as a response to the regime’s high instability. The latest attempt, uniting Bennett and Lapid against Netanyahu - their common enemy - was short-lived. Yet this brevity did not prevent their coalition from making real political progress. In another installment of our Seeing Double series devoted to political duos and power sharing, Samy Cohen, Israel Specialist and Research Professor Emeritus at Sciences Po Paris, looks back at this unexpected duo, as well as past similar arrangements in the Knesset.

On June 2, 2021, after four elections in two years, Member of Knesset (MK) Yair Lapid, leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party, announced to President Reuven Rivlin that he was able to form a coalition government supported by a narrow majority of 61 out of 120 MKs in total. The coalition consisted of eight parties: three from the right (Yamina, Naftali Bennett's party; New Hope, led by Gideon Sa'ar, a former Likud member; and Yisrael Beiteinu, led by the indomitable Avigdor Lieberman), two from the center-right (Lapid's Yesh Atid and Benny Gantz' Blue and White) and two from the left (the Labor Party and Meretz). Similar to Yesh Atid, the two leftist parties are both led by former journalists (Merav Michaeli and Nitzan Horowitz). Finally, for the first time in Israel's history, an Arab party - Ra'am, led by Mansour Abbas - joined the government. And for the first time in 12 years, Netanyahu’s Likud party is in the opposition.

The coalition agreed to a rotation in government leadership between Bennett and Lapid. Bennett would serve as prime minister for two years, half of the legislative term’s duration. Lapid would then succeed him in August 2023. Two "camps" were formed: on the one hand, Bennett’s Yamina and New Hope and on the other, Lapid with all other parties. In order to discourage any attempts to jeopardize the unity of this unusual coalition, it was agreed that whichever of the two camps acted to dissolve the Knesset would lose the right to lead the government until the end of the legislative term. The arrangement is fundamentally different from France’s system of "cohabitation", in which the executive is led by two people simultaneously with the president losing his status as a "republican monarch".

Rotation as a remedy against regime instability from 1984 to 2021

The rotation system has a well-known precedent if we consider the Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir tandem of 1984. Neither of the two major parties - the Maarakh (a coalition between the Labor Party and the left-wing Mapam) and the Likud - managed to form a viable government following the elections at the time. President Chaim Herzog proposed the rotation formula as a compromise. The two men would take turns serving as prime minister for two years each. Shimon Peres was the first to hold the reins. While awaiting his turn, Yitzhak Shamir became minister of foreign affairs and acting prime minister. It was also agreed that Yitzhak Rabin, a member of the Maarakh party, would be in charge of defense for the full four years and Yitzhak Modai of the Likud party would lead the economic affairs ministry over the same period. The setup worked, without too many bumps in the road along the way. After the first two years, Peres resigned as faithfully promised and, as required by one of Israel’s Basic Laws, took his government with him. He then recommended to President Herzog that he appoint Shamir to take over, and a new government was put in place. It was not a simple change in the leadership of one government; both the government and the person at the helm were replaced. The system was designed as a way to overcome the political paralysis fostered by Israel’s electoral system based on proportional representation, with the low threshold of 3.25%. It also enabled ambitious politicians, both vying for the position of head of government, to "share the pie".

Thirty-five years after the Peres-Shamir tandem, an attempt at reproducing that success was made in the February 2019 elections. Benny Gantz, then head of the Hosen L'Yisrael party and a rising star in Israeli politics, joined forces with the two center-right parties - Lapid's Yesh Atid and Moshe Ya'alon's Telem - to form the Blue and White alliance. This alliance was based on a rotation between Gantz and Lapid in their competition for the prime minister position. In this case, the rotation was not established between the country’s two main political parties but between a majority party (Lapid's) and a minority party (Gantz') within the same coalition. During the election campaign, however, Lapid ultimately gave up his "share" of the power as a way to reinforce the alliance’s credibility.

The rotation principle was enshrined in Israel's Basic Law of Government.

The rotation system was tested a third time following the March 2020 elections, this time between Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz. The president tasked Gantz, who enjoyed the support of 61 deputies, with forming the government. His backers hoped to finally cast Netanyahu aside - but they had not foreseen Gantz' odd move of secretly negotiating a rotating government with the Likud leader. 

The move was shocking to those who had supported him on the basis of his promise not to work with a politician who faces three criminal charges, including for corruption. Naturally, the anti-Bibi coalition shattered. This did not stop Gantz from pursuing his strategy, which he justified by the need to manage the Covid-19 pandemic effectively and to avoid new elections. This time, the rotation principle was enshrined in Israel’s Basic Law of government.

According to the agreement, Netanyahu and Gantz would each serve as head of government for a year and a half, starting with Netanyahu. Unlike in the Peres-Shamir case, the change in leadership would not be accompanied by a change in government. Benny Gantz paid no heed to the numerous warnings that Netanyahu would almost certainly not respect the agreement. But the alarmists were proved right. The rotation agreement contained a loophole: if the Knesset failed to pass the nation’s budget quickly enough, it would automatically dissolve and the rotation agreement rendered null and void. Netanyahu exploited this loophole: he simply refrained from introducing the law required for the Knesset to pass the budget.

This move did not work in his favor. He found himself unable to form a viable coalition. Instead, it was Yair Lapid, leader of the main opposition party, who managed to do so, thereby winning the Knesset’s trust. This success came at a cost, however: he had to give up the prime minister’s seat to Naftali Bennett, leader of a small party with 6 deputies compared to Lapid’s 17, as Bennett made it a condition sine qua non in exchange for his participation in a coalition that included - gasp! - “leftists” and “Arabs”. Some of Israel’s smaller parties have become experts at maximizing gains in exchange for their support in government formation negotiations. Lapid, ever the pragmatist, gave way and took up the roles of foreign minister and alternate prime minister.
 

What is the outcome of the short-lived Bennett-Lapid affair?

The Bennett-Lapid government lasted a little over a year. That is an indisputably a short amount of time but it is longer than what some opponents predicted. The different parties, often at odds with each other, found a way to work together and carry out reforms. They may not have been able to fulfill all the promises contained in the coalition agreement, but they did make progress on important issues. The internal political climate has improved; the systematic attacks on the judiciary, Arabs and NGOs have ceased. Dialogue with Egypt and Jordan, two important partners neglected by Netanyahu, has been restored. Israeli leaders renewed contact with Mahmud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian National Authority, and sought to strengthen his position in the Palestinian political landscape. While Bennett himself refused to meet with the aging Palestinian leader, he allowed his ministers to act. The government has also restored the trust of President Joe Biden's administration, and passed a budget providing significant economic and crime-fighting assistance to the Arab population through a five-year plan jointly developed with the Ra'am party. Many Israelis additionally appreciated the government's handling of the Covid-19 crisis.

The driving force behind this tandem is the existence of a common enemy. There was a collective desire to come up with an alternative to Netanyahu, another way of doing things. Parties had to show the electorate that it was serious about governing, and that it was concerned with "people's real problems". Above all, none of them wanted the return of Netanyahu (the "Great Satan"). They were willing to make concessions and put their party's projects on hold to prevent his return. The nationalist right had to give up the idea of annexing all or part of the West Bank. The left, and in particular Meretz, swallowed some tough pills among which the "Citizenship Law" making it harder for a Palestinian living in the occupied territories or Gaza to become naturalized or obtain residency status in Israel if he or she where to marry an Arab citizen of Israel.

Paradoxically, Bennett's biggest challenge did not come from his rotation partner. Lapid and his closest allies remained loyal and did their utmost best to prevent the government's collapse. Instead, the blow came from the Yamina party, the prime minister's own party. Yamina's deputies were under immense pressure from the opposition, which accused them of "betrayal" for abandoning their nationalist and religious camp to join forces with "leftists" and Arabs who "support terrorism". 

Paradoxically, Bennett's biggest challenge did not come from his rotation partner. The blow came from the Yamina party, the prime minister's own party. 

The same deputies also saw their party's popularity dwindle in the polls and they gradually distanced themselves. The MK Idit Silman was the first to crack, resigning from the coalition and causing Bennett to lose his Knesset absolute majority. Next, MK Meir Orbach further weakened the coalition by pulling out after making his ideological differences with the prime minister known. Moreover, Arab MK Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi of the Meretz party submitted her resignation from the coalition on May 19, 2022 following the police brutality on Temple Mount at the then funeral of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was shot in the head during clashes between Palestinian activists and Israeli security forces in Jenin. While Zoabi withdrew her resignation several days later, her initial departure damaged the reputation of Nitzan Horowitz, the Meretz' chairman. He is blamed for having bet on an unpredictable Arab member of parliament who is mostly unknown from the Israeli political class.

Bennett, deprived of his absolute majority, decided on his own to scuttle his government and call for new elections. He justified his decision by the government’s inability to pass the "Settlers' Law", legal provisions applying to settlers that are passed every five years. But the real reasons lie elsewhere. One year in, he had already lost one of his major bets: to attract voters on the religious and secular right. Without the ability to pass laws, and anticipating the setback his party would suffer in the event of new elections, he preferred to withdraw the least dishonorable way possible.

He first informed Yair Lapid and then - only fifteen minutes before the public announcement - his party's number two, MK Ayelet Shaked, who was caught off guard with a fait accompli during an official visit to Morocco. While very committed to his job as head of government, Bennett had neglected the issue of cohesion within Yamina, which had become the Achilles' heel of the coalition. Under the agreement in place and pending new elections set to be held on November 1, 2022, Lapid (finally) became prime minister. Bennett, for his part, succeeded Lapid as alternate prime minister, and implied that he would support the head of government but would not stand for re-election.

Conclusion

While the Bennett-Lapid government's track record is far from trivial, the political gains that the various parties had hoped for have not come to pass. In trying to safeguard the government's stability at all costs, some parties ended up disappointing their electorate. This is clear in recent opinion polls: voters expected less "backtracking" and more progress on the issues they care about.

It is difficult to draw definitive conclusions about the merits of "rotational governments" based on the Israeli experience. After all, Israel has only had one successful experience with rotation, exemplified by the Peres-Shamir duo in the 1980s. All other attempts were short-lived, and Benjamin Netanyahu's political maneuvering has only increased distrust of this system of government. However, rotation will continue to exist as a last resort in an electoral system that is not conducive to political stability and for which reform seems more important than ever.

 

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