Three weeks ago, Benjamin Netanyahu’s very diverse enemies seemed on the point of putting together a coalition with the numbers to oust him. Like other embattled leaders before him, he started a war in the hope of disrupting that process – figuring, not unreasonably, that an alliance that stretched from far-right Zionists through to Palestinian Arabs would be unable to hold up under the stress.
But it seems not to have worked. Centrist leader Yair Lapid has until Wednesday to show that he can command a majority, and overnight the key piece of his jigsaw, Naftali Bennett of the far-right Yamina party, announced that he would support the effort. The plan is that Bennett will initially serve as prime minister but yield the position to Lapid in 2023.
Bennett justified his decision, according to the BBC, with the remark that “Mr Netanyahu is no longer trying to form a right-wing government because he knows full well that there isn’t one.” But in one sense that’s not true: there is a clear parliamentary majority for a far-right government, if only its various components would work together.
The primary reason that they won’t is Netanyahu himself. His overriding priority is to frustrate the criminal proceedings against him for bribery and corruption, and rival right-wing leaders such as Bennett and Gideon Sa’ar of New Hope have decided they are not willing to go any further to protect him. Better to collaborate in a government of national unity that will finally usher him from the scene.
So what Bennett really means is that there is no non-crooked option for a right-wing government. But the far right is always crooked; that is its most universal distinguishing feature. As AJP Taylor pointed out many years ago, “There is no example on record of an honest Fascist leader.”
Netanyahu, of course, has been in trouble before. It is always dangerous to write him off. And if the non-Zionist Joint List with its six seats stands aloof, the new government will have only 61 seats in the 120-seat parliament; its margin for error is very small. There is still time for things to go wrong before Wednesday’s deadline.
And a Bennett-Lapid government, if it happens, will not be a progressive force. Many of its key personnel will come from the hard right, and its capacity for movement on the key issues that Israel faces will be limited in the extreme. It will be, in fact, pretty much what it claims to be: a broad front in which “everyone will have to postpone the realization of some of their dreams.”
But the critical thing is that it will be a government without Netanyahu. Some argue that personality change of its own is meaningless without policy change, but sometimes personalities have to change first before even the possibility of policy change can become apparent. While the prime minister’s departure is not a sufficient condition for Israel to start getting out of its current predicament, it is surely a necessary one.