Israel's Bennett-Lapid Government is a Victory for Democracy
The new and most ideologically diverse government in the history of Israel does not raise high expectations. It seems neither Left nor Right expect paradise from a coalition built on so much compromise. Yet to the polarized political climate of recent years, this is revolutionary. Only a month ago Israel faced one of the worst eruptions of communal violence in years.
Opposition leaders criticized former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s alliance with ultra-nationalist religious Zionists and their incitement in Jerusalem. Amotz Asa-El summed it up in The Jerusalem Post: “Netanyahu is eating what he cooked.”
Ever since Yair Lapid announced that he is able to form his broad coalition government with Naftali Bennett, aggressive death threats were leveled at Bennett and other right-wing supporters of the new coalition, leading Shin Bet director Nadav Argaman to issue an unprecedented warning that the current atmosphere of incitement could lead to tragic bloodshed in Israel.
He spoke in the tradition of Aristotle, who wrote in his Nicomachean Ethics: “For when people do not keep watch over the commons, it is destroyed. It results, then, that they fall into civil faction, compelling one another by force and not wishing to do what is just themselves.”
In contrast to the experience of polarized sectarian incitement of violence, the formation of the new government itself looks like a miracle. Like the former enemies that formed the European Union as a complex and difficult venture for peace on the continent, former rivals are sitting now in one complex and difficult government for some calm in their own country.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett showed stamina resisting attacks over the last week from the Right and parts of his former voter base. His ability to govern such a diverse coalition will be most evident only in the second act. For the first act, we should not underestimate the impact of the work of two politicians. Netanyahu pushed this coalition by creating the atmosphere for a united front – from Left to Right – united against Netanyahu. Then Lapid pulled together this diverse coalition, making his own ambition to become prime minister a second priority.
In recent years, Netanyahu has increasingly mobilized his base by warning of a perceived powerful “other” as a threat he could protect them from. He regularly warned of an amorphous elite, a dangerous left-wing, biased media and Arab voters “heading to the polling stations in droves.” When the numbers of his potential coalition partners did not add up anymore in the last election, he was quick to become the first right-wing politician to openly campaign to Arab voters.
ONLY SIX years after warning of “droves,” he took the revolutionary step of recognizing, for the first time in the history of the Israeli right-wing, an Arab party as a potential coalition partner. With the votes of the moderate Islamist Ra’am party now kosher, he hoped to be able to form a government against the “left-wing” other. His still-labeled left-wing opposition had already been filled with right-wing parties, all headed by his formerly closest associates from the Likud. Netanyahu’s firm grip on power within the Likud had let Avigdor Liberman, Bennett and Gideon Sa’ar start a second career in other right-wing parties, which in 2021 together gained just a few seats short of the Likud in the Knesset.
Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu and Sa’ar’s New Hope united with liberal-centrist former coalition partners of Netanyahu, Yesh Atid under Lapid and Blue and White under Benny Gantz along with the left-wing parties: Labor under Merav Michaeli, Meretz under Nitzan Horowitz and also the Joint List under Ayman Odeh to oust Netanyahu.
The diplomatic diligence of Lapid helped to create trust among ideological enemies. Before the election, Lapid had already used his political experience and capital to hold conversations with all of today’s coalition partners. After the election he had promised “to give birth to a sane government,” but more importantly, create a unifying platform for conversations across ideological lines. Bennett formally joined this coalition only after Lapid had formed it, after Netanyahu had failed to form a coalition and after Lapid stepped back in order to hand over the premiership for the first two years to Bennett.
Polarizing within a perceived Left-Right divide, Netanyahu was quick to accuse Bennett of the “fraud of the century” to hand power to a “dangerous left-wing government.” Lapid offered Bennett a power-sharing agreement to the benefit of the smaller group of right-wing parties, and the premiership. Netanyahu and his partners on the other side forged Yamina with the fire of intrigues, threats and insults into an ever-growing opposition to the outgoing prime minister.
Without Lapid’s pull and Netanyahu’s push, Bennett would not have become prime minister. Without the perceived cynicism of Netanyahu’s polarization, Lapid would not have been able to find willing partners on the Left, Center and Right to unify under one complicated coalition. Lapid now did his deed to rescue Israel’s democracy for the moment. He initiated a time – we don’t know yet for how long – of healing for a divided country.
John Locke wrote: “Wherever, therefore, any number of men so unite into one society, as to quit everyone his executive power of the law of Nature, and to resign it to the public, there, and there only, is a political or civil society.” We can only hope that the sectarian aggression Argaman warned of will not end this moment. Then, we can hope that a spirit of cooperation across ideological barriers can guide and even outlast the current government.