From King to Kingmaker?
Head of Israel's right-wing Yamina party Naftali Bennett addresses lawmakers during a special session to vote on a new government at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on June 13, 2021. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images)

From King to Kingmaker?

Israel’s Bennett ends a year in office as political deadlock once again looms

When Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was sworn into office in June 2021, there was hope that Israel was finally emerging from a lengthy political crisis. After four national elections in less than two years and a polarized society characterized by a bitter and often virulent discourse, Israelis needed a break from the nasty politics.

A year ago, many thought the new government would quickly collapse.

“Against all odds, it was a year in which normalcy returned to Israeli society and the political system,” said Eran Vigoda-Gadot, a professor of public administration at the University of Haifa. “It was clear, however, that it wouldn’t complete its [four-year] term.”

Almost a year to the day after he entered office, a solemn Bennett on Monday announced his decision to dissolve the Knesset. He has not yet said whether he will run in the upcoming election. Yet his role on the political scene may be far from over.

On Wednesday, the Knesset passed in a preliminary vote, 110-0, the bill to dissolve itself and pave the way for Israel’s fifth election within three and a half volatile years. It is expected to become law next week.

A look back at a year of the Bennett government shows success alongside failures and unfulfilled promise.

He entered office after over 12 years in which Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu ran the government, as the country was slowly emerging from the COVID-19 crisis and in the immediate aftermath of May 2021’s bloody war with Hamas in Gaza.

Perhaps the greatest success, other than its yearlong survival, was the approval of a state budget. This came after three years in which the country functioned without one due to the political paralysis.

“This was very important, as were the appointments of senior justice officials and other senior appointments,” said Dr. Emmanuel Navon, an expert on international relations at Tel Aviv University. “The government also began critical reforms in agriculture, education, and the economy. There were many things that had not been done in years.”

Now, things have come to a halt. With, according to the polls, the political map largely unchanged, it is difficult to see how continued progress will be made. In fact, Israel may be entering another endless loop of back-to-back elections.

As he pronounced the death of the coalition, Bennett listed what he saw as his achievements during his 12 months in power. Israel battled two major waves of the coronavirus without imposing lockdowns. Violence along the Gaza border subsided and an unprecedented massive budget for Israel’s large Arab sector was approved.

The coalition was the first to have an independent Arab party (Ra’am) in it, causing many to refer to the government as a political experiment. Bennett had his hands full with challenges, leading a diverse group of eight parties ranging from the extreme left to his own ultra-nationalist Yamina party. With a razor-thin majority that quickly turned into a parliamentary minority, it was an uphill battle destined to fail.

Perhaps his greatest defeat was his failure to maintain such a heterogeneous coalition.

“Bennett chose the wrong people. He did not have people around him who provided solid backing, people whom he could trust,” said Navon. “With such a slim majority to begin with, he needed disciplined partners which he did not have.”

One of Bennett’s own party members never voted in favor of the coalition from the get-go. As two additional Yamina lawmakers eventually joined Member of Knesset Amichai Chikli, Bennett struggled to rein in his own party.

When Bennett spoke to the Knesset at the inauguration of the government, he said the coalition would be putting aside contentious issues. It was an attempt to avoid rocking the boat, aiming to guarantee the stability of the unlikely partnership. Reality kept testing him and the government.

In recent months, Israel has faced an upsurge in terrorist attacks perpetrated both by Palestinians and by Arab-Israeli citizens. This was the challenge many thought a government with Arab participation could not withstand.

“A door was opened; it was an example of how cooperation is possible,” said Vigoda-Gadot, “This was a success that changed the discourse in the country and opened the option for non-Zionist citizens to sit in the government.”

Navon said, “This is very interesting progress and a positive precedent that broke a taboo. Instead of polarization, we saw the option for cooperation on certain issues for the benefit of both Arabs and Jews.”

Ultimately it was not Arab-Jewish strife that led Bennett to conclude the coalition had reached its end. It was the impossible political constellation with immense pressure from the right-wing opposition that rendered the tasks at hand an insurmountable challenge.

“The government did not fall due to the recent security tensions,” Vigoda-Gadot said. “Rather because of politicians who saw nothing but their own personal interests.”

The glue that brought the government together, namely keeping Netanyahu away from the helm, was not enough for some of the coalition members, especially those with affiliation to the former premier’s bloc.

During the year and a week in which Bennett was in power, there was also a marked change in Israel’s international relations. Bennett and Foreign Minister Lapid repaired bipartisan ties with the US.

After years of tensions with Jordan and Egypt, there was an open dialogue with leaders from both countries. Ties with Gulf nations, which began during the Netanyahu era, deepened.

On the Iranian nuclear program, Bennett said he “made sure Israel’s interests were guaranteed” through dialogue with the US.

The US decision to not remove the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps from its terror group list was seen by some, including Bennett, as the result of Israeli pressure on the matter.

“The Biden Administration was much more inclined to work with Bennett than with Netanyahu,” said Navon. “Clearly the good relations with Bennett allowed for more agreements on the Iranian issue and this is one of his achievements.”

Once again, the political fate of Israel will be decided by very slight changes that could tip the balance post-election. This is where Bennett, however politically battered he may be, could be critical.

“The arena is very turbulent and a lot of things could happen. A few thousand votes could lead to a major change,” Vigoda-Gadot told The Media Line.

As the Knesset pressed forward Wednesday with the legislation that will enable a snap election, the 50-year-old Bennett was business as usual. Several polls show his party barely crossing the 3.25% vote threshold needed to enter the Knesset.

“Bennett has many years ahead of him; he might take time off from politics, which would be the end of his political party,” said Vigoda-Gadot. “If he runs and gets a small number of mandates, he could still play a decisive role as a kingmaker.”

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