Israel’s political plague petered out in 2021

If 2021 will be remembered as the year the political plague Israel was enduring finally petered out, perhaps the same will happen to the coronavirus in 2022. 

 A moving truck stops at the prime minister's official Balfour Street residence, supposedly to transport the Netanyahu's family's belongings (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
A moving truck stops at the prime minister's official Balfour Street residence, supposedly to transport the Netanyahu's family's belongings
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

When 2021 began, Israel was suffering from two viruses with no clear remedy in sight.

There was the coronavirus, which is raging again as the year concludes, and the political virus.

Israel had been plagued by three elections, with another set for March, and no guarantee there would not be three more.

At the conclusion of 2021, there are no elections in sight. There is a government, and though it is very limited due to the coalition’s razor-thin majority, it is relatively stable.

Those who thought Prime Minister Naftali Bennett would be overthrown immediately and leave politics were wrong.

Those who thought former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu would decide on his own to leave politics were wrong.

Those who thought that Bennett and Netanyahu would stay and fight constantly got it absolutely right.

It took a long time for Netanyahu to even call Bennett the prime minister. He usually just calls him “Bennett,” which he says in an undertone while snarling. Bennett makes a point of calling him “Member of Knesset Netanyahu,” “my predecessor” or just “Bibi,” but he has clearly never left his former boss’s shadow.

Their meeting to hand over the Prime Minister’s Office took less than half an hour. The law requiring the prime minister to brief the opposition leader once a month is being violated, because Netanyahu has not requested such a meeting.

But at least the transfer of power happened peacefully. It was nothing like what happened in the changeover between US presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden.

When an angry mob of protesters supporting Trump stormed the US Capitol Building in a demonstration that went way out of control, Knesset members seriously suggested that such events that were previously unimaginable in Washington could happen in Jerusalem. The satire show Eretz Nehederet even depicted the Netanyahu family blowing themselves up in their residence on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street rather than giving it back.

But when Bennett was sworn in, Netanyahu shook his hand and gave him his seat at the head of the cabinet table in the Knesset plenum in an anticlimax that was the moment of the year in Israeli politics. Netanyahu arrived at the Knesset with a team of bodyguards as prime minister and left with just a couple guards as head of the opposition.

It took a while, but the Netanyahu family left Balfour in the middle of the night. The photographers missed it.

Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, and son Yair eventually gave up their state-funded chauffeur, car and bodyguards, and efforts to have the Likud pay for them have not panned out. The photograph that more than anything symbolized the change of power in Israel depicted Netanyahu at the airport in San Francisco with his suitcases like an ordinary person.

That relatively healthy transfer of power undermined some of those who have questioned whether Israel remains democratic. The faith of others in Israeli democracy weakened in 2021, due to the behavior of Bennett.

Bennett made promises during his campaign that he had no intention of keeping. He said he would not allow “leftist” Yair Lapid to become prime minister, he signed a document on live television ruling out a coalition with the Ra’am (United Arab List) Party, and he vowed to not vote for a coalition that relied on Labor MK Ibtisam Mara’ana-Menuhin, who wrote some anti-Israel Facebook posts in the past but has not been an outspoken member of Knesset in retrospect.

Throughout the campaign, Bennett said it would be antidemocratic for him to become prime minister if he headed a party that won only 10 seats. Likud MKs called breaking that promise the worst violation of a campaign promise since Ariel Sharon came to power on the basis of his vow to not withdraw from the Gaza Strip.

His Yamina Party, whose name means rightward, went in the opposite direction in forming a coalition with Labor, Meretz, and the first-ever coalition agreement signed upon the formation of a government with a non-Zionist, Islamist Arab party in Ra’am. Bennett’s repeated promises to strengthen unauthorized outposts in Judea and Samaria and dismantle the Khan al-Ahmar enclave have also been left unheeded.

During the IDF’s Operation Guardian of the Walls in the Gaza Strip, Bennett stopped negotiating with Lapid and persuaded the Hebrew press that there was no longer any chance of forming a “government of change.”

But when Bennett was saying that, Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas was not saying that at all. Unexpectedly, instead of expressing support for Hamas like other Arab MKs, he went to a synagogue in Lod that had been vandalized by an Arab mob and – alongside the Likud mayor of the city – vowed to rebuild the synagogue.

That historic ability to compromise of Abbas is what enabled the government to be formed. Even the night the coalition agreements were signed ahead of a midnight deadline, Bennett thought Abbas would issue an outrageous, last-minute demand that would prevent the government’s formation.

But it didn’t happen, and Abbas has continued to surprise Bennett and everyone else, most recently by declaring that “The State of Israel was born as a Jewish state, and it will remain one.” Abbas has undoubtedly proven himself the most revolutionary figure in Israeli politics, and the billions for infrastructure projects and crime fighting that he promised his Israeli-Arab constituents he delivered when the state budget was passed into law last month.

Passing a budget for the first time since March 15, 2018, in a 5:30 a.m. vote after a marathon filibuster, ensured the government’s survival. But another budget will have to be passed in 2022 for 2023, and that is far from guaranteed.

Abbas himself has crossed the Rubicon, but other MKs in his faction continue to give the coalition headaches and cannot be counted on in the future.

 Ra'am leader Mansour Abbas and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid visit a high school in the Neve Midbar Regional Council, October 21 (credit: FLASH90) Ra'am leader Mansour Abbas and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid visit a high school in the Neve Midbar Regional Council, October 21 (credit: FLASH90)

WE KNOW that 2023 will be an election year. No, not necessarily for Knesset.

Elections will be held for mayors of cities and regional councils across the country. One of the most fateful races will be held in Sakhnin, in which Ra’am MK Mazen Ghanaim will be running for his old job of mayor.

Ahead of that race, he will try to prove his loyalty to traditional policies of his constituency, which could make him rebel against the coalition and even bring it down. If Ghanaim wins, the next candidate on the Ra’am list, who would enter the Knesset, is Ala Aladin Jabareen, an open supporter of Hamas, who would not back the government and would leave the coalition without a majority.

Ghanaim already angered the heads of the government by meeting with the head of the outlawed Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, Sheikh Raed Salah, who recently completed a prison term for inciting terrorism.

Bennett was also upset by cabinet ministers meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, including Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz and Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Frej. Likud MK Amir Ohana said those meetings led to the recent rise in terrorist attacks, because Hamas felt compelled to act after Abbas was strengthened.

Ohana has been one of the Likud ministers who has had to adjust to being a regular MK again after so many years in power. Some former Likud ministers have struggled to find themselves after their demotion, and have been among the MKs with the lowest attendance rates in the plenum.

Netanyahu has tried to reinvigorate the opposition, with mixed results. The bills that have proven the easiest for the opposition to pass are those proposed by the Joint List, in a marriage even stranger than the “hodge-podge” that Bennett calls his coalition.

There is no doubt, when looking back at 2021, that Bennett, Lapid and Mansour Abbas were the big winners in Israeli politics.

The obvious losers included Netanyahu, the haredim and those who tried to form parties and failed, including Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, former ministers Moshe Ya’alon and Avi Nissenkorn, and former MK Ofer Shelah.

But in politics, sometimes just surviving is an accomplishment, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz still being around after many political eulogies makes him a winner.

There are also some 25 ministers and MKs who have had COVID-19 and lived to tell about it, with Likud MK David Bitan coming closest to losing the fight against the virus.

If 2021 will be remembered as the year the political plague Israel was enduring finally petered out, perhaps the same will happen to the coronavirus in 2022.