The Bennett-Lapid government’s Knesset swearing-in ceremony exactly one year ago was a harbinger of things to come. That Knesset session was a circus.
As incoming Prime Minister Naftali Bennett strode to the lectern to give his maiden address, he was heckled mercilessly and called a “liar” and a “criminal.” And that was tame. The real “action” – the real taunting and jeering and disruptions – began when he started to speak.
The text of Bennett’s speech included gracious words of conciliation, but it took him 45 minutes to deliver those words – which could have been done in a quarter of the time – because of the nonstop heckling from MKs just about to join the opposition.
They were indignant that a man who won but seven seats in the last elections, and someone who went back on several key campaign promises, would be the head of a government of eight parties spanning the hard Left to the hard Right, including – for the first time – an Arab Islamist party as well.
That opening spectacle should have disabused anyone of the notion that the formation of a government without Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister, the first such government in more than 12 years, would somehow herald a softer, gentler period in Israeli political history.
The government of change, as this government initially called itself, promised stability and an end to the endless government infighting the country had become accustomed to under Netanyahu. It delivered – for about six months. During that time, it showed that after more than 12 years of Netanyahu’s reign, the country could carry on well without him at the helm – diplomatically, economically and in dealing with the coronavirus.
Doomsday scenarios about what would happen were Netanyahu not leading the land proved ridiculous. Hamas and Hezbollah were not suddenly emboldened and empowered; Iran did not race across the nuclear threshold nor succeed in setting up a beachhead against Israel in Syria; COVID vaccines did not abruptly dry up; the economy did not collapse, and Israel’s standing in the international community did not fall through the floor.
And for the first few months, there was far less cacophony and less political drama.\
Things begin to fall apart
But then things began to fray in February, and the coalition started to lose sight of what it was set up to do: provide a stable government that could lead the country for more than a year through a pandemic, trying economic times, deep domestic divisions and tremendous security challenges.
The commitment that the heads of the coalition parties made to each other and to the country – to look at the bigger picture of what was good for the country and be willing to set aside ideological issues for another day – wore thin.
Suddenly the various factions – beginning with Ra’am, and then including Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party, Yamina and Meretz – prioritized what was good for their constituencies, rather than what was good for the collective good.
Ra’am first started boycotting Knesset votes over tax breaks for Bedouin communities in the Negev, and Blue and White did the same over pensions for career IDF officers. Yamina’s Ayelet Shaked threatened a crisis over passing the citizenship bill, and Meretz threatened one if the government legalized the Evyatar settlement.
A pattern was set, and the situation went steadily downhill from there.
Bennett and Foreign Minister and Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid might have artfully cobbled together a unique government that for the first time included an Arab party interested in greater integration into Israeli society. The heads of the eight parties in the coalition – not blind to their ideological differences – might have said that they would prove that it is possible to work together with people who think differently. The government might have promised to deal less with itself, and more with the business of governing the country. But these were all noble ideals that have proven excruciatingly difficult to implement.
Is the country any less divided now than it was a year ago? Hardly.
An Israel Democracy Institute poll published last week found that 48% of those who voted for the eight parties in the coalition, and 72% of those who voted for the opposition parties, believe the tensions between different groups in the country are worse now than they were a year ago.
The same strident tones are being sounded now, as was the case then. The same ugly epithets are being slung now, as then. It’s just that this time the targets of the epithets like “scoundrel,” “criminal,” “liar” and “thief” were not Netanyahu and his family, but rather Bennett and his.
Lapid and Bennett might have aspired to want to heal a divided nation, but words and aspirations are not enough. The nation must want to heal, and this is something that has proved wanting.
Today, a year after the formation of the government, the country is no more united, the rhetoric no less caustic and the political discourse no less toxic than it was at the swearing-in ceremony. All that has changed are the sides in power. If back then it was the anti-Netanyahu forces who were propelled by a belief that everything was legitimate in trying to dethrone a leader they did not feel was legitimately in power, today it is the anti-Bennett forces who are doing the same.
Bennett, in that speech to the Knesset a year ago, said the “ongoing rift in the nation” continued to “rip apart the seams that hold us together and has thrown us – one election after another – into a maelstrom of hatred and infighting. Such quarrels between the people who are supposed to be running the country led to paralysis. One who quarrels, cannot function.”
These words ring as true now as they did a year ago. The political hatred and infighting have not let up, and “quarrels between people who are supposed to be running the country” continue to lead to paralysis.
"The ongoing rift in the nation continues to rip apart the seams that hold us together, and has thrown us – one election after another."Prime Minister Naftali Bennett
“The government that will be formed,” Bennett said then, “represents many of Israel’s citizens: from Ofra to Tel Aviv, from Rahat to Kiryat Shmona. Precisely here lies the opportunity. Our principle is, we will sit together and we will forge forward on that which we agree – and there is much we agree on, transportation, education and so on, and what separates us we will leave to the side.”
Sadly, that has proven too much to ask.