Biden's Israel welcoming committee: Bennett, Lapid or Netanyahu? - analysis

POLITICAL AFFAIRS: Different scenarios could see Bennett, Lapid or Netanyahu greet US President Biden when he arrives in Jerusalem.

 WHO WILL greet Biden? Naftali Bennett, Yair Lapid or Benjamin Netanyahu? (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
WHO WILL greet Biden? Naftali Bennett, Yair Lapid or Benjamin Netanyahu?

The White House announced this week that US President Joe Biden will make his first Mideast trip as president next month, arriving in Israel on July 13 for two days.

As well-choreographed as all presidential trips are, there are always certain imponderables, certain unknowns, that even the most careful planner cannot take into account, but which could alter the tenor and tone of any visit.

Rockets from Gaza, for one. Surprise announcements of settlement construction plans, for another.

Generally, however, when US administration officials plan a presidential visit to Israel, they know at the very least one thing for sure: who will be the president’s main interlocutor in Israel, who will be Israel’s prime minister when he arrives.

Not this time.

 WHO WILL greet Biden? Naftali Bennett, Yair Lapid or Benjamin Netanyahu? (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) WHO WILL greet Biden? Naftali Bennett, Yair Lapid or Benjamin Netanyahu? (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Come hell or high water

Biden has made clear that he is determined to come now despite Israel’s ongoing political instability – largely because the primary purpose of his Mideast visit has to do with trying to mend ties with Saudi Arabia, where he will fly directly from Israel.

Who will greet Biden on the red carpet at Ben-Gurion Airport? Will it be current Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid, or perhaps former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu?

Each one of those scenarios is a possibility. Talk about a headache for those planning the president’s trip.

Bennett meets Biden

PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett will be Biden’s prime interlocutor if the government stays afloat until then – something looking less and less likely as each day passes.

Bennett will also be Biden’s host if the renegade Meretz and Ra’am (United Arab List) MKs Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi or Mazen Ghanaim are responsible for the government’s collapse, in which case Bennett will stay on as transitional prime minister through the next elections and until another government is formed. This could see him in that position well into January.

The reason for this is that under the coalition agreement and ensuing legislation, if Ra’am or the center or left-wing parties in the coalition vote to dissolve the Knesset, Bennett will remain prime minister until a new government is sworn in.

If, however, it is not a center or left-wing MK, but rather an MK from the right wing of the coalition, someone like Yamina MK Nir Orbach, who casts the deciding vote to dissolve the Knesset, then it will be Yair Lapid who will take over immediately until a new government is established.

Though at first glance this may not seem that significant, because when one generally hears the term “transitional” one thinks of a relatively short period of time, if recent Israeli political history is any indication, a transitional prime minister could serve for months and even for more than a year.

Lapid meets Biden

If, as is currently being discussed, the Likud brings a bill to dissolve the Knesset to a vote on Wednesday, and Orbach votes for it, thereby ensuring its passage, new elections could be held as early as October 25, during which time Lapid would be prime minister.

He would also remain prime minister after the elections until a new government is formed. If the maximum time is required for a new government to be formed, that would add another three months, until January 25. And if there would still be no government by then, and new elections would be called yet again, then this could conceivably keep Lapid in the prime ministerial chair until next year at about this time.

Far-fetched? Sure. But consider the following.

Israel entered its current period of Italian-like political instability on December 26, 2018, when Avigdor Liberman brought down the country’s 20th Knesset. At that point, sitting prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu became a transitional prime minister. But this transitional period lasted for a walloping 508 days, through two inconclusive elections in 2019, until the Netanyahu-Benny Gantz rotation government was finally sworn in on May 17, 2020.

The Netanyahu-Gantz government lasted until December 23, 2020, when it fell, and Netanyahu again became a transitional head of a government until the Bennett-Lapid government was formed and finally sworn in a year ago, June 13, 2021. That means that Netanyahu logged another 172 days as a transitional prime minister.

All told, Netanyahu, since the end of 2018, served as a transitional prime minister for 680 days. That is far more time than Bennett has served as prime minister so far (369 days), and also more time than Ehud Barak spent in office (601 days) or even more time than Moshe Sharett served (646 days) from 1954 to 1955.

In other words, the question of which side of the current coalition is responsible for bringing down the government has far-reaching ramifications, since in 21st-century Israel a transition government can spend a long time in office, even longer than prime ministers voted into office and able to form a government.

And then there is the third scenario: Biden gets off the plane and is met by Netanyahu, a man he once said he “loved,” though he didn’t agree with a “damn thing” he said.

Netanyahu meets Biden

How could this scenario – the Biden administration’s least favorite scenario – come about? By a majority of 61 Knesset members voting – instead of to dissolve the Knesset – for what is called a constructive vote of no-confidence, whereby they agree that someone else (Netanyahu) should replace Bennett. In that scenario, a new prime minister is selected without the need for new Knesset elections.

Yamina’s Orbach has said that this is currently his preferred option, though currently the Right is still a few seats shy of the 61 votes needed. Presently, Netanyahu can count on the Likud’s 30 seats, Shas’s nine seats, United Torah Judaism’s seven, the Religious Zionist Party’s six, and the vote of Yamina renegade MKs Amichai Chikli, Idit Silman and now – apparently – Orbach. That would bring the number up to 55, still six short of the magic 61.

Where could the other six votes possibly come from? Another two in Yamina: Ayelet Shaked, who would have to quit as interior minister and regain the Knesset seat she gave up under the Norwegian Law, and mercurial MK Abir Kara.

That brings the total to 57, still four short.

Some have speculated about Defense Minister Benny Gantz and his Blue and White Party, but this – at least at first – seems highly unlikely given the bitter experience Gantz had with Netanyahu during the last government. This is why much of the focus this week has been on New Hope’s Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar.

Sa’ar triggered the latest coalition crisis by bringing to the Knesset last week a vote on extending the directive to apply Israeli law to Israelis living beyond the Green Line, a vote that exposed the coalition’s deep fault lines. This week he denied repeatedly that he was negotiating a return to the Likud.

“There are no negotiations with the Likud,” he said Sunday before the weekly cabinet meeting. “You can drop the subject. I hear the news, and every morning there’s some new spin. I am not going back into the Likud.”

Ah, but that left open speculation that while he might not rejoin the Likud, the party he left before the last elections, that does not exclude the possibility that he might, together with the Likud, coronate Netanyahu.

The next day he put those rumors to rest as well, saying in an interview with KAN Reshet Bet: “We will not bring back Bibi. Israel needs to march forward, not go backward.”

But still... a Channel 12 poll this week showed that Sa’ar’s New Hope Party would fail to pass the 3.25% electoral threshold and win any seats in the next election. And that poll is not an anomaly. A similar Channel 11 poll last week showed similar results.

This is why some take Sa’ar’s denials of negotiations with the Likud and his promises of not bringing Netanyahu back to power with a “minister doth protest too much” grain of salt. So what if he said he won’t enable Netanyahu’s comeback? Bennett, the day before the last election, signed a declaration saying he would not allow Lapid to be prime minister, including in a rotation agreement, and that he would not establish a government based on support from Ra’am.

So what if Bennett signed? So what if Sa’ar said?

Politics, the desire to stay in politics, the desire to remain with a grip on power, has an enormously strong pull and a dynamic all its own.

WHERE THAT dynamic will lead in the next few weeks is still very much anyone’s guess, including those in the White House charged with planning Biden’s visit.

It can’t be easy planning those visits without knowing with any certainty who will be Israel’s head of government on the day the president arrives. Nevertheless, that is currently exactly where we are. •