Failed experiment isn't with Arabs, its PM without legitimacy - opinion

When the prime minister lacks legitimacy, the foundation upon which that government rests starts to fray.

 All alone and likely on his way out. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in the Knesset this week. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
All alone and likely on his way out. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in the Knesset this week.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

On June 6, in a blow to Naftali Bennett’s coalition, the Knesset failed to pass an important and divisive West Bank bill, a failure that seems to be leading in one direction: the collapse of the current so-called “Change Government.”

During that late-night Monday vote, it appeared as if an altercation was about to break out in the plenum when Yamina MK Nir Orbach jumped out of his seat, walked over to Ra’am MK Mazen Ghanaim – the coalition member who seconds earlier had voted against the bill – and yelled: “You don’t want to be partners. The experiment with you has failed.”

“You don’t want to be partners. The experiment with you has failed.”

Yamina MK Nir Orbach

Those who know Orbach were surprised. For a calm and mild-mannered individual, Orbach’s lurch from his seat was completely out of character. It didn’t take long to understand why. The whole thing, sources close to the MK revealed this week, had been orchestrated. So was what he yelled at Ghanaim – he had it written on his phone ahead of time.

As seen this week with his announcement that he will no longer vote with the coalition, Orbach that day wanted something right-wing to use as his excuse to break up the government. There is no better right-wing hill to die on than legislation that if not passed by the end of the month will lead to 500,000 Israelis living over the Green Line being turned into citizens without basic rights and protections.

There is also a problem with the use of the term “the experiment failed,” something Israelis have heard repeatedly these past few weeks as the coalition has been crumbling day by day. The experiment refers to the participation of an Arab party in the coalition, and the attempt to have Jews and Arabs – no matter their place on the political spectrum – sit together and jointly determine the fate of this country.

Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett, Minister of Foreign Affairs Yair Lapid and Minister of Defense Benny Gantz attend a plenum session in the assembly hall of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem on May 23, 2022. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett, Minister of Foreign Affairs Yair Lapid and Minister of Defense Benny Gantz attend a plenum session in the assembly hall of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem on May 23, 2022. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Lacking any other way to bring down the government and crown – once again – Benjamin Netanyahu, Orbach fell back on the longstanding fault line that has reigned in this country for 74 years: the division of Jews and Arabs.

But all that has changed.

The participation of Ra’am in the government is something that will not be reversed. Even Netanyahu, who openly attacks Mansour Abbas now, will call him tomorrow and give him whatever he wants to have Ra’am sit in his coalition.

This does not mean that the coalition with Ra’am was easy. It never was. Nevertheless, the coalition functioned, relatively, and stayed away from any extreme moves. Ra’am did not push a Palestinian agenda, but instead remained focused on the desperately needed domestic interests of its Israeli-Arab constituents.

There are lessons to be learned. One, for example, is that while having an Arab party in the coalition is important, it cannot – at least for now – make up the 61-core majority. That way, the Arab MKs won’t have to vote for legislation that goes against their agenda and undermines their credibility among Israeli-Arabs, and the Jewish MKs won’t have to vote for what goes against theirs.

Is that possible?

In the event of a new coalition, we will find out.

With that said, there is one failed experiment that does need to be highlighted: the decision to appoint as prime minister a politician with a severe legitimacy deficit.

Not to take away from the prime minister’s accomplishments. Bennett has run this government responsibly, and for the most part has worked in coordination with his ministers – unlike his predecessor – while knowing how to share the credit, instead of hogging it for himself.

Do his ministers work well? Yes. Did his government pass a budget, after Netanyahu refused to for three years? Yes. Has he initiated a new policy vis a vis the fight against Iran that seems to be bearing fruit? Also true. And has he managed to do all this without fighting with the Biden administration? Yes.

Nevertheless, he is currently a prime minister with only four seats in his party. “It’s funny to recall that there was a point that we thought seven seats was a lot,” one senior member of the coalition joked recently when speaking about Bennett and the number of seats he won in the election, and before three members of his party jumped ship.

Running a coalition in a democracy as boisterous as Israel is always going to be complicated. Doing so with just a handful of seats goes against tradition, according to which the largest party (or at least one that is close to it) is the party whose leader becomes Israel’s prime minister.

Even worse, Bennett lacks public support – and that is a fundamental problem. While it is completely legal, the question is whether it is right. A prime minister cannot remain in office without legitimacy and a large public following. He or she needs to have a wide swath of support from the people. Otherwise, not only will that prime minister suffer from a legitimacy deficit, but the government that he or she runs will suffer as well, and will eventually fall apart.

Ultimately, when the prime minister lacks legitimacy, the public lacks trust in that government, and the foundation upon which that government rests starts to fray. That is exactly what has been happening in recent months.

Can Bennett regain the legitimacy? Probably not, but it makes no difference, as nothing can seemingly stop this government from heading toward collapse. The only questions that remain are: when will it fall apart (possibly by the end of the month), and who will be prime minister when that happens (possibly Yair Lapid)?

Bennett’s options are not great. If he is not prime minister, some of his close associates are envisioning a scenario in which he will resign from politics – leave as a prime minister and sit on the sidelines, either to never return or to begin planning his return.

Another option would be to run at the head of Yamina. Will Ayelet Shaked stay with him? Not certain. If Shaked jumps ship he can probably forget about crossing the threshold on his own, but even if she stays with him that remains questionable.

What is important to keep in mind is that Bennett and the polls have never been in synch: ahead of every election, he has polled far better than he ended up doing in the actual vote. That’s because the polls were always taken before Netanyahu began his successful tactic of pulling Bennett voters away just days before the election.

In the next election, Bennett is unlikely to even try to go after Likud voters, like he always did, but instead will vie for voters in a crowded field. His potential supporters come from the same place as Yesh Atid voters, Blue and White voters and New Hope voters. Will everyone stand by and let Bennett steal votes? No.

That leaves a third option: that he merges with another party. The most likely is New Hope, led by Justice Gideon Sa’ar, which is also just barely crossing the threshold in current polls.

While merging might sound appealing, it’s not so simple. Bennett and Sa’ar aren’t exactly a love story – they don’t like each other, and don’t really get along. In a blatant sign of what he thinks about the prime minister, Sa’ar calls Bennett in cabinet meetings by his first name. Not “Mr. Prime Minister” or “Sir.” Naftali. Just like that.

The “Change Coalition” – as the Bennett-Lapid government is called – has already started its campaign ahead of the upcoming election. The face of it will be of one person: Itamar Ben-Gvir, the former Kach activist turned MK who will likely be able to demand and receive a senior ministerial appointment in a future Likud-led government.

Warning Israeli voters of the danger of appointing Ben-Gvir to the Public Security Ministry, for example, will not necessarily move voters from the Right to the Center-Left, but it might have an alternative impact: help rally the Center-Left and ensure high-voting numbers in places where large pockets of Yesh Atid voters can be found.

Tel Aviv is a good example. It has seen a steady decline in voting over the last seven years. In 2015, for example, nearly 80% of eligible voters cast a ballot. The election then was seen as existential, a feeling that Netanyahu might lose to the Labor Party, which was led by current president Isaac Herzog. By 2021, though, the percentage of voters dropped to 72%.

Can Ben-Gvir as the face of the campaign rally the voters and get them to come out in bigger numbers? That will be the strategy for Yesh Atid, and probably some of the other centrist parties. They know they cannot get Likudniks to cross partisan lines, but what they can potentially do is have a bigger turnout – and that might just be enough to deny Netanyahu the ability to form a coalition.