Israeli PM Lapid's first challenge: Netanyahu, the unvanquished foe - opinion

At the center of the coalition needs to be a genuine leader, visionary and man of action. Can the leader be found and the coalition forged?

 MEMBERS OF the Bennett-Lapid cabinet pose for a photo with then-president Reuven Rivlin, after their inauguration, in June 2021. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
MEMBERS OF the Bennett-Lapid cabinet pose for a photo with then-president Reuven Rivlin, after their inauguration, in June 2021.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Yair Lapid has become Israel’s interim prime minister, one year after the coalition government broke Benjamin Netanyahu’s long hold on power. Lapid’s first challenge will be facing off the foe that his allies had thought they had vanquished, Netanyahu, who has vowed to return to power. It will not be easy.

The outgoing government was the most diverse in Israel’s history, drawn from eight parties from across the political spectrum, including those with ideologically opposing views. It also contained an independent Arab party for the first time since Israel was born, in 1948.

Israel has seen a record-setting cycle of elections since April 2019, as political parties, time and again, failed to gather enough seats to form a governing, majority coalition. This past year, the Lapid-Bennett-Gantz coalition temporarily broke the stalemate. Now, it is back to horse-trading days of 2020.

For the fifth time in four years, Israeli voters will be called back to the polls. The unprecedented coalition from the Left to the far Right held out for a year, and was able to vote on and pass a budget. These are real accomplishments, given the unstable coalition and paper-thin majority that kept it in power. Still, do not expect the coalition to easily return to power. None of the party coalitions will reach a majority, according to public-opinion surveys, if the elections were held today.

Israel is a parliamentary democracy with an electoral system of proportional representation. Thus, the smaller parties enjoy outsized power, as they can make and break governments while themselves holding a few number seats in the Knesset. Still, the system worked. This proportional representation system allowed a diverse society to be reflected in a diverse politics.

 Israeli foreign minister and Head of the Yesh Atid party Yair Lapid walks next to Head of opposition and head of the Likud party Benjamin Netanyahu at the assembly hall for a special session in memory of Israel's first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, on November 8, 2021.  (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90) Israeli foreign minister and Head of the Yesh Atid party Yair Lapid walks next to Head of opposition and head of the Likud party Benjamin Netanyahu at the assembly hall for a special session in memory of Israel's first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, on November 8, 2021. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

Meanwhile, Israel is on the crest of enormous historical opportunities. Thanks to the Abraham Accords, it can now enter into alliances with its Arab neighbors of national security, high technology, farming, science and many other fields. This opportunity must take precedence over the demands of tiny political precincts.

US President Joe Biden’s visit to the region is expected to reinforce the ongoing cooperation between Israel and the Arab States. All the doors to a safer, more prosperous future are now open, if Israel can gather the will to stand and walk through them.

Political instability

Political instability is holding Israel back in two ways: First, Israel’s new partners need people they can work with over a period of years, not weeks. Every time Israel reshuffles its leaders, the new officials want to stop and study the situation, while Arab leaders will be hoping that Israel sticks to an agreed timetable. Is it wise to change pilots in mid-flight?

Above all, this instability serves the interests of Iranian regime. By dispersing its nuclear facilities, and strengthening allied paramilitary groups in Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria and the Gaza Strip, the Iranian regime has become a dangerous player in the Middle East, repeatedly challenging the interests of the US, Israel and the Gulf States.

The political instability in Israel can undermine the ability of Israel’s Arab neighbors to work alongside the Jewish state. The signatory countries of the Abraham Accords will be the first to be embarrassed if this instability continues and if the far-right ends up in a governing coalition. Don’t be fooled into thinking that Arab regimes are immune to public opinion, they are as captive to public opinion as any Western leader.

Israel’s next elections could write the future of the Middle East. If Israel’s leaders put personal histories and ancient grievances aside, a new bloc could emerge that works in Israel’s long-term best interest: shared prosperity and shared security with nearby Arab states.

At the center of the coalition needs to be a genuine leader, visionary and man of action. Israel is fortunate enough to have a number of these. Can the leader be found and the coalition forged? The Israeli genius is capable of it.

The writer is the publisher of The Jerusalem Strategic Tribune. He is on the board of directors of the Atlantic Council, the International Crisis Group, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Foreign Policy Research Institute and the Center for the National Interest.