Written by Lydia McCoy, BA International Affairs, Russian, MA International Policy Candidate
This article explores the current politics of Israel following the recent election for prime minister. Benjamin Netanyahu lost the election to Naftali Bennet, leading to a shift in politics for the country. To explain the change, this article will first examine Israel’s political system, followed by an analysis of Netanyahu and Bennet. Finally, the article concludes with the effect of the change of power on Israel’s allies.
The Israeli System
The Israeli political system is largely based on that of the English Common Law system. There is no written constitution, and instead, there exists a body of recognized precedent that governs the country. Court proceedings and new legislation is added to this body of common law to create an unwritten constitution for the state. The country itself is considered a parliamentary democratic republic with an elected head of state which acts in a ceremonial role, an elected head of governments, or the prime minister, who acts in a governing role, and a law-making body called the Knesset. Much like the British parliament, the Knesset is entitled to hold a vote of no confidence for the prime minister when it sees fit, usually after the prime minister loses the confidence in his governing coalition. The vote of no confidence triggers an election for a new prime minister. Otherwise, the government holds elections in regular four-year intervals.
The Knesset operates in a proportional representation system, meaning that of the 120 seats available, the proportion of the vote a party receives gets that many seats of the 120 total. Due to the nature of proportional representation, many parties are represented in the Knesset. To become the prime minister, your party must have the majority of seats in the Knesset. If no party has a majority, it is common for multiple parties to create a governing coalition and appoint a prime minister from that group.
Until June 2021, Benjamin Netanyahu served as the Israeli Prime Minister. He was the longest-serving and youngest prime minister in Israeli history. He served as prime minister twice, once from 1996 to 1999 and again from 2009 to 2021. Prior to serving in elected office, Netanyahu served in the Israeli military, fighting in the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and working in an elite special operations unit. He also served as deputy minister of foreign affairs from 1988-1991 and deputy prime minister from 1991-1992.
In his first term as prime minister, Netanyahu was strongly opposed to the 1993 Israel-PLO peace accords that resulted in the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Netanyahu later flipped on this decision in 1997, withdrawing the forces from the West Bank. The change in policy led to serious fighting and bombings. This was the beginning of the end of Netanyahu’s first stint as prime minister; in 1998, after sitting in peace talks with the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat that concluded with the Wye Memorandum, many of Netanyahu and the Likud Party’s allies in government left the governing coalition, resulting in a loss of a majority and power for Netanyahu. The Wye Memorandum was unpopular because it gave Palestinian control to 40% of the West Bank. These are only a few of many examples demonstrating Netanyahu’s indecisiveness and inconsistency when it comes to policy-making.
In 2009, Netanyahu expressed support for a version of an independent Palestinian state with conditions that it must be demilitarized and recognize Israel as an independent Jewish state. This olive branch was declined, however, by Palestinian leaders. Shortly after that, talks ended as Israeli officials refused to extend a moratorium on Jewish settlements in the West Bank. This was the only glimpse of peace for the entirety of Netanyahu’s second term as prime minister. Otherwise, he was a hard-liner against Iran’s nuclear program and many of the Arab pro-democracy uprisings that became known as the Arab Spring in 2011. Netanyahu viewed everything as hostile to the Jewish way of life within Israel. Netanyahu did not have an easier time domestically; he faced severe unrest and discontent regarding the economic situation for both the middle class and young people in Israel.
Later in Netanyahu’s stint as prime minister, he was accused of multiple scandals regarding bribery, fraud, and corruption. The courts eventually brought four charges against Netanyahu or close associates. Refusing to step down and vehemently denying the allegations, Netanyahu maintained many of his political allies; this changed, however, when policy disagreements became too much to bear. Netanyahu agreed to a truce with Hamas, prompting the resignation of defense minister Avigdor Lieberman and the withdrawal of Lieberman’s party from the governing coalition. After further disagreement within the Knesset, the body dissolved, triggering elections for April 2019. Although Netanyahu seemed to come out victorious, his party could not create a coalition, and another round of elections was held in September with the same outcome. The third round of elections scheduled for March 2020 saw Netanyahu again unable to form a government. The mandate of governance was given to Benny Gantz, a politician representing the issues of Palestinians in Israel. Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic quickly took hold of the region in March, leading to Gantz agreeing to form an emergency government under Netanyahu that was to end 18 months later, restoring power to Gantz. The emergency government did not last long, however, and Netanyahu quickly lost popularity globally. Throughout the life emergency government, Netanyahu’s corruption trial was occurring, further damaging his reputation. The emergency government failed to pass a budget at the end of 2020, leading to the dissolution of the Knesset. In March 2021, the government held new elections, and Netanyahu failed to gain a majority of seats in the Knesset again. Naftali Bennet and the Lapid party created a majority coalition in June 2021, marking the end of Netanyahu’s reign in Israeli politics for now.
Bennett’s government breaks a political gridlock that has plagued Israel for the past two years. The governing coalition is one of the most diverse ever seen in Israel, including the first Arab party to serve in the Israeli government. To create this coalition, centrist Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party forged an agreement placing Bennett at the head of a right-wing, left-wing, and Arab party coalition. These diverse groups were brought together largely by the interest in dethroning Netanyahu. Of course, having a wide variety of interests that frequently conflict with each other will bring political friction. The agreement created between parties dictates that Bennett will act as prime minister for the first two years of the four-year term. During this period, Bennett will focus on domestic issues, such as the relationship between religion and state and quality of life. The coalition agreed to hold off on any major decisions, especially those regarding the future of the West Bank. At the end of the first two years, Bennett will return control to Lapid's party, Yesh Atid. Naftali Bennett served in government before, under Netanyahu, as the defense minister, economy minister, and education minister. His first position was as Netanyahu’s chief of staff.
What’s Next for Israel
United States President Joe Biden welcomed the change in Israeli politics, congratulating Bennett on the victory and stating that he looked forward to working closely with him, especially on regional security and Iran. A primary goal of the Biden administration regarding Israel is advancing peace and security for both Israelis and Palestinians. Palestinian and Hamas officials both state they expect little change in Israel’s policies towards Palestinians, if not a worsening of relations. One issue will not change: Iran. Bennett remains opposed to the Iranian nuclear deal, as he feels Iran is an existential threat to Israel. However, there is hope that relations between Israel and the U.S. will return to their previously bipartisan nature with the removal of Netanyahu. Many in Bennett’s government plan to roll back some of the changes brought about by Netanyahu’s administration, especially those that strained the relationship between the U.S. and Israel.
Bennett’s coalition will most likely have very little change on the politics of the region. Although many around the globe see the change in power as a powerful sign of future peace, this is unlikely. Bennett’s politics are as conservative as Netanyahu’s with both leaders falling to the right. However, the change in power does open the door to renewed cooperation with Israel. A large factor in this lies within Bennett’s governing coalition because it contains an Arab party. Thanks to removing such a divisive figure as Netanyahu, many governments feel more comfortable working with Israel and hope that peace in the Middle East is possible.