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How a Coalition of Contradictions Came Together to Oust Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

For the first time in 12 years, Israel has a new prime minister.
IMAGE AMIR LEVY / GETTY IMAGES
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The historic and at times divisive reign of Benjamin Netanyahu is officially over. On Sunday, Israeli’s parliament voted to approve a new coalition and install former Netanyahu ally Naftali Bennett as Prime Minister—sending Netanyahu and the Likud party into the opposition for the first time in twelve years. The final vote was 60-59, with one minister abstaining.

Who is in the Coalition?

The new coalition is composed of eight parties from the left, right, and center of Israel’s political spectrum and includes for the first time ever a representative of Israel’s Arab citizens in the Islamist Ra’am party. The other seven parties represent the many different, competing ideologies of Israeli citizens—religious nationalists, secular centrists, and left-wing social democrats.

Some analysts have labeled the coalition a success, saying it reflects the complexity and range of Israel’s modern society. Others claim its members are too different for the coalition to survive and see the alliance as symbolic of Israel’s political dysfunction. What everyone agrees on though is that the only thing uniting the members of the alliance is a strong dislike for the former Prime Minister.

After 15 years in power, 12 uninterrupted, Netanyahu began losing support in the last few years after refusing to step down in the wake of corruption and bribery charges. His divisive decision to remain in power despite the charges caused an impasse in Israeli politics, resulting in four inconclusive elections in the past two years. In each election, Netanyahu retained enough support to remain in power but not enough to form a stable government. The desire to avoid a 5th election is ultimately what led to the formation of the change coalition.

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How Did the Coalition Come Together?

The two men most responsible for the creation of the change coalition are Yair Lapid, the centrist head of the Yesh Atid party, and Naftali Bennett, a member of the ultra-nationalist Yamina party and former chief of staff to Netanyahu. In May, after another failed election, Israel’s largely ceremonial president, Reuven Rivlin, tasked Lapid with forming a coalition capable of winning enough votes to oust Netanyahu.

That conversation set off four weeks of frantic dealmaking during which Lapid approached Bennett, and the two began building their historic coalition. Meanwhile, Netanyahu maneuvered in the background to prevent them from achieving the necessary 60 votes. Talks almost collapsed on multiple occasions including during the recent war in Gaza. The conflict prompted Bennett to temporarily withdraw his support for a coalition that included an Islamist party.

30 minutes before his June 2nd deadline, Lapid confirmed to Rivlin that he and Bennett had secured enough votes via the formation of an eight-party coalition. The coalition’s deal hinges on a split in power between the centrist ideology represented by Lapid and the far-right leanings of the coalition’s more religious parties represented by Bennett. To achieve this balance, Lapid is supposed to replace Bennett as prime minister after two years and govern for the remaining two years of the coalition’s four-year term.

“I commit to you, Mr. President, that this government will work to serve all the citizens of Israel,” Lapid said in an official statement. “Including those who aren’t members of it, will respect those who oppose it, and do everything in its power to unite all parts of Israeli society.”

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Now these two polar opposite leaders are tasked with ushering in a new era of cooperation and compromise in Israeli politics.

What Happens Next?

As of June 13, 2021, Naftali Bennett is the new Prime Minister of Israel, but if he wants to stay in power for more than a few months, he will have to maintain the precarious coalition that narrowly elected him. If any member of the faction withdraws their support, the majority would be at risk of collapse, and Netanyahu would have an opportunity to return to power.

To prevent that from happening, Bennett has said his government will focus on domestic reforms and steer clear of hot-button issues like Israeli settlements in the West Bank and peace with Palestinians. Instead, his coalition-backed government will work to get Israel’s stalled government up and running. He and Lapid have pledged to approve a budget within 140 days. If they succeed, it will be the first time Israeli lawmakers passed a budget since March of 2019.

Experts say the coalition might also try to install election reforms that are specifically aimed at preventing another Netanyahu-like takeover of Israeli politics. This could include the introduction of measures that would limit a future president to two terms and require departing prime ministers (ahem, like Netanyahu) to wait at least four years before running again.

Whether or not this alliance can set aside their many differences and retain power is the question on every political analysts’ mind at the moment. If they can, it will likely be because of their refusal to confront divisive issues, but it’s unclear how long they will be able to avoid urgent, international crises. Prime Minister Bennett has already had to take a stance on a potential new Iran nuclear agreement, and it’s only his first day on the job.

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For what it’s worth, Bennett seems committed to compromise. "Twice in history, we have lost our national home precisely because the leaders of the generation were not able to sit with one and another and compromise,” he said after being sworn in. “Each was right, yet with all their being right, they burnt the house down on top of us. I am proud of the ability to sit together with people with very different views from my own."

No matter what happens next, Israel is officially in a new era of politics, and the country’s future will, at least for now, be determined by factors that Benjamin Netanyahu no longer controls.

This story originally appeared on Esquire.com. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.

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Abigail Covington
Abigail Covington is a journalist and cultural critic based in Brooklyn, New York but originally from North Carolina, whose work has appeared in Slate, The Nation, Oxford American, and Pitchfork.
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