After a decade of ‘Bibism’, the Israeli right has decided it’s time for change

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Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and former defense Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the Yamina party - Atef Safadi/ REX
Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and former defense Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the Yamina party - Atef Safadi/ REX

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, was closer than ever on Sunday night to finally leaving office.

A series of extraordinary political twists have produced a diverse coalition containing left-wing parties, right-wing parties that support the West Bank settlement movement, centrist parties, and the party that represents the Islamic Movement in Israel, whose voters are mostly Palestinian-Israelis. What they all have in common is their revulsion for Benjamin Netanyahu, who is standing trial on a string of corruption charges.

The government has not yet been sworn in, and the Israeli political system is used to seeing Netanyahu wriggle out of every political crisis at the last minute. But this time, most of the players believe, his chances are slimmer than ever.

The “change coalition”, as it is known, looked like a non-starter a week ago. Its designated leader, former defence minister Naftali Bennett, the leader of the Yamina right-wing party, announced that the renewed fighting with Gaza and the riots in Israel between Arabs and Jews had convinced him that this coalition stood no chance.

A few days ago, it became clear once more that there was no chance of Netanyahu establishing a right-wing government, and Bennett resumed talks with the chief architect of the alternative government-in-waiting, the chairman of the centrist Yesh Atid Party, Yair Lapid.

On Sunday night, Bennett appeared on live TV and said that he would form a positive-minded government that would appeal to all Israelis, and which would be “more right-wing than the current government”.

He thanked the left for its “generosity”, but promised that the new government would not “relinquish territory” or pursue unilateral withdrawals.

From these remarks, it is easy to understand the challenges facing the new government: it brings together progressive left-wing parties with a religious right-wing party, all headed by a prime minister who will control just six seats in the 120-seat Knesset.

This government patently is making no pretence of pursuing a peace process with the Palestinians, and it is also clear that it cannot propose sweeping reforms in the domain of religion and state, a critical issue for so many Israelis.

The fall of Benjamin Netanyahu cannot be chalked up to the strength of the Israeli centre-left, which remains a minority in Israeli society, but to the rise of the a conservative right which opposes his rule, and identifies his brand of leadership as “Bibism”: a cult of loyalty to the leader himself above all other ideological principles.

Israel has been dragged through four election cycles in the last two years, and in none of them did the bloc of parties that support Netanyahu manage to obtain a majority in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament.

In the last election, a centrist party joined forces with Netanyahu to form a government that was supposed to include a rotating premiership between Netanyahu and his rival Benny Gantz; but Netanyahu violated the agreement the moment he signed it and pushed the country toward elections, because he refused to relinquish his seat — not even in two years’ time.

In the fourth elections, it turned out that again that Netanyahu had no majority, and two right-wing parties announced that they would not support him. They have just been joined by the party of the prime minister-in-waiting, Naftali Bennett.

These right-wing parties decided to abandon Netanyahu’s bloc for a host of reasons, but the commonly cited reason is their leaders’ intense lack of trust in Netanyahu, their sense that the country has had enough of his long rule, and a consensus that his government is crippled by chronic decision-making difficulties and that it sows division – and that preventing a 5th election in two years is of paramount importance.

If a new government is indeed formed in the next week, it will turn out that Netanyahu was not replaced because of the left, but because of a growing agreement on the right flank of Israeli politics that it’s time for change.

Nadav Eyal is a leading Israeli journalist and columnist for the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot