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One of the most popular shows on Israeli television is a political satire called “Eretz Nehederet,” which loosely translated means “A Wonderful Country.” Recent political developments have provided its writers with unending grist for their lampoon mill.
On Wednesday evening, Israelis were waiting tensely to find out whether opposition leader Yair Lapid had mobilized sufficient support in the Knesset, the Israeli legislature, to oust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. On television, Netanyahu’s character was making last ditch efforts to block Lapid. He offered to share power with his leading opponents if only they would abandon Lapid, promising the first three takers a set of luxurious beach towels.
It’s hard to explain to outsiders, especially Americans, the complexities of Israel’s political system and the vagaries of its elected representatives. Simply put, Netanyahu has been in office 12 consecutive years (and three additional ones in the 1990s). His supporters – roughly speaking about half the electorate – revere him. His opponents despise him and rail against his continued hold on power despite the corruption charges he faces. Sound familiar?
'Government of change' could collapse
Trying to stay in office, Netanyahu has taken Israel through four elections in the past two years, each time hoping for enough votes to achieve a Knesset majority and lead a stable government. Lapid, the head of the centrist Yesh Atid party, succeeded where Netanyahu failed, albeit barely and just minutes before the midnight Wednesday deadline. On paper, after weeks of cajoling and bargaining and major concessions, Lapid mustered the support of eight political parties – giving him 61 votes in the 120-seat legislature.
That's roughly the same as President Joe Biden's 51-50 Senate majority that includes his tiebreaking vice president. In other words, Lapid has a hairsbreadth majority that makes him and his coalition exceedingly vulnerable. That's what Netanyahu and his ultra-Orthodox and right-wing religious allies are counting on as they prepare their final stand, generating stark warnings of scenarios styled on the Jan. 6 invasion of the U.S. Capitol.
For now, Netanyahu supporters are busy pressuring right-wing Yamina party coalition members to defect. Demonstrations are being held nightly outside their homes, petitions are being circulated, friends and family members are being lobbied. The protests range from Zen-like guitar fests to raised fists and vile curses, of which “traitor” is the least offensive.
If these handful of targeted lawmakers hold tight, Lapid’s government will be sworn in, probably by June 14. If one or two of them break down, this precarious edifice dubbed the “government of change” could collapse and leave Netanyahu in power.
If this fragile coalition beats the odds and becomes Israel’s 36th government, its members might look back on the dramas and tensions that brought them to power as a cakewalk compared with the almost impossible feat of staying in power. The new government will be made up of eight parties – from Meretz on the left, which lauded the International Criminal Court’s decision to investigate Israel for war crimes against Palestinians, to Yamina on the far right, which supports annexing Palestinian territory and rejects the establishment of a Palestinian state.
These alliances recall the inevitably temporary unity of America's liberal Democrats and conservative "Never Trump" Republicans. In Israel, the question is whether the “anyone but Netanyahu” momentum can unite the ideologically disparate components of the new coalition and enable it to perform.
A patently ludicrous arrangement
Bowing to necessity, Lapid agreed to share power with Yamina leader Naftali Bennett and let him serve as prime minister for the government’s first two years. Lapid will then take over – if the coalition lasts that long. This arrangement is patently ludicrous considering that Yamina only has seven Knesset seats compared with Lapid’s 17, but Lapid knew this was the only way to enlist Bennett’s support to oust Netanyahu.
The one bright spot of this political mess is the decision by Ra’am to join the putative coalition and become the first full fledged Arab party to take part in an Israeli government.
This is America: I was arrested in the USA. My mother was detained in Israel.
Bennett and Lapid insist their government will focus on domestic matters, such as pushing through the country’s first budget in three years. But contentious external events have a way of creeping in, as even Biden discovered despite his determination to devote his presidency to domestic policy.
Wishful thinking could also get in the way. Some diehard leftist optimists are suggesting a possible breakthrough with the Palestinians, similar to the decision by hard-line Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to pull out of Gaza in 2005 or the late right-wing Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s peace treaty with Egypt.
The Palestinians, by the way, are not under any illusions in view of the fragile nature of the Bennett-Lapid government and the relentless pressure they expect from the right to try to topple it.
Over 40 years ago, an American television sitcom called “Soap” parodied daytime soap operas with ridiculous, zany plots. At the start of each episode, a narrator would recap and ask, “Confused? You won’t be after this episode.” That is not something any Israeli can promise these days.
Ruth Sinai, an Israeli American journalist and commentator, reported for The Associated Press from the Middle East and Washington and covered social affairs for Haaretz and other publications and websites in Israel. She is a recipient of Israel’s top journalism award, the Sokolov Prize.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Israeli government of change: Keeping power will be harder than getting it