UPDATE: Naftali Bennett just announced he has agreed to join Yair Lapid’s center-right government. It is a historic move, toppling from power Bibi Netanyahu who had been PM for the past 12 years and three years prior to that. In total, he was the longest serving leader in the country’s history.
In a bellwether for Israeli politics, Israeli media report that Naftali Bennett has agreed to join a center-right coalition government with Yair Lapid, which would unseat Bibi Netanyahu from the position he has held for the past 11 years. The announcement may come in the next few hours (or as late as Monday), with ministers sworn in very soon thereafter.
Netanyahu had long ago used up the nine lives ascribed to cats. He seemed to have a stratagem to avoid every trap and pitfall in his path. He had an unlimited supply of Get Out of Jail Free cards. It even seemed that the late Gaza war might somehow permit him to continue as prime minister, and eventually weasel his way out of a possible conviction on the corruption charges facing him.
But if Bennett succeeds in convincing his political partner, Ayelet Shaked to join him in the new government, he will be come prime minister for the next two years. It’s an astonishing development for this former American Jew who parlayed a high tech startup into great wealth, then began his career as Netanyahu’s chief of staff.
Bennett is what one might call a soft-Judeo supremacist, or a fascist with a human face. He doesn’t live in a settlement, but he promotes the agenda of the settler movement. When he becomes prime minister it won’t matter that he’s not himself a settler. For all intents and purposes he is everything they can hope and wish for. He represents the settler movement in control of the State. Judeo-fascism acendant and triumphant.
But he’s not a thug like Ben Gvir. He’s not a vigilante like Lehava. He’s smoother. He doesn’t say he wants to expel all Israeli Palestinians, but only some of them. And he doesn’t want to physically expel them from their communities like Ben Gurion did in the Nakba; but rather wants to redraw borders so that they are no longer part of Israel. It is ethnic cleansing done with clean hands. Apartheid of smoke and mirrors.
But never doubt that Bennett lacks that killer instinct. He was, after all, the one who boasted that he’d “killed a lot of Arabs,” and did so with a clean conscience.
He will be prime minister for the first two years of the government term, followed by Lapid for the last two years. Of course, it’s highly unlikely that this coalition will last that long. It is composed of parties from the center-left to the far right.
It relies, as well, on the four votes of a right-wing Islamist Party. No Palestinian political party has ever been part of a ruling coalition. But make no mistake that this is a progressive development or represents the success of co-existence. Everyone in this coalition is out for their own interests, Palestinians as well as Jews. They don’t care a whit for the interests of their partners. In fact, their interests will clearly be at odds with them. Participating in it is like a game of Russian Roulette. Every member fires the pistol without knowing whether there’s a bullet in the chamber meant for him.
Further, the coalition cannot really put forward any serious legislative program. Virtually every major issue advanced by one member is opposed by another. So despite kicking out Netanyahu, it will have achieved very little. The issue that will get the shortest shrift is the Palestinian issue. While Labor and Meretz, the liberal faction in the government may want to make progress, Bennett has absolutely no interest in offering Palestinians anything they might want. Nor will Lapid try to force his hand, since he wants that golden prime minister’s ring in two more years. It is a recipe for continuing suffocating stasis.
Nor should one think that maintaining a status quo of sorts will leave the Palestinian question in limbo. In fact, Bennett will manage to advance the settler agenda. He will continue stealing land, building new settlements, tightening the siege of Gaza. And he will get away with it because no one cares about the Palestinians. Until he doesn’t. He may take one step too far: massacre Muslim worshippers at Al Aqsa or dishonor Palestinian citizens in some egregious fashion, at which point Mansour Abbas quits the coalition and we go to a fifth round of elections.
It’s a merry-go-round in which all the horses are bucking broncos and wild-eyed stallions straining at the bit.
On a different note, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken just completed his first round of visits with leaders in Israel, Jordan, Egypt and Palestine (see, AP and CBC, we can say that word here). Though he boasted of a massive commitment of US humanitarian aid to rebuilt Gaza, he was short on actual results. He announced an actual financial commitment of a few tens of millions, while speaking of ultimate needs in the billions. Where the money would come from and how it would get to Gaza were not specified. And there’s the rub. Because we consider Hamas a terror organization. We only recognize the PA, which itself has a contentious relationship with Hamas. So how will those billions get to Gaza? And if they do get to Gaza who will administer them? Who will decide what gets built and how it gets built? You can see from my questions how skeptical I am of the ultimate success of this project.
One of the least noted developments of Blinken’s visit to Israel was an invitation for outgoing Pres. Reuven Rivlin to visit the White House. Rivlin was last there during the Obama administration. Everyone loves “Ruvy.” He’s the ultimate Jewish grandpa. Sweet and kind. Which means of course that Sara Netanyahu hates him and Bibi doesn’t trust him. In fact, though Rivlin played a critical role in advancing Bibi’s earlier career, the latter wanted nothing to do with his presidential candidacy. He did everything possible to torpedo it, and failed.
Guess who didn’t get his White House invite? Bibi, of course. And given Netanyahu’s enormous ego, that must be eating away his liver. I was rather surprised that no one in Israeli media noticed this tremendous and deliberate sleight by Biden towards Bibi. A few days later, Yossi Verter did call it Biden “swinging a baseball bat to Bibi’s face,” which was quite apt.
If Netanyahu is evicted from Balfour Street, then Biden can feel vindicated. He can say there wasn’t enough time to bring him to the US before he left office. If Bibi remains prime minister, then the sleight becomes a larger issue that will rankle both him and Israel itself. But isn’t that the point Biden is trying to make? That Bibi may think he’s the boss, but has to stand in line like everyone else and take a ticket. If he crosses the US, as he is always wont to do, no one’s going to punch his ticket.
It’s also a warning that if Bibi thinks he’s going to poison the JCPOA talks in Vienna, he’s got another thing coming. This is one of the hallmarks of the Biden presidency. He wants stability in the region. He wants equilibrium between the Sunni and Shia forces in the region. For that to happen, he needs a return to the nuclear deal, which Bibi hates and has done everything in his power to destroy.
The one good thing that can come from an anti-Bibi coalition coming to power is that it will not have the same obsession with Iran that the current PM does. Biden will hammer that home if they form a new government. Certainly, Bennett can expect an early invitation to the White House where he’ll hear that message delivered loud and clear.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.