Israel’s recurring stalemate


Israel’s Knesset is expected to dissolve itself this week. Under the governing coalition’s rotation agreement, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid will become the acting prime minister, and current Prime Minister Naftali Bennett will become the alternate prime minister. New elections — the country’s fifth round in three years — will be scheduled for the fall. Based upon current projections, the fifth vote is likely to lead to the same stalemate as the prior four.

The soon-to-be-outgoing Bennett-Lapid coalition — which brought together an improbably wide-ranging coalition of members — was driven by the goal of keeping Benjamin Netanyahu from achieving another term as prime minister. But notwithstanding the impressive achievements of the coalition during its one year of operation, polls predict that neither pro-Netanyahu parties nor anti-Netanyahu parties will achieve a majority in the upcoming elections.

The Bennett-Lapid government succeeded in steering Israel through the last year of COVID, passed a budget and opened the economy, and helped the country navigate an outbreak of fighting with Hamas in Gaza. In the process, the fragile, improbable coalition restored a sense of normalcy to political life in Israel, while it made strides in restoring Israel’s global standing — including solidifying Israel’s relationship with the United States. All of this while breaking precedent and bringing an Arab party into government for the first time.

It is surprising that none of the successes of the Bennett-Lapid government seem to have moved the political needle. Indeed, if the polls are to be believed, the deadlock that has divided Israel for the past four elections has only deepened – but the electoral numbers have not changed much.

In order for Israel to move beyond the expected electoral impasse and enable the formation of a functional government, some grand gesture will be required. The only person in a position to make such a consequential grand gesture is Netanyahu. But to do so, he will have to place party objectives and national aspirations ahead of his personal ambition.

Netanyahu unquestionably wants to return to the prime minister’s office. He makes no secret of that goal. But he also must recognize that he is a singularly divisive leader, with many of his former political allies resolute in their refusal to join a government that he will head. Moreover, if Netanyahu continues to insist on top billing he will likely prolong the reign of Lapid as the country struggles through more wasteful elections.

If there is a deal to be made, it is up to Netanyahu to do so. He is in a position to negotiate a fairly wide-ranging political package of authority and responsibility – as long as someone else gets the title of prime minister. While we recognize that the chances of that happening are slim, the alternative leaves Netanyahu and friends in opposition, with no real power and very limited ability to serve the interests of the voters who form their base. No one knows what will happen if those voters continue to feel disenfranchised and disillusioned.

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