How to End Israel's Political Instability | Opinion

For the past three and a half years, dysfunctional politics have rendered Israel hard-pressed to identify and seize opportunities or respond adequately to rising threats, whether they emanate from Tehran, Washington, Europe, Saudi Arabia or beyond.

Last Thursday, the Bennett-Lapid government dissolved Israel's parliament, the Knesset, setting elections for November 1. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett resigned from the premiership after a year in office and announced he would not run in the coming elections. Foreign Minister Yair Lapid stepped in to serve as interim prime minister. These will be Israel's fifth elections in three and a half years.

This raises the key question: What explains Israel's political deadlock, and what must happen for it to end?

The deadlock isn't between the right and left sides of the spectrum. A significant majority of Israelis identify with the Right. The deadlock stems from the appearance of the NeverNetanyahu Right three and a half years ago as the kingmaker of Israeli politics. The NeverNetanyahu Right is made up of politicians from the Right who hate former Prime Minister and current Opposition Leader Benjamin Netanyahu, and who prioritize their desire to banish him from national leadership above their desire to ensure the government advances their ideological agenda.

The NeverNetanyahu Right first appeared after the first round of elections in April 2019. Netanyahu's rightist bloc won a decisive 65-seat majority in the 120-seat Knesset. But five of those seats were won by former Foreign and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman's Israel Beitenu party.

Liberman once served as Netanyahu's chief of staff and had pledged to join a Netanyahu-led coalition during the course of the campaign. So it came as a shock to the public when Liberman refused to join Netanyahu's coalition and forced the country to hold a second election. And then a third one.

Still short of a majority thanks to Liberman after the third round, Netanyahu formed a government with the center-left Blue and White Party, led by former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz. Gantz exacted a huge price for joining a Netanyahu government. First, he demanded the creation of a new position—alternate prime minister—and a rotation deal that would make Gantz prime minister after 18 months, even though Gantz's party won only 15 seats and Netanyahu's Likud party won 36. Gantz demanded an equal number of ministers in the government and, most problematically, also demanded veto power over all government decisions.

Veto in hand, Gantz paralyzed the government. From blocking the purchase of COVID-19 booster vaccines to opposing the Trump administration's proposed peace plan in 2020 to undermining Netanyahu's actions against Iran, Gantz's subversion induced a paralysis so debilitating that Netanyahu decided a fourth election was preferable to continuing the two-headed government with Gantz. At the time, he was right. Opinion polls carried out over the lifespan of the Netanyahu-Gantz government had the Netanyahu-led right-wing bloc polling at 62-65 seats—enough for a Knesset majority.

But after Netanyahu brought down the government and new elections were called, a new NeverNetanyahu force popped up.

Netanyahu's failed rival for Likud leadership, former Likud minister Gideon Sa'ar, bolted Likud and formed the New Hope Party. He ran on a contradictory platform of both governing to Netanyahu's right and refusing to sit in a Netanyahu-led coalition.

Sa'ar never explained how he would put together a government to Netanyahu's right while excluding Netanyahu's Likud, which comprises more than a quarter of the Knesset, and his voters apparently never considered the contradiction. Sa'ar's party won six seats.

The March 2021 elections were also deadlocked. Netanyahu's right-wing bloc won 59 seats. The leftist bloc won 38. Anti-Zionist Arab List parties won 10. Liberman won seven. Sa'ar was the kingmaker.

Instead of setting aside his hatred for Netanyahu and forming a government, Sa'ar joined Liberman and Lapid—the head of the leftist bloc—and turned to Bennett. Bennett led the seven-member Yamina ("rightward") party. During the course of the elections, Netanyahu had repeatedly warned that Bennett intended to abandon his voters and join a leftist-dominated coalition; Bennett had fervently denied the charge at every opportunity.

Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs, Yair Lapid
Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs, Yair Lapid speaks during an Israeli parliament meeting on June 27, 2022 in Jerusalem, Israel. Amir Levy/Getty Images

Lapid, Sa'ar, and Liberman told Bennett that if he ditched his voters, they would make him prime minister for two years. Bennett happily accepted. Bennett and Lapid formed a 61-seat governing coalition with the four-man Muslim Brotherhood Ra'am faction.

One of two things had to happen for the Bennett-Lapid government to succeed. Either the right-wing members of the coalition would join the Left, or the leftist majority would join the Right. While Bennett was willing to make the change, and Sa'ar and his faction abandoned nearly every one of their right-wing positions, Bennett was unable to ride herd over all members of his faction. One refused to join the coalition. And over time, five who joined the coalition began hedging their bets.

Bennett's faction members were hard-pressed to go along with Bennett because Netanyahu defied their expectations. Sa'ar, Bennett, and Liberman were convinced that Likud faction members and their partners in the right-wing bloc would abandon Netanyahu once they formed their government. They passed a law making it easier for Likud lawmakers to jump ship and join the coalition. Netanyahu, they imagined, would not last one day in the opposition trenches after a decade in power.

To their surprise, all of their assumptions were wrong. The government buckled under its internal contradictions. Its right-wing members were brutally criticized for betraying everything they had previously stood for to maintain their offices, while empowering the radical Left and the Muslim Brotherhood parties. At the same time, Netanyahu, the Likud, and their coalition members held steady. No one defected to the Bennett-Lapid government.

Three months ago, Bennett and Lapid lost their one-vote Knesset majority when another member of Bennett's party resigned from the coalition and joined the opposition. Since then, the 60-seat coalition teetered on the brink of collapse. Every day, another lawmaker extorted concessions for votes. If the coalition's inclusion of the Muslim Brotherhood wasn't controversial enough, every day Bennett and Lapid grew more dependent on the six-member Joint Arab List faction. None of the faction members accept Israel's right to exist. It includes members aligned with terror groups spanning from the PLO to Hezbollah.

In recent weeks, the coalition was so dysfunctional that it couldn't even pass continuing legislation required for the proper functioning of the state. Bennett and Lapid's efforts to blame the opposition for not stepping in to save them from failure were unsuccessful. Finally, last week, Bennett and Lapid announced they were calling it quits and Lapid became interim prime minister.

The question now is whether the new elections will bring an end to Israel's political dysfunction and paralysis. The polls show that the Netanyahu-led Right still polls at 58-59 seats. To win, it needs to pull 2-3 seats away from either the center-left or the NeverNetanyahu Right. For the Left to win, Lapid needs to maintain the support and strength of the NeverNetanyahu Right, and then, once the elections are over, convince the NeverNetanyahu Right's members to follow in the footsteps of Liberman, Bennett, and Sa'ar and exchange their convictions for those of the Left.

In short, Israel's political chaos will end only after the NeverNetanyahu Right disappears.

Caroline B. Glick is a Newsweek columnist, senior columnist at Israel Hayom and the author of The Israeli Solution: A One-State Plan for Peace in the Middle East, (Crown Forum, 2014). From 1994 to 1996, she served as a core member of Israel's negotiating team with the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.