Will a Rainbow Coalition succeed where Netanyahu failed?

Is Israel about to have a change of government a month after its fourth running election?

Will a Rainbow Coalition succeed where Netanyahu failed?

Today Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, asked opposition leader Yair Lapid to form a government after Benjamin Netanyahu failed in his own attempt to build a coalition.

It’s been clear for weeks that Netanyahu would probably fail. His bloc didn’t have enough seats itself, and the Far Right parties refused to support any coalition that relied, directly or indirectly, on the votes of the Islamist Ra’am party. That left him stuck.

So no surprise that he failed. But at least some surprise that Lapid was asked to try himself. Israel’s Basic Law gives the President discretion in this case; he could have chosen not to name any candidates at all, and left the issue to the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament. That would almost certainly have led to a fifth election.

Rainbow coalition

Lapid is trying to build a rainbow coalition that would include his own centrist Yesh Atid party, the left-wing Labour and Meretz parties, Benny Gantz (his running-mate turned rival turned ally), and three right-wing parties: Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beitienu party, Likud defector Gidon Saar’s New Hope, and Naftali Bennett’s Yemina. Oh, and the Islamist Raam party too.

Confused? So is everyone else. But all these parties were able to coordinate their recommendations to the President in such a way as to give Lapid a chance. That suggests that such a government could really be formed.

Lapid hasn’t been waiting for Netanyahu to fail first, either. Negotiations between his potential partners have been happening quietly for weeks. Ministerial portfolios and government policies have been discussed.

I think Lapid’s rainbow coalition is more likely than not to form a government and displace Netanyahu. It’s close, and could fail in all sorts of ways, but I’d say it’s favoured.

So does that mean Yair Lapid is now the favourite to become Israel’s next prime minister?

Actually, no.

But Bennett

Lapid has, in principle, agreed that the person who’d take up residence in Balfour Street instead of Netanyahu would be… Naftali Bennett, leader of the right-wing Yemina party.

Bennett doesn’t lead the largest party in the ‘change bloc’ — that’s Lapid’s Yesh Atid. He doesn’t even lead its second-largest party. Yemina has just seven seats, and one of those seven is refusing to back him.

But without Bennett, there isn’t a government. And that gives him an enormous amount of leverage with the parties that want to replace Netanyahu. By becoming PM, Bennett would give them what they want.

Both Netanyahu and Lapid offered Bennett the prime minister’s office in a timeshare deal, where Bennett would go first and then ‘rotate’ out after a year or two. But ultimately Netanyahu couldn’t make good on his offer. Lapid probably can.

Bennett would be the prime minister, but Lapid would de facto be the leader of the government. How this functions in practice will depend a lot on the precise decision-making mechanics that’ll be laid out in a coalition agreement.

Let’s Legislate

Today’s decision by the President also has one immediate impact: it hands control of the Knesset, Israel’s legislature, to Lapid. By convention, the powerful Arrangements Committee is headed by a member of the PM-designate’s party. That means Lapid’s bloc can start legislating even without a government.

For example, they could propose a law to disqualify Netanyahu, whether by introducing a term limit or by banning criminally-indicted people from becoming prime minister. Both options have been mooted in the past.

Countdown

Lapid has 28 days to form a government or his mandate expires. The clock is ticking.

Often, coalition negotiations go down to the deadline or even a little beyond. If Lapid wants to succeed, then the faster he does a deal, the better.

Likud is putting immense pressure on the right-wing parties in the rainbow coalition in the hope that some of their members defect. As I mentioned, one Yemina member has already said he opposes the Lapid-Bennett plan. Others could conceivably follow, especially if they’re offered safe seats on Likud’s electoral list or other benefits. Israeli politics can be brutally transactional at times.

Will it last?

If Lapid pulls it off, and a new government is sworn in with Bennett as prime minister and Lapid as his counterpart “alternate PM”, how will it all hold together?

Any rainbow government will face immense ideological tensions between far-Left and fairly hard Right, secularists and supporters of the status quo… the coalition agreement will likely agree to leave all controversial issues alone, but that’s not always possible. Stuff happens. What if there’s a big rise in Palestinian terrorism? What about Iran? Settler violence?

Netanyahu is asking himself the same questions. Which means he’s not going anywhere just yet. If a new government is seated, Netanyahu will be the leader of the opposition and head of biggest party in the Knesset, with 30 seats. He might well calculate that after a few months in opposition he might be able to take advantage of splits in a rainbow government and take back the premiership for himself.

Still, even a few months of a different leadership could break the spell. Netanyahu has been prime minister since 2009, and his political power has become increasingly built on a sense of his irreplaceability. Once he’s out of office and the sky doesn’t fall in, then all but his hardest supporters might feel less scared about a future without Bibi. And that’s a future in which Lapid could thrive.


More on Yair Lapid

Yair Rosenberg has written a nice intro to Yair Lapid, the journalist turned politician, and his political project. Give it a read.

One thing he doesn’t note is that Lapid’s father, Tommy Lapid, was also a journalist turned politician. Yair Lapid wrote a biography of his father, the hauntingly-named Memories After My Death, in the first person, speaking with his father’s voice about his life.