Israel on the brink of change

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting, at the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem, on December 1, 2019. Photo by Marc Israel Sellem/POOL

As we go to press late Tuesday afternoon, Israel is poised for what could be significant political change that will usher in a new prime minister and a new president. A once improbable coalition of hard-right, centrist and left-wing parties, with the tacit support of an Islamic party, has formed a coalition with a single aim: the ousting of long-serving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. As in one of those mystery stories where the detective discovers that “everybody did it,” Netanyahu has made so many political enemies and clogged Israel’s political system for so long that for members of the “change coalition,” the unthinkable has become the preferable.

And so centrist opposition leader Yair Lapid has put his opportunity to become prime minister on hold in order to secure the support of right-wing leader Naftali Bennett. In their agreement, Bennett will become prime minister in the first half of the four-year Knesset term, after which the position would rotate to Lapid. That scenario is unlikely to play out, and everyone knows it. Indeed, the competing ideologies and goals of the coalition players are such that no long-term plan makes sense. But, the improbable coalition will accomplish its immediate goal of “change.”

If the coalition holds, Bennett will become Israel’s first dati, or modern Orthodox, prime minister. At the same time, the ultra-Orthodox establishment, which has had an iron grip on the state’s rabbinate, will have less influence in the government, because the two haredi Orthodox parties that were Netanyahu’s backbone will likely sit in opposition.

An establishment of the “change government” would, at least in the short term, delay a fifth election, which, if held now, would likely produce the same inconclusive results as the four elections held in the last two years.

As all of this is going on, a less dramatic election is underway: the election by the Knesset of a new president of Israel on June 2. The winner will succeed Reuven Rivlin on July 9.

In the race for president, Israel Prize-winning educator Miriam Peretz is running against Jewish Agency Chairman and former Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog. If Peretz wins, she will become Israel’s first female president. But Herzog is the frontrunner. If the secret ballot goes in his favor, he will be the first president whose father was also president. Herzog also knows the Diaspora well, and could act as an informed and welcome bridge between Israel and the Diaspora.

Israel’s presidency was created as a ceremonial job. It’s only constitutional power is to choose a candidate to form a government. But in times of crisis, presidents have discovered they have a bully pulpit to calm and unify the nation and to chide politicians who are not acting in the national interest.

With the multitude of challenges facing the country, Israel appears ready for some new faces at the top.

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