Passover Eve—Friday, April 15, 2022
The leaders of Israel’s “government of change,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister (and Alternate Prime Minister) Yair Lapid, meet at the IDF Headquarters in Tel Aviv. Lapid suggests that they shoot a video. A holiday greeting to the nation for Passover. Unscripted. Bennett agrees, and the camera rolls.
חג שמח לעם ישראל—והעיקר שנהיה יחד!🇮🇱 pic.twitter.com/Bk5uXzKgVR— Naftali Bennett בנט (@naftalibennett) April 15, 2022
Bennett speaks first. After all, he is the Prime Minister. Lapid, graciously, does nothing to undermine that, even behind closed doors.
“We would like to wish all the people of Israel—” Bennett begins. Lapid suddenly lurches into Bennett’s space, interrupting: “And to the ‘alternate people of Israel’.”
Lapid chuckles, smiling widely and affecting a naughty-boy visage. Bennett plays along gamely. It’s a classic Lapid moment, self-deprecating as the “alternate” prime minister, but showing who’s really in charge.
Bennett and Lapid represent a new generation of Israeli leaders. Working closely together, they have developed a strong chemistry. Each has his own role to play in this bizarre and fascinating collaboration that brought about the “government of change” almost one year ago.
They – and their political futures – are bound together in a powerful alliance that has been a decade in the making. Like a married couple, they share a private humor and can read one another with a glance.
Their political realities, though, are more complex and quite different, as are the constituencies each one is working to cultivate.
I. Bennett’s Ascent
Drawing by Igor Tepikin
Naftali Bennett, a high-tech millionaire who rose to political prominence with the religious-Zionist camp has been best known abroad for his support of the settlement movement. He has spent the last decade, however, working to recast himself domestically as the leader of a nation, rather than a single demographic; one whose business savvy and managerial acumen have made him a worthy alternative to the seemingly unstoppable Benjamin Netanyahu.
The bad blood between Bennett and his former mentor, Netanyahu, is legendary and palpable. In the past year, since becoming prime minister, Bennett has made a significant effort to present himself as the “adult in the room”: rational and inclusive, sober, reliable and eminently responsible. This, of course, is in contrast to how he portrays Netanyahu: as being mercurial, vindictive, dictatorial and increasingly self-absorbed.
Bennett’s reinvention is quite the undertaking.
He spent years as a “junior” in Netanyahu’s government and was publicly mocked as the prime minister’s whipping boy. His seriousness and credibility are an issue for many due to broken campaign promises, including, most glaringly, his pre-election vow never to join a government with Lapid.
Compounding Bennett’s self-made messes are the relentless, vicious attacks on him—often deeply personal—coming from Netanyahu’s Likudniks, supported by ultra-Orthodox and extreme-right parties. Their smear campaign has crossed every red line of Israeli political discourse— not known for its delicacy—portraying Bennett as a scoundrel, swindler, fraud, vote-stealer, lackey, and enemy of the people. It is methodically and constantly pushed, through social and conventional media.
II. Lapid’s Rise
Drawing by Igor Tepikin
Lapid came into politics a decade ago with a very different profile. A former talk-show host and son of the loudmouthed columnist and political gadfly Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, the son has been developing a different image, which happens to be true to character: bemused, relaxed, embracing the challenges of politics, policy and governing with a smile and a wink.
Lapid has also been adept at using his position as foreign minister to disappear himself in crucial moments of domestic crisis.
Like when the government was formed and its first order of business was to create a ministerial committee to tackle the Covid pandemic. Lapid wasn’t even on it. He smelled a political stinker and steered clear.
III. The Shidduch: A Purposeful ‘Match’
So far, the government they created almost a year ago has held together, despite multiple crises and endless predictions of its demise. This marriage of interest, this shidduch between two unlikely brothers-in-arms—who have developed what by every account seems to be a genuine bond—has somehow kept its hold on power.
But how? How did this bizarre coalition, cobbled together with parties from the broadest spectrum in Israeli history (from Mansour Abbas’s Islamist Ra’am party to Bennett’s pro-settlement Yamina) come into being and survive for so long? And what does it mean for the future of Israeli politics?
Bennett and Lapid came together to form the most unlikely political alliance in Israeli history. In the process, these political mavericks have forged a new generation of Israeli leadership.
Naftali Bennett has spent the last decade looking to broaden his voter base. After entering politics as a senior staffer for Netanyahu, he ran successfully for leadership of Jewish Home, a rebranded edition of the musty National Religious Party (NRP). Led by a clutch of older, orthodox rabbis, NRP was a sectoral party, representing the interests of settlers and other religious-Zionists. Its main goal—as with most sectoral parties—was to join coalitions with larger parties in exchange for budgetary allocations and sympathetic legislation. Bennett, however, wanted to reinvent Jewish Home as a player on the national leadership stage. To do this meant redefining the meaning of religious Zionism.
His slogan—“Bennett is a brother”—was a shorthand signal that he had served in the elite IDF Sayeret Matkal special forces unit. Reaching the rank of major, Bennett left military service for a high tech career in which he was very successful.
This message refresh was clearly a significant factor in Bennett doubling his party’s standing from 6 to 12 seats in the 2013 election. It was then that a number of political operatives, affiliated with both Bennett and Lapid, began to focus on building an alliance between them.
Their people came up with a formula called “70-30,” reflecting their belief that Israeli voters could agree on 70 percent of the key national issues: education, taxation, the cost of living and military service. The other 30 percent could be deferred or resolved through mutual compromise. That was the genesis of what later became known as the “alliance of brothers.”
Drawing by Igor Tepikin
Their bond was based on status and power, not love. Each calculated that they were better off joining forces in confronting Netanyahu. Over the years, Bibi had become sharper and nastier, seeming to delight in degrading and ultimately destroying so many of his closest allies. Very few of them survived, and Bennett was determined to be the exception.
IV. Israeli Government: A Survival Primer
Israeli governments are formed when a lead party forms a coalition with a majority of the 120 Knesset seats.
The third Netanyahu government, formed after the January 2013 election, was centered on a candidate list of Likud and Israel Beitenu (“Israel is Our Home”), a small party focused on the interests of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. This niche party was led by another of Netanyahu’s former protégés Avigdor Lieberman. (In the current government coalition, Lieberman serves as the finance minister. He, too, openly loathes Netanyahu.)
Also in January, 2013, Lapid’s newly-minted Yesh Atid party (“There is a Future”) commanded 19 seats (Bennett’s Jewish Home took 12). This was an impressive showing, attributed to Lapid seeping into Netanyahu’s constituency somewhat, by presenting as a reliable supporter of security and the Jewish identity of the state, but without any obligations to the ultra-Orthodox, to whom Bibi was tethered.
For his part, Netanayahu took to painting anyone who opposed him as being a dangerous leftist. For Lapid, an alliance with the unambiguously right-wing, yarmulke-sporting Bennett allowed him to maintain a degree of strategic ambiguity.
As coalition talks began, Bennett and Lapid agreed that neither would enter the Likud-led government without the other. Their parties’ combined seat count matched the Likud-Beitenu numbers, correlating directly to significantly enhanced power.
In the end, they both joined the government. Lapid assumed the more senior role of Finance Minister (which is also seen as the “kiss of death”) and Bennett was handed number of ministries, among them economy and religious affairs.
The Lapid-Bennett covenant, now public, gave rise to the popular notion that they had forged an “alliance of brothers.”
It was, in reality, more like an alliance of inheritors: Their central goal, then as now, was to oust an entire generation of Israeli political leaders—first and foremost Benjamin Netanyahu. The first step was to join his government, out of necessity and a need to buff up their own political credentials.
Netanyahu, for his part, did everything in his power to turn them against each other, ultimately firing Lapid, falsely accusing him of subterfuge and using that excuse to trigger elections in March 2015. At the same time, he kept Bennett on, giving him the more prestigious education ministry. The alliance of brothers, for the time being at least, was broken.
V. The Wandering Years
In the years that followed, Bennett struggled in Netanyahu’s shadow, while Lapid languished in opposition—just as “King Bibi” had intended.
Cleverly and deliberately, Lapid undertook a process of reinvention. He came out of his time in government scarred. He was no longer a novice with an unblemished record. He’d been knocked around and lost eight seats in the 2015 election. The message from the electorate was clear, and Lapid wasted no time in reacting. He began to work to reassume the role of “presumptive alternative” to Netanyahu and Likud.
Lapid believed he had found a winning formula with the creation of the Blue and White party in advance of the April 2019 election. Yesh Atid merged with the smaller parties led by former IDF chiefs of staff Moshe Yaalon and Benny Gantz. Gabi Ashkenazi, another former IDF chief of staff, was fourth on the ticket, with Gantz in the top spot. Lapid’s gesture was magnanimous, ceding the top spot in order to achieve the goal of forming a governing coalition.
The Blue and White venture, however, did not last long: After taking 35 seats, acrimony soon set in. Gantz and Ashkenazi broke with Lapid and joined Netanyahu’s coalition, taking a group of MKs with them, while Lapid and his Yesh Atid faction remained on the outside, along with Yaalon.
The implosion of Blue and White and the failure of three successive elections in 2019-2020 to produce a viable government hit hard. Lapid reached the same conclusion that Bennett had reached: that it was time to renew their shiduch vows. The alliance of inheritors, he decided, must be revived.
VI. March 2021 – Election #4 in Two Years
In the March 2021 election—Israel’s fourth in two years—Likud won the most seats (30), but was unable to form a coalition by the deadline. For Netanyahu this was a decisive moment, when years of alienating his natural allies had finally boiled over. He was toxic. He had failed.
It now fell to Lapid to form the government that exists today. Bennett’s party, now rebranded as Yamina, took 7 seats, one of which broke away during the coalition talks. With a meager six seats, Bennett took the top job, to be replaced by “alternate” prime minister Lapid, should the government last that long, in the summer of 2023.
By a whisker, Lapid pulled it off, cobbling together the slimmest possible parliamentary majority, of 61 seats.
The alliance was resurrected.
VII. To What End? The Four Goals of the Brothers
Bennett and Lapid see the alliance as a reflection of a shared commitment to fight what they see as the gravest threat to the State of Israel.
When I spoke with Lapid recently, he drew a direct line between Netanyahu’s leadership and the future of Israel as a single, cohesive nation. “The two of us are convinced ideologically that the greatest threat to the nation is that it may come apart from the inside,” he said. “Netanyahu became the greatest threat to Israeli democracy,” Lapid said. “We understood it, and we did it.”
But dethroning Netanyahu was only one of the aims of the partnership. From conversations I have had with numerous political sources who worked closely with the two of them, it emerges that this renewed alliance has four distinct goals:
1) The removal of Netanyahu from office. In this, they succeeded, but the price was high. Bennett broke “red line” promises to right-wing voters and has become the target of vicious and sustained attacks. Lapid demonstrated extreme political flexibility, but had to endure sneers for ceding the prime minister’s chair to a guy with six seats.
2) To demonstrate that it was possible to form a government and run the country without Netanyahu. This, too, was achieved. The results in terms of the economy, the nation’s credit rating, international relations, investment in the Negev for both Jewish and Bedouin residents, the handling of security issues and of the pandemic—all demonstrated that the world continued to turn even without Netanyahu as prime minister. Government ministries started functioning again, a budget passed, and the political paralysis to which the country had been subjected since 2019 dissipated.
3) To permanently remove Netanyahu from Israeli political life. On this issue the brothers are not in synch: Lapid openly wants Netanyahu gone for good and is actively working to that end, while Bennett has taken a more nuanced approach. He blocked passage of legislation that would prevent Netanyahu from running again. He knows that if he takes this point too far, it will be held against him among his core voters on the Right—but also that the threat of Netanyahu’s return is the glue holding the coalition together.
4) To prove that these two men could actually do the job of prime minister. Bennett is nearing a full year in office, with generally positive results. His political partners have praised his mature style, competent management and ability to defuse tension.
VIII. Staying Afloat
To some of his Knesset colleagues Bennett is seen as a junior officer who was suddenly given temporary command over the whole army. In early April, the snap decision of MK Edith Silman to bolt the party—the second defection from his party since the election—hit Bennett hard. Silman caused chaos by deserting, leaving the coalition terribly vulnerable.
Here too, however, we see how the special partnership with Lapid manifests. Lapid continued to support Bennett and did not utter a single word of criticism, even when talking to reporters on background.
Leading up to Silman’s defection, Lapid warned Bennett of the importance of managing his own caucus. Life, he told Bennett, is not just phone calls with Biden, Putin, and Zelensky. All the global attention he was receiving in the context of his short-lived stint as mediator in the Ukraine crisis, Lapid told him, was distracting him from the existential political threats developing in his own backyard.
As the old adage goes: all politics, in the end, are local.
Bennett and Lapid “speak all the time,” a source shared with me, “a lot via text and WhatsApp. They meet at least once a week, and they talk about everything. Everything’s on the table, even when they disagree. They sometimes seem like a married couple—there are ups and downs, but they’re together.”
Lapid, for his part, has shown that he is a mature political actor, capable of stepping out of the limelight and playing a long game. Just before he agreed to let Bennett take the first turn as prime minister, he told a number of people close to him that he was content to avoid any responsibility related to the Covid pandemic. He clearly saw it as a political lose-lose issue.
Bennett, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to mind. For him, every crisis is an opportunity to cultivate his own image as a responsible national leader.
Lapid, of course, rejects this characterization, insisting that the two have developed an efficient division of labor. “Responsibilities are divided up, we are running a country that hasn’t been run in a long time,” he told me. And indeed, in everything having to do with diplomacy and national security, they work together, and they are very well coordinated—as we have seen with the Ukraine crisis.
The brothers disagree on Ukraine.
Lapid is convinced that Israel has to stand unreservedly with Kyiv, and should have from the outset. The result has been an agreed-upon, somewhat indecisive public positioning, which is intended to maximize the government’s policy flexibility.
In the end, Lapid’s view prevailed. Of utmost importance, in his view, is for Israel to be aligned clearly with the West, even at the risk of Israel’s short-term security interests.
IX. Lapid’s Long Game
Between the two of them, there’s no question that Lapid has the upper hand, despite Bennett’s position as prime minister.
Politically, Lapid enjoys widespread support from his own camp. He is regarded as being more mature and less flighty by his political colleagues than his public image would suggest. And he says he’s not worried in the least about being tagged with the worst label in the Israeli political lexicon—“sucker”—if he ends up not rotating into the prime minister’s office.
“If the rotation doesn’t happen,” he tells me, “I won’t feel like I’ve been duped. It just means that the government fell.” He believes Bennett will honor his pledge, and in any event, he is convinced that his own voters will remember the most important thing about him. “I am the one who brought down Benjamin Netanyahu—the greatest threat to our democracy. I don’t think anyone will take me for a sucker.”
Lapid respects Bennett’s managerial skills and believes in his ability to stabilize the coalition. He is also quite certain that the Knesset will not be dissolved during the coming summer session.
True, he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, and Bennett cannot predict who will be next to jump ship. But when you look at the political risks involved here, too, Lapid is in better shape. He is almost the only one who isn’t worried about elections. He has been playing a very long game, and it is finally paying off.
As long as Netanyahu remains at the helm of Likud, Lapid will enter the next election as the natural leader of the entire anti-Netanyahu camp. It’s a formidable group, capturing a range of Israelis from the left to center right, with the option of creating a coalition with a post-Netanyahu Likud.
More than anyone, Lapid will benefit from the continued partnership with Bennett, the shidduch.
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