Netanyahu's rivals announced a government – but are in no rush to dethrone him

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The date for the confidence vote that will allow the Bennett-Lapid coalition to swear in their new government has finally been set for Sunday. That’s 11 days after Yair Lapid notified both President Reuven Rivlin and Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin that the new government was ready and waiting with a confirmed majority. It’s a week too much. 

Since by law the Knesset is allowed 24 hours to review the coalition agreements before the confidence vote and the Knesset never convenes on a Friday or Shabbat, the vote should have been scheduled for last Sunday. The election was two and a half months ago, on March 23, and Israel has been without a functioning government for long enough. 

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We know why Levin delayed his announcement and then scheduled the confidence vote for almost the last day he could. He wants to give his boss, Benjamin Netanyahu, more time to try to pressure the wavering lawmakers in the new coalition into voting against it. Levin could have pushed the vote back by another day, until Monday, but by scheduling it for Sunday, he made sure that the agreements would be presented to the Knesset by Thursday – creating, he hopes, a tense weekend for the prospective coalition members.

But why are Naftali Bennett and Lapid accepting this so meekly? 

Neither of them have so much as criticized Levin. Instead, last week they politely requested that he not delay the vote and remained silent as he took his own sweet time, making the announcement only on Tuesday. And they haven’t said a word about his decision to only hold the vote next week.

They’ve also put on hold their original attempt to replace Levin as speaker at the earliest opportunity: the vote on a new Knesset speaker will now only be held on Sunday, the same day as the confidence vote. Lapid even thanked Levin in a statement after he announced the date.

This worrying meekness can be seen in other aspects of Bennett’s conduct in recent days: From the interview he gave to Channel 12 last Thursday, in which he couldn’t stop explaining and almost apologizing for not forming a right-wing government with Netanyahu, to the way his Yamina party was so quick to declare that it wouldn’t support the perfectly logical term-limit law proposed by fellow coalition partner New Hope, which would bar a prime minister who had served for over eight years from running in the following Knesset election.

What are Bennett and his colleagues so worried about? 

There are a number of reasons why this is taking so long and Bennett is being so forbearing. The first is that he’s still scared. He may have burned his bridges with Netanyahu a week ago when he accused him of taking the entire country “to his personal Masada” and finally, in his own voice, acknowledged that he would form a government with Lapid – but he still knows what Netanyahu is capable of doing. 

Bennett doesn’t think he can mollify Netanyahu in any way, but he still hopes to somehow soften the anger of some of the Likud leader’s supporters, who are accusing him of betraying his promises not to join a government with the United Arab List and not to make Lapid prime minister (which he is scheduled to do in August 2023 through their rotation agreement). There seems little chance of that happening either, at least not in the near future, as proven by the angry tone of the protests against him and other Yamina lawmakers.

But this is one of Bennett’s main weaknesses of character: he needs to be loved. 

Prospective Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaking to the press in Jerusalem on Sunday.Credit: Jonathan Zindel / Flash 90

Another, more sinister, reason is that some members of the right-wing parties in the coalition – by this point almost certainly not Bennett himself, but there are others being pointed at – would not shed a tear if the agreements were belatedly scuppered and the possibility of some form of right-wing government would return at the last moment. That seems unlikely, but it is still possible. 

If the new government loses the vote of confidence, or if some of its members bail before it is even held, Netanyahu’s offers to form a new right-wing government, with someone else – Gideon Sa’ar or Benny Gantz – going first in the rotation as prime minister, are still on the table.

Does anyone actually believe Netanyahu would ever honor such an agreement? No, they don’t. But the fact that a few remaining members of the coalition are still prepared to secretly consider such a deal shows how they remain afraid of Netanyahu and his angry supporters, and also how, for them, a government with left-wingers and an Arab party is still anathema. Even after they’ve agreed in principle to be part of it. 

A few members of the new coalition, including Bennett’s Yamina co-leader Ayelet Shaked, are yet to publicly commit to voting for the government on Sunday. They’re scared and may have second thoughts, right up until the very last moment.

And then, of course, there’s also the possibility that silent Shaked, timid Bennett and the other more reticent right-wing lawmakers are fully behind the new government and their hesitations and statements, that they prioritize a right-wing government, have always been a cover for ultimately doing exactly what they’re doing now.

The only way for them to finally remove Netanyahu, and for Bennett to become prime minister, was to lie to their voters, before and after the election. Now that it seems to have worked, maybe they’re just a bit taken aback and even slightly ashamed. Which would also explain why they’re not rushing to finish the deed.