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Twilight of the Netanyahu Era?

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset on May 30.



Photo:

yonatan sindel/pool/Shutterstock

Western democracies produce all manner of governments: Left- or right-wing, centrist, populist. But the new government taking shape in Israel defies categorization. If negotiations go through as planned, Israel could soon be led by a religious-nationalist Prime Minister backed by a centrist dealmaker, with the support of Arab and leftist parties.

American liberals will surely celebrate the departure of Prime Minister

Benjamin Netanyahu,

who has come to symbolize the Democratic Party’s rift with Israel over the last decade. But it would be a mistake to interpret it as a rejection of Israel’s rightward political and security direction, which the new government is likely to maintain.

***

The unusual coalition is coming together after Israelis went to the polls four times since 2019, most recently this March. Though his security policies had wide support, Mr. Netanyahu—who has been Prime Minister since 2009—was unable to form a majority coalition from among Israel’s 13 fractious parties.

The conventional wisdom this month said Hamas had given Mr. Netanyahu a new political lease on life by launching its rocket assault on Israel, elevating the security issue that built Mr. Netanyahu’s career. Yet a week after the fighting stopped,

Naftali Bennett

of the conservative Yamina party announced that he would accept an offer from the centrist

Yair Lapid

to form a government without Mr. Netanyahu. Under the agreement, Mr. Bennett will be Prime Minister immediately, with Mr. Lapid taking over in 2023, if the government lasts that long.

Mr. Bennett served as Mr. Netanyahu’s chief of staff in the 2000s and has since largely criticized him from the right. He is a longtime champion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, explicitly rejects a two-state solution and has urged tougher military action against the terrorist group Hamas in Gaza. Territorial concessions with a government that depends on his support would be impossible.

Mr. Lapid brands himself as a centrist and speaks in a tone that is less abrasive to American liberals and especially American secular Jews who have been disillusioned with the stalling of the peace process. Yet Israeli public opinion has moved steadily to the right in recent decades in response to the rise of Hamas, the destabilization of the region and the threat from Iran. Mr. Lapid focused his campaign not on reviving the “land for peace” framework but on fatigue with Mr. Netanyahu’s 12-year consecutive rule and his indictment on corruption charges, which has yet to go to trial.

Former Gen.

Benny Gantz,

meanwhile, is the current defense minister and will have an important post in the security cabinet in the new government. Mr. Gantz is known as an Iran hawk and critic of the 2015 U.S. nuclear deal.

The anti-Netanyahu coalition also has the support of the conservative splinter party New Hope, as well as

Avigdor Lieberman

—an erstwhile Netanyahu security ally and critic of the peace process who grew frustrated with Mr. Netanyahu’s religious constituency. Tension between secular and ultra-orthodox Haredi Jews, especially amid Covid-19, is an overlooked factor working against Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition.

The ouster of Mr. Netanyahu, if it happens, won’t be because the public turned against muscular security policy but because the conservative bloc grew so large that it fractured. Mr. Lapid was able to recruit Mr. Bennett away from Mr. Netanyahu with the promise of his own turn at the Prime Ministership.

Mr. Netanyahu’s polarizing personality may have finally worn out its welcome. He sat atop a fiercely contested political system for 12 years, in addition to a three-year term in the 1990s, and pressure from other ambitious figures was bound to emerge.

Yet his contributions have been great. He strengthened Israel’s ties with countries from India to Brazil, and normalized relations with Arab states in the region through the Abraham Accords. His economic reforms helped the country escape from its postwar, union-dominated socialism and make it a technology powerhouse. The country’s sustained growth—per capita GDP increased 42% between 2010 and 2019—improved its diplomatic standing as its economic leverage increased.

***

If Mr. Netanyahu is pushed out, Israel’s political system will have a chance to recalibrate to the new reality he created—with the Jewish State in a better strategic position than ever, but support in the U.S. more polarized.

The new government may be able to point to the first-time participation of Arab parties to highlight Israel’s multiethnic democratic character. Mr. Lapid may be an effective ambassador to American liberals. Yet the strategic realities that shape Israeli policy are not changing under Messrs. Bennett and Lapid, and new elections are likely before long. While Mr. Netanyahu may soon be out, his era isn’t over.

Journal Editorial Report: The week’s best and worst from Jason Riley, Jillian Melchior, Dan Henninger and Adam O’Neal. Image: AP/AFP/Zuma Press/Getty Images Composite: Mark Kelly

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