As of Sunday night, there are now two types of opposition politicians in Israel. There are those who respect the office of the prime minister and, when referring to Naftali Bennett, dignify him with his new title. These include the six members of the Joint List and most of the older members of Likud. And there are those who will not recognise Mr Bennett’s position and make a point of referring to him as simply “Bennett,” or even “Naftali” in interviews and speeches. Some of them went even further and, at the opposition meeting on Monday, continued calling Benjamin Netanyahu “prime minister.”
The 13th prime minister of Israel has a real problem of establishing his authority. Not only has he come into office following the country’s longest-serving leader and, with the exception of the founder David Ben-Gurion, the most powerful of Israeli prime ministers, he can’t claim to have beaten Mr Netanyahu at the polls. Mr Bennett is the leader of one of the smallest parties in the Knesset. On 23 March, his Yamina party won just a bit more than a quarter of the votes received by Likud.
Mr Bennett’s appointment is perfectly legal. It has been easy to forget this during the Netanyahu years, but Israel still has a parliamentary system, not a presidential one. The prime minister is any one of 120 Knesset members who can present a government that wins a confidence vote by an ordinary majority. But even those who rejoiced to finally see Mr Netanyahu having to find his new seat on the Knesset floor as leader of the opposition have to recognise that his replacement has a legitimacy issue.
He isn’t even first among equals in his cabinet. Under the coalition agreements, he is only allowed to fire the two other ministers of his own party – and he can’t do that, as he’ll lose their votes in the Knesset and, with that, his government’s one-vote majority.
There are at least three ministers who are more powerful than him: Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Defence Minister Benny Gantz and Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Not only do they each lead larger parties than Yamina, but they are in charge of wide swathes of policy in which prime ministers are usually heavily involved. Instead, Mr Bennett will have to tread extremely carefully when it comes to foreign relations, defence and economic policy.
A weak prime minister is usually not a good thing for any country. However, in this case there are at least a couple of advantages to Mr Bennett’s inferior position. He will be forced to adopt a collegial attitude towards his ministers, which should improve the prospects of this fragile coalition. The other bright spot in the weakness of the prime minister and the entire coalition is that after a long period in which both the Knesset and the civil service were marginalised by a domineering leader, the crucial institutions of democracy will be able to regain their proper functions.
But Mr Bennett’s diminished premiership remains a problem, and not just because he is so eager to make his mark in the two years and two months he has as prime minister until he is scheduled to “rotate” with Mr Lapid (if the new government lasts that long). His lack of stature has made it easier for the outgoing prime minister to delegitimise his own ouster. Anxious to bring down the new government as soon as possible and return to office, one of Mr Netanyahu’s tactics is to try and keep Israel in a twilight between governments.
No date has been set for Netanyahu’s departure from the official residence in Jerusalem, though the government has stopped paying for the upkeep of the premises. Mr Bennett is not planning to move his family in, as they live in Ra’anana and his children do not want to move school. He will use the residence for official functions. Meanwhile, Mr Netanyahu, who seems in no hurry to move, is still using the residence for political meetings and receptions of his own.
Mr Bennett is anxious not to seem vindictive or ungracious towards his predecessor. He even began his inaugural speech on Sunday by praising his decades of service to Israel, though that was drowned by the opposition’s heckling. But he may have to put his foot down soon.
In the aftermath of the storming of Capitol Hill in Washington on 6 January by supporters of former President Donald Trump disputing the result of the presidential election, there were those in Israel, including Lapid and Lieberman, who warned that when the time came for a transition in power in Israel, Mr Netanyahu’s fanatical supporters may try something similar.
These fears increased in recent weeks, as angry protestors gathered around the homes of right-wing members of the new coalition, demanding that they refuse to join a government of “leftist traitors”. The Shin Bet chief, Nadav Argaman, even issued an unprecedented warning about the toxic discourse, especially on social media, veering over into acts of deadly violence. It didn’t happen. In fact, the size of the protests was not much larger than a couple of hundred. The number of those prepared to go out on the streets for Mr Netanyahu is smaller than expected and no one arrived with guns outside the Knesset on Sunday, to try and prevent the confidence vote. But that doesn’t mean that the challenges to Mr Bennett’s premiership have all disappeared.
Some right-wingers insist it’s all Mr Bennett’s fault. He promised less than three months ago that he wouldn’t sit in the same government with Islamist party Ra’am, even calling them “supporters of terror”, and that he wouldn’t support “leftist” Mr Lapid as prime minister. That’s why it’s “the biggest election fraud in history,” according to Mr Netanyahu. But delegitimising the prime minister can have other results.
The “flags march” on Tuesday afternoon in Jerusalem, which could have sparked another round of violence with the Palestinians, was clearly intended to challenge Mr Bennett’s legitimacy. In the end, only 3,000 people, mainly teenagers, turned up for the march lead by far-right MKs Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir. After an hour of them dancing near Damascus Gate and hurling racist taunts at Palestinians, the police turned them back. But if the Bennett government decides to prevent another such march at a tenser moment, or change its route as the police did this time, will they be able to enforce their decision?
Ultimately, a government’s power comes from the very top. If Mr Bennett wants his government to be effective, he’ll have to find a way to stamp his authority on it.