Israel has a new Prime Minister, yet again. Mr Yair Lapid, Foreign Minister for the past year under Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, has taken over as Israel’s fourteenth Prime Minister with the Knesset (parliament) having dissolved itself. Mr Lapid is expected to serve in a caretaker role until a new ~ hopefully more permanent ~ government is sworn in following a General Election scheduled for 1 November. It will be Israel’s fifth parliamentary election in less than four years and will see the centrist Mr Lapid go up against Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister, Mr Benjamin Netanyahu, in a contest for the top spot. The flux in Israeli politics, while it would remind those of a particular vintage of the revolving-door governments of Italy in the 1980s and early 1990s, is of more consequence for the world given the Palestinian Israeli conflict and the central role of the Jewish state in the global narrative around Islamist terrorism.
Experts believe that Israel is not only a country which is deeply polarised, but its politics has of late focused around two core issues: The larger-than-life personality of Mr Netanyahu and an attempt to put on the backburner the fundamental question of Israeli-Palestinian relations. West Asia expert Natan Sachs points out that the Bennett administration surviving even for a year was an achievement of sorts; after all, it rested on a coalition that spanned from the far right through the centre to the left, and included Ra’am, an Arab party affiliated with part of the Islamic Movement in Israel. The coalition agreed on very little, least of all on Israeli-Palestinian relations, but set itself two main goals: Replacing Mr Netanyahu, who had led the country in the mid-1990s and again from 2009 and returning Israel to normal governance including the passing of a Budget for the first time since 2019.
It achieved both objectives in the year it was in power. But the core reason for the coalition to be formed was its explicit intention to set aside the Palestinian issue for an unspecified later date, kicking the can down the road, as it were. Ironically, says observers, its collapse was West Bank-related ~ the pending expiry of emergency regulations (in place for many decades) that extend Israeli law to Israeli citizens in the West Bank. These regulations allow Israeli settlers to live under Israeli rule, even while Israel has not formally annexed the territory or extended civilian rule to Palestinians in the areas under direct Israeli control. In normal times, writes Sachs, the Knesset would have easily extended these regulations, but with the Opposition unwilling to support any legislation, Israeli settlers’ legal status was about to be upended.
Mr Bennett pre-empted his coalition’s collapse and the regulations’ lapse by initiating a national poll, automatically extending the regulations into the new Knesset’s term and promptly announced he was “taking a break” from political life. Mr Lapid, as caretaker Prime Minister, will have to deflect the ire of the Israeli right which till now was concentrated on his predecessor even as he continues the process of further normalising relations with key Persian Gulf states including the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and even Saudi Arabia.