Episode V: Israel’s caretaker

Foreign Affairs Minister of Israel Yair Lapid (C) and Israeli Prime minister Naftali Bennet (2nd R) shake hands following the government dissolving vote session at the Israeli Knesset. Yair Lapid is to take over from Bennett as head of government until a new government is in office. Ilia Yefimovich/dpa

On July 13, U.S. President Joe Biden is scheduled to land at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv. In a change of plans, he will find not Naftali Bennett receiving him on the tarmac, but a new Israeli prime minister, Yair Lapid. The centrist Lapid, foreign minister for the past year, assumes the role of Israel’s fourteenth prime minister. The Knesset having dissolved itself, Lapid will serve in a caretaker role until a new permanent government can be sworn in following elections on November 1. Israel’s fifth parliamentary elections in less than four years will pit Lapid, four months into his term, against Bennett’s predecessor and Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Political turmoil in Israel has become so commonplace that one would be forgiven for barely noticing. Indeed, continuity will be the rule in some central aspects of Israeli policy, meaning that Biden’s agenda can continue without much change. This continuity can mask the deeper damage of this ongoing political turmoil for the country, however. Israel has seen its people turning upon themselves, its politics focused around the personality of one man — Netanyahu, and an attempt to set aside the fundamental question of Israeli-Palestinian relations.

What happened?

That the Bennett-Lapid government survived even a year was an achievement of sorts. It rested on a coalition that spanned from the far right, through the center, through 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 Netanyahu, who had led the country in the mid-1990s and again since 2009, and returning Israel to normal governance, including the passing of a state budget for the first time since 2019. It achieved both goals, and embarked on a robust domestic agenda, but only for a year. Its parliamentary majority was too slim to withstand defections, which came mostly from its right flank, among members of Bennett’s own party, who were always ambivalent about forming an anti-Netanyahu government with the center and the left.

Though it was established with the explicit intent of setting aside the Palestinian issue, the proximate trigger of the coalition’s collapse was squarely West Bank-related: the pending expiration 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, the Knesset would easily extend these regulations, but with the opposition unwilling to support any legislation, Israeli settlers’ legal status was about to be upended. Bennett preempted his coalition’s collapse and the regulations’ lapse by initiating new elections, automatically extending the regulations into the new Knesset’s term.

Bennett announced that he is taking a break from political life. Scarred by the ire of the right wing, which branded him a turncoat and attacked him relentlessly, he faced the prospect of a greatly diminished political role. He will soon exit the scene for now — the door is never completely shut in Israeli politics — as a 50-year-old with a line in his resume shared by only 11 men and one woman before him. In the meantime, he will continue to manage the Iran file in Lapid’s caretaker cabinet.

Plus c’est la même chose, plus ça change

When President Biden travels to Israel, the West Bank, and Saudi Arabia in July, he will find a region in deep flux, with Israel, a major regional power, increasingly integrated into the regional diplomatic dynamic. Israel’s relations with key Gulf states, notably the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, with Saudi Arabia in the background, as well as Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco, have been gaining steam in the past year. These dynamics, which started in the background during the Obama years and came to the fore with the Abraham Accords under the Trump administration, will now be embraced by Biden. The alignment includes practical and already operational cooperation on missile defense between Israel and Arab states, something that would have seemed fantastical in the past.

Biden will find an Israel eager to push forward on its deepening relations with the Arab world. While it was Netanyahu who signed the Abraham Accords and used his intimate relationship with the Trump administration to promote them, the then-opposition largely embraced them wholeheartedly. Indeed, it was actually a member of Lapid’s own party, Ram Ben Barak, who initiated the latest Israeli-Moroccan normalization from the opposition, before the process was handed over to Netanyahu’s official representatives. As foreign minister under Bennett, Lapid convened the Negev Summit, with the foreign ministers of the Abraham Accords countries Bahrain, Morocco, and the UAE plus Egypt, and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Lapid focused on opening new avenues of cooperation, including a new “quad” of Israel, the UAE, India, and the United States, which will be convened virtually during Biden’s visit.

Lapid differs from Netanyahu, and even more so from his partner Bennett, in his vocal embrace of a two-state solution with the Palestinians and his desire to leverage the warming relations with the Arab world to advance Israeli-Palestinian relations. He is no leftist dove, however. He is deeply skeptical of the Palestinian leadership’s ability to reach any deal, or of his own ability to lead any deep change of Israeli policy in the current political environment. Along with Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Lapid is likely to continue to make incremental improvements to Palestinian livelihood, but not to try to unilaterally change reality in the West Bank or Gaza Strip in a fundamental way.

On Iran, too, Biden will find mostly continuity. Lapid, Bennett, and Gantz all share the widespread Israeli concern over Iran’s nuclear program, even if their rhetoric is sometimes different than Netanyahu’s. Where they differ dramatically from Netanyahu is in their belief that Israel must work closely with the United States — regardless of who is in the White House — to counter Iran. And indeed, Lapid stands out on his approach toward relations with America, and especially the Democratic Party. Ideologically and temperamentally closer to the center of American politics, rather than its right flank, he differs from Netanyahu considerably in this regard.

Lapid is the son of a Holocaust survivor journalist-turned-politician father and a novelist mother. A child of the upper middle-class and a fixture of Tel Aviv nightlife, he became a well-known newspaper columnist, songwriter, actor, and TV presenter in his own right. After entering politics and leading his newly formed party to second place in 2013, he was appointed finance minister under Netanyahu, forming a surprising alliance with the right-wing Naftali Bennett. At first an inexperienced politician, Lapid earned his stripes and in the past three years has emerged as a seasoned and very able politician, and now the clear leader of the anti-Netanyahu camp.

Is Bibi back?

Bennett served the shortest term as Israel’s prime minister, shorter even than that of Ehud Barak in 1999-2001. Lapid could soon break that record if Netanyahu wins in November. A Netanyahu victory is a distinct possibility. He missed an outright victory by slim margins more than once over the last four years. He has lost one advantage to Lapid, however. In the past, Netanyahu could always turn to another round of elections to stay in office as the default caretaker prime minister. Should the November elections be stalemated, yet again, Lapid will continue as prime minister until a new government is successfully formed. In the meantime, Netanyahu’s trial for corruption continues. Though Israel’s legal system is notoriously slow, there remains the possibility that Netanyahu may be barred from politics if convicted in the coming years.

Netanyahu is openly relishing the head-to-head campaign against Lapid. While an excellent communicator and disciplined and talented campaigner, Lapid is facing the master of Israeli politics. Still, as caretaker prime minister, Lapid will have the chance to answer the one question that has always plagued him in politics: Does he have the gravitas and stature to be the top leader? The single most important moment of his campaign may come very soon: When he, as prime minister, receives President Biden at Ben Gurion Airport.